Volkswagen Feuchtgebiet

One lone heron in silhouette on its nest

One lone heron in silhouette on its nest

5:15AM seems to be a time I can’t quite get away from.  When my alarm went off Saturday morning, I was not enthusiastic about getting out of bed.  But, I reminded myself I was going to get to see the wetland at the VW plant here in Chattanooga in exchange for getting up at this ungodly hour on a Saturday and rolled out of bed.

The drive to the VW plant was about a 25 minute drive with no traffic.  I was surprised that many of the transplants from Germany live in my building–seems like a long way to go twice a day.  But, then, I guess driving around the block seems like a long way to go to me.

Due to a road closing, we had to meet at a back entrance and then share rides with those who had trucks to get into the wetland.  We were hosted by the VW environmentalist.  She exuded pride in how environmentally friendly VW is, but the healthy wetland, bordered by a field of solar panels, spoke more loudly than she did.

A Swamp Sparrow flitting by the edge of the wetland

A Swamp Sparrow flitting by the edge of the wetland

At my Friday morning yoga class, I’d mentioned to one of my fellow students that I was going to the VW wetland the next morning.  He told me that his mother had worked at the same site when it was a TNT plant some 40ish years ago.  He told me that when she went to work, she had to take her pantyhose off and pack them tightly into a plastic bag or the hose would literally dissolve from the toxicity in the air.  I cannot imagine going into a place every day to work where nylon is dissolved in the air.

This is like a "Where's Waldo," but I swear there's a Yellow-breasted Chat in there

This is like a “Where’s Waldo,” but I swear there’s a Yellow-breasted Chat in there

This makes an amazing contrast to the site today.  I don’t know what cleanup efforts took place between the days when gun powder was made here and today, but I do know that wetlands act as kidneys.  They help strain out the toxins in an area and prevent them from getting into the larger water system and polluting streams, rivers, and even oceans.  The loss of wetland has been a major contributor to the loss of aquatic life and clean water.

Beavers created the wetland dams--but we only found Canada Geese

Beavers created the wetland dams–but we only found Canada Geese

Fortunately, VW treasures their wetland and makes a great deal of effort to maintain and protect it.  It’s green and pulsing with life.  The Great Blue Heron have discovered this area and built a rookery here.  I remember the first time I saw a rookery a few years back.  It was the most amazing discovery to me that these giant, awkward birds that look like they couldn’t perch on a 2” wide beam build stick nests in the tops of trees.

That they do so in groups where there may be dozens of nests all in the same group of trees makes their nesting habits even more interesting.  A normally solitary bird that joins to form a village each spring when it’s time to nest, looking like a miniature village of Pterodactyls–it’s fascinating.

A small portion of the heron rookery over the VW Wetland

A small portion of the heron rookery over the VW Wetland–notice the chicks in the nest to the left

Craven Birds

A singing Eastern Towhee may not be the most unusual sight in Tennessee, but this was the best picture I got of the day

A singing Eastern Towhee may not be the most unusual sight in Tennessee, but this was the best picture I got of the day

Today was a big birding day.  I got out birding with some really expert birders.  We met at Cravens House on Lookout Mountain.  When we arrived, I was surprised to discover that the gate to the main parking lot was still locked.  I’ve never been to Cravens House when the gate was locked, but then I don’t think I’ve ever been there at 9AM on a Sunday morning, either.

Not the usual sighting on a bird walk, but seeing the include railway train pass over the trail was kind of fun

Not the usual sighting on a bird walk, but seeing the include railway train pass over the trail was kind of fun

Pat and Tisen drove up with me in case no birders showed.  Normally, we don’t take dogs birding.  It’s just not the best mix.  Even though Tisen is not a big bird chaser, a lot of birds key off the shape of a canine and go into hiding.  I know this is particularly true of water fowl like geese.  I haven’t really witnessed this with song birds, but since I’ve never known anyone to bring a dog on a bird walk, I don’t know that I would have noticed.  The birds at Renaissance Park are so used to seeing dogs, I don’t think they’re a good test case.

Our plan was to go for a hike if no one showed and for Pat and Tisen to hike a different direction if others did show.  As it turned out, Pat and Tisen took their own hike.

A large variety of Trillium whose name I don't recall

A large variety of Trillium whose name I don’t recall

One birder joined us who moved to Chattanooga fairly recently.  He and his wife and children moved here from Seattle.  He was so excited to get to go birding.  He mentioned that since moving to Chattanooga he’d been a stay-at-home-dad.  I think that explained his enthusiasm for getting out and doing something with adults.  He was fun to bird with–he had lots of great birding stories from parts of the world like Australia.

We walked for 3 hours and saw about 34 bird species.  We might have seen more had we started out on a different trail, but I didn’t know the trail we ended up on was even up there until Clyde mentioned it.  Clyde is one of Chattanooga’s best birders.  I love it when he comes to bird walks–I’ve never birded with anyone who can bird like him.  He seems to hear or see a bird with every breath.  It’s really amazing.

One of the more exciting sightings of the day--the Hooded Warbler

One of the more exciting sightings of the day–the Hooded Warbler

In any case, the Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals were singing so loudly that we joked we wished we had a volume control for them.  Carolina Wrens are one of those birds I never tire of.  Although they are so common it’s not particularly exciting to see them, their fussy little personalities and extraordinarily loud voices continue to amuse me.  On the occasions when I get to see them sing, I am always impressed by the effort.  Their entire body seems to throw itself into the production of sound.  It’s no wonder they produce a sound that seems at least a magnitude larger than their tiny bodies.

Another favorite that turned up--an American Redstart

Another favorite that turned up–an American Redstart

But today, no wrens were willing to pose for me.  The best I managed to capture was a singing Towhee.

Raccoon Mountain Caverns

A highly reflective pool below cave formations

A highly reflective pool below cave formations

As unbelievable as this may seem, there is a place within 15 minutes of Chattanooga that we haven’t been to before.  It’s called Raccoon Mountain.  There is the Raccoon Mountain Caverns part of Raccoon Mountain, a tourist attraction advertised by a multitude of billboards.

Outside the gift shop, an old cable car did not instill confidence

Outside the gift shop, an old cable car did not instill confidence

Then, there is the Raccoon Mountain Reservoir part of Raccoon Mountain.  While I’m anxious to hike in the Reservoir part of the mountain, it was a rainy Sunday and my husband is still struggling with stress injuries in his feet, so, it was a good day to go discover the caverns part of the mountain.

A city of stalagmites

A city of stalagmites

We headed out with the Tom-Tom app running on my iPhone since we weren’t sure how to get there.  However, given that we knew we needed to take interstate 24 towards Nashville and once on 24, there was a billboard telling us where to turn every 100 yards or so, using the GPS was probably overkill.

We made it there without a single wrong turn.  When we pulled into the drive, there were two directions to go:  one was to the campgrounds while the other was toward the gift shop.  The “campgrounds” reminded me of my very first “camping” trip as an adult.  I went with a group of friends who had to explain to me, first of all, that we would be parking next to the tent.  I had visions of us backpacking into the woods, so this notion of sleeping where we would park was somewhat disappointing.  However, I still pictured us with a secluded camping site next to our parking spot.  When they started loading up their truck with coolers and junk food and cases of beer, I grew suspicious that we were not going to enjoy the outdoors at all.

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In fact, we paid for a tiny little campsite that had just enough space for the truck and two tents next to a fire ring and a picnic table.  The site was so narrow, there was less than 3 feet between our tent and our neighbors’ tents on either side.  There was little shade, no privacy, and I really thought we would have had a better time camping out in our friends’ backyard where we’d have had far more privacy and indoor plumbing much more conveniently located.

While the campgrounds made me worry about what the caverns were going to be like, there was no need to panic.  The caverns were well maintained, respected as a natural artifact, and lighted with natural lights (I don’t know why, but I’m just not a fan of colored lights in natural caves).

Stalagmites in silhouette loom in the background

Stalagmites in silhouette loom in the background

The 45 minute tour we took covered only about ⅓ of a mile in the largest open area.  They also offer “wild” cave tours that involve dragging oneself through mud and tunnels and the like.  I’ve done that once in my life, but that’s a long story.  Maybe some other day we’ll come back to experience the less traveled part of the caves.

The lower right area is just big enough for a raccoon den

The lower right area is just big enough for a raccoon den

Distant Bugles

Flying in front of reflected trees

Flying in front of reflected trees

When we went to the Sandhill Crane Festival, we noticed some things about the cranes.  First, they are noisy.  They seem to spend a lot of time flying around, forming groups, calling to each other and circling.

It’s kind of like watching marching band practice when the band hasn’t been training together very long.  They seem uncertain about how to line up, who’s in the lead, or where they’re going.

They bugle their unique call endlessly.  It can be heard for miles.

Synchronized flapping

Synchronized flapping

Their call is somewhat reminiscent of the sound my brother used to make when he’d sneaked up on me and was trying to terrify me.  My husband thinks it sounds more like a loud turkey, but he never heard my brother.

A “heard” (yes, it’s a pun) of cranes grazed in the grasses across the refuge from us.  The one bad thing about the Hiwassee Refuge and the Sandhill Crane Festival is that the birds are mostly very far away.  I know this is best, especially when there’s a crowd.  After all, the idea of a refuge is to give wildlife a place to be wildlife without being harassed or stressed by the presence of humans.  But, it does make it difficult to get good photos.  If it weren’t for the circling cranes who seemed to want to check us out, I wouldn’t have gotten much detail at all (see previous posts to see these photos).

You can probably tell we were far away from the group of cranes on the ground from this photo:

The "heard"

The “heard”

 

But it might not be obvious just how far away that really is–I shot it at 400mm.  In fact, almost all of my shots (except those with a long line of cranes flying) posted over the last several days were shot at 400mm.   Mind you, the Sandhill Crane is the largest bird found in Tennessee.  They are up to 4’ tall and have a wingspan of up to 90” (that’s 7.5’).  These are big birds.  And I was shooting with as long a lens as I can afford.  The only answer is to get closer.

Of course, not during the festival.  There are two ways to get closer to the birds.  They both involve getting on the water.  One is to go kayaking–Outdoor Chattanooga offers an annual kayaking tour in the refuge in December.  We did that last year.  It was pretty tough to get good pictures from the kayak.  Plus, we weren’t allowed in the area with the densest population of cranes.  Thankfully for the birds (but not my photos), the wildlife folks take protecting these birds seriously.

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The other way is to take a Blue Moon cruise through the refuge.  This might be the best option for photographic opportunities.  We’ll have to see if we can work that into our schedule.  Worst case, there are soon going to be a couple of unreleasable cranes at the Chattanooga Nature Center.  I ought to be able to get a close-up.

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Tree tops reflected in water below group of cranes

Fondness

Ahh.  Sunshine.  I guess it’s true that absence makes the heart go fonder.  After so many days of rain, the sudden appearance of the sun was almost shocking.  It started Thursday evening around sunset.  A break in the clouds allowed the sun to poke through.  The bank of clouds on their way out of town traveled quickly across the sky as the sun sank toward the horizon.

I can’t remember the last time I was so glad to see the sun, even if it was calling it a night.

Black and White Version

Black and White Version

This created something of a photographic challenge.  The clouds were dark and moving fast.  The great dilemma between getting enough depth of field to shoot the whole scene and needing a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the clouds.  The only way to achieve this is with a very high ISO setting.  That means some noise I’d rather not have.

Much like life, photography is an attempt to balance alternatives to get the best possible result since you can’t get exactly what you want.

But the glimpse of the sun made up for it.  It reminded me 2 lines from a poem a friend recently shared on Facebook:

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright.

I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more.

I started appreciating the sun more about 4 days in–the next 10 days of rain were overkill.  However, after a 2 week separation, I was about as grateful as it gets for sunshine.

Setting Sun in color

Setting Sun in color

I wonder if Tisen feels this way when I’m gone?  He seems just as excited when I return after taking 5 minutes to check the mail as when I’ve been gone for over an hour.  But when I’m gone for days, he goes absolutely nuts.  It’s like he’d given up hope and my sudden reappearance throws him into an uncontrolled frenzy.

I wonder how dogs keep track of time?  Tisen seems to keep a regular schedule during office hours.  He gets up once I’ve made my coffee.  He’s like clockwork about noon when he decides it’s time for his mid-day walk.  And he never fails to start pestering me to walk and feed him at the end of the day, although sometimes he gets started a little early.

But when it comes to the last walk of the day, he doesn’t seem to notice at all.  He’s content to lay on the sofa with us until well past his bedtime.  Conversely, if I walk into the bedroom, he goes to bed.  He does this with no regard to the time of day.

On weekends he doesn’t seem to have any sense of time at all.  He will sleep in later than I can on some Saturdays.  It’s almost as if he doesn’t believe I’m up and making coffee if he didn’t hear an alarm go off first.

Ah well, maybe that’s why a dog’s years are so much longer–they lose track of time.

Fading light

Fading light

Finding a View

There is a beam of light above the aquarium that didn't quite come out the way I wanted

There is a beam of light above the aquarium that didn’t quite come out the way I wanted

Since moving, I have been longing for a view of the riverfront.  Since this is achievable, I decided to take a few minutes away from Tisen (who has been a very clingy dog since Twiggy went home) to walk to the end of the hall where there is a common room with a balcony that overlooks the river and downtown.

The lighted tree reflects merrily on the water

The lighted tree reflects merrily on the water

I still missed sunset because I worked too late, but it’s possible the sun didn’t actually set today anyway–or, if it did, no one saw it.  Our weather has been shockingly like Seattle of late.  I fear my ties to Columbus, Ohio have somehow drug the weather down to Chattanooga.  The sun rises, but no one can tell if it’s risen or not.  The sun sets and no one notices much change in light.  We are on about our 4th straight day of such weather.  What is it about overcast skies and drizzling rain that becomes so depressing so quickly?

In spite of the dreary weather, the riverfront always looks cheerful

In spite of the dreary weather, the riverfront always looks cheerful

On the plus side, it’s warm.  It feels like a late spring day when summer is just around the corner.  The birds were singing so loudly this morning, they startled Tisen.  They are not the only ones confused–the shrubs are showing signs of recent new growth as if they suddenly burst into a mid-January growth spurt.

But in spite of the cheerful birds and warm mist, I am still hoping for the sun.  As a substitute, I did my best to shoot the mist.  It turns out it’s harder to get mist to show up in night time photos than I expected.

The Bluecross building bounced light into the fog on top of the hill above 27

The Bluecross building bounced light into the fog on top of the hill above 27

Long exposure times seem to make it disappear as it swirls in the wind, moving too much to leave an impression.  Short exposures make it too dark, blending in with the river, a pool of blackness except where it reflects light.  I finally went for high ISO settings to get more exposure out of shorter shutter speeds.

I like the fog at night.  It captures the city lights and reflects them back down in  night-time version of the sunset I missed.  While the colors and contrast in the sky may not be quite so obvious, I still enjoyed the view.

Fog rose off the river and swirled around the Southern Belle.  As I waited, the fog increased.  I might have waited longer to see what happened, but a group of German men gathered to play cards and I felt like I might be intruding.  That’s the problem with a common area.

At the start of my little shoot, there was a hint of fog around the Southern Belle

At the start of my little shoot, there was a hint of fog around the Southern Belle

By the time I stopped shooting, the fog was getting thicker

By the time I stopped shooting, the fog was getting thicker

 

Besides, I’d left Tisen at home alone and I knew he was waiting patiently by the door for my return.  I’ve started putting a sleeping mat by the door when I leave.  Otherwise, he lays on the floor and I’m sure it’s hard on his elbows.  He seems to always pick the position he believes is the closest to wherever I am.  I am alternately honored and worried–time to take him to doggy daycare.

 

The fog reflects light creating an interesting effect over route 27

The fog reflects light creating an interesting effect over route 27

Winter at Point Park

We had the wonderful experience of having dear friends come down for a post-Christmas visit (a little more post than planned due to a blizzard hitting the midwest the day they were planning to leave).

We picked a couple of highlights to share since they only had a day and a half after the storm cleared out enough for them to come on down.  Of course, we took them to Point Park.

It’s one of those places that meets many criteria for many different people.  For those who want an outdoor adventure, there are dozens of hiking trails through the woods to spectacular overlooks.  For those who want a nice easy stroll, there’s a ¼ mile paved loop around the top of the point that doesn’t even require climbing a step.  And it still offers spectacular views.  The list of increasingly challenging things to see goes on–basically, any level of physical activity or lack there of can be achieved and all levels are rewarded with amazing views of Chattanooga, Moccasin Bend, and even down into Georgia.

Pat and George pose for me in front of the overlook above Moccasin Bend

Pat and George pose for me in front of the overlook above Moccasin Bend

For the history buff, there are lots of Civil War memorials and information about some of the events of the Civil War related to this location.  I’ve come to have a new respect for the Civil War living down here–I find myself growing more and more interested in the battles in the area.

Georgia, Paris, and Bonnie pause briefly in front of the memorial at Point Park

Georgia, Paris, and Bonnie pause briefly in front of the memorial at Point Park

Our visiting friends included my bestie, Georgia, her equally wonderful husband George, (yes, George and Georgia) and two of their fur-kids, Paris and Bonnie.  We were also sitting for Twiggy, and, we, of course, had Tisen.  Having 4 dogs created a few logistical challenges, but it actually worked out quite well.

Twiggy and Tisen spent a day at doggy daycare together (which Tisen enjoys much more with his buddy Twiggy to play with) while Paris and Bonnie went exploring with us.  Having 4 dogs and 4 humans in one mini-van just seemed like a bit much.

Remainders from the war, these canons still stand guard over Moccasin Bend

Remainders from the war, these canons still stand guard over Moccasin Bend

The last time we walked the loop at Point Park it was about 110 degrees.  This time, it was in the 30’s, the sky was spitting at us, the wind was whipping us around, and the sun was no where to be seeing.  I liked this weather better than the 110 degree day.  But, with no umbrellas and the sky looking increasingly threatening, we walked quickly and skipped the jaunt out to the point.  It was still beautiful–I never know if I like this park so much because of the views of because of the special people I’ve had the pleasure of taking there?

Returning to the car, we all had the same thought on our minds–we were uncomfortable in our high-tech winter coats with fleece and down and our warm, waterproof boots.  We tried to imagine living through the war in wool coats and boots full of holes (if you had either).

I just like this image--the boys having fun together

I just like this image–the boys having fun together

We went home feeling more than a little spoiled.