Bird (and other Stuff) Walk

This dragonfly (or is it a damselfly?) appeared to be depositing eggs, but we weren't sure

This dragonfly (or is it a damselfly?) appeared to be depositing eggs, but we weren’t sure

April is primetime for birding.  The number of bird species here increases dramatically during spring migration.  For example, while only a handful of Wood Warblers nest and breed in the Tennessee area, dozens fly through Tennessee (including the Tennessee Warbler) during migration.

False garlic bloomed in the grass

False garlic bloomed in the grass

Spring migration is also easier on those of us with bad eyes.  This is for three primary reasons:

  1. They sing more, making it easier to figure out where they are and, with a bit of practice, to identify which bird it is from its song,
  2. In early spring, there are few leaves for the birds to hide behind, and
  3. The birds are in full breeding plumage, making them (especially the males) much easier to spot and recognize.
Oh how I wanted to trim the branches between me and this Brown Thrasher

Oh how I wanted to trim the branches between me and this Brown Thrasher

Therefore, it only makes sense that we would decide to have a Birdathon in the month of April.  This is a stolen idea from a friend up North who started raising money for the local Audubon chapter up there.  This friend introduced me to birding when she invited her sponsors to go on a bird walk each year as a thank you for contributing.  I guess it stuck–I think the first time I went on a bird walk with her must have been over 15 years ago now.

Trillium was just starting to bloom along the trail

Trillium was just starting to bloom along the trail

In any case, as part of the Birdathon, we are trying to raise money for the Audubon by taking pledges for the number of bird species we identify over a 3 week period.  I am not doing so well.  I don’t think I’ve even gotten up to 50 yet.

Much easier to shoot, this turtle basked in the sun

Much easier to shoot, this turtle basked in the sun

One of the rules is that if a bird is not commonly found in the area, you have to either have a second person who agrees with the ID or a photo of the bird.  This has led to me carrying my DSLR with the 100-400mm lens on it every time I go walking through the park or on an official bird walk.

Evidence that someone got only half a meal--we discovered the back half of a 5-striped skink

Evidence that someone got only half a meal–we discovered the back half of a 5-striped skink

I so want to get some great photos of song birds.  But every time I carry the camera, I end up with tiny shots of song birds up in tree tops.  I need a tree house with a blind to sit behind so I can get up closer to the birds.  Since I don’t think Park and Recreation will approve of me building a birdhouse, I guess I will have to stick to cropping the heck out of my images.

A muskrat surprised us while we looked for birds--I like how it is actually just under the surface of the water

A muskrat surprised us while we looked for birds–I like how it is actually just under the surface of the water

The photos in this post are from 2 bird walks, 2 locations.  One at the park near me and one at Audubon Acres.  I am slightly proud of the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher’s photo–that sucker is a 4 ½” bird and I was not that close–the fact that it’s as sharp as it is even though I cropped it a lot is what I’m proud of.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher busy hunting among the tree tops

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher busy hunting among the tree tops

What strikes me as funny is that I only came back from 3 hours of looking at birds with images of 2 birds–I hope bird photographers are well paid.

These turtles looked like they were in the middle of some sort of dating ritual

These turtles looked like they were in the middle of some sort of dating ritual

Fall Color

Wanderlust is a chronic illness for which there is no known cure.  Treatments range from acceptance and indulgence to denial and deprivation.  Every once in a while, a little indulgence really pays.  Especially in the fall.

If there is one thing I miss about the midwest, it’s the intense colors of the fall leaves.  But, a road trip through Northern Tennessee and Kentucky provided a fantastic surprise.  The leaves are amazing here in the South this year.  There was one major drawback, however:  I didn’t get to take any pictures.

The images in the gallery were taken several years ago in Columbus, Ohio.  One of the big problems about wanting to take photos of leaves in Columbus is that it’s really flat.  It makes it difficult to find a perspective that really shows off the leaves.  It hadn’t occurred to before why everyone goes to Vermont for fall color viewing.  Not only does it have more hardwood trees that provide the intense colors we see in the midwest only multiplied, but it also provides lovely mountains completely covered in these brilliant leaves.  Until I drove through the Southern version of Vermont today, it had never occurred to me what a difference mountains make, and, specifically, mountains in the East, in how spectacular the color looks.  You don’t get that in the Rockies.

I really wanted to pull off the highway, get out my camera and start shooting.  I was worried about two things however.  First, I was really tired and I wanted to make it back home before I started falling asleep at the wheel.  Second, I’m pretty sure the shoulder of a freeway is for emergencies only.  Would the highway patrol accept perfect lighting hitting brilliantly colored leaves as an emergency condition?  If there would have been an exit with an obvious route to the same view I had from the freeway, I definitely would have pulled over when beams of sunlight burst through dark clouds and highlighted some of the trees on the hillside.  Or, when the sun was setting and the light was hitting the tops of the mountains while thick cloud cover above provided the perfect contrast from above.

I started plotting whether I could find time to take another drive on Sunday.  But, the sun went down and left me guessing as to how colorful the leaves were as I got closer to home.  I was still two hours away when the light faded.

Tisen curled up on the passenger seat and took no notice of the leaves.  Maybe it’s true that dogs only see in black and white.

The Next 6.3 Miles

Mentally embracing the rain, we started down the trail, determined to make it the next 6.3 miles to a place called “Hobbs Cabin.”  We couldn’t help but hope the cabin (a rustic, first-come, first-serve arrangement) was available.

After about 10 minutes of hiking in the downpour, we realized hiking in the rain on a hot day was quite pleasant.  Instead of feeling stinky and sticky with sweat, we felt cool and refreshed and there were no bugs while it was raining.

Tisen, on the other hand, was not so enamored with the feeling of cool rain. He did his best to walk underneath the overhang of our packs to try to avoid being rained on directly.  He ended up just as wet as the rest of us, but there must have been something comforting about feeling like he had a roof over his head.

When we got to the first overlook of the “gulf”  (apparently that’s what a gulch is called in Tennessee), the rain had taken a break.  The sky was overcast and it was hard to tell it was noon.  The break in the rain was nice, as was the breeze blowing up from the valley below.  But, alas, we were trying to cover 6.3 miles before it got too late in the afternoon, so we couldn’t stop long to enjoy it.

As the trail veered away from the edge of the gulch, we re-entered the woods, and perhaps a time from the past.  It was easy to imagine the first settlers finding their way through woods like these when such woods covered much of the Eastern US. Of course, they would have all be old-growth forests back then.  But, these woods, mostly free of invasive plants, made me feel like we’d been transported in time. Thankfully, our gear wasn’t transported back to historical equipment–I think we would have needed a wagon.

At long last, we arrived at Hobbs Cabin and were relieved to find it unoccupied.  A tiny, dark, uninviting shelter, it was equipped with 6 bunks and a table fastened to the wall.  The bunks were wood planks that would require sleeping pads and bags to make comfortable.  The small windows on the back wall let in so little light that even with our flashlights, we had trouble seeing inside the cabin.  I had a hard time imagining spending the night in there.

I proposed we pitch the tent on the front porch, screening out all insects, putting us where we were sure to get a breeze, and under a great big roof to keep up out of the rain.  We hung the rain fly in position just in case we started to get wet, but planned to sleep under just the screen for the night.  Tisen was more excited than a child to crawl into the tent with us, even though we decided to call it a night around 7:30PM.  It was the earliest we’ve ever gone to bed.

The Last Mimosa

I’m saddened to learn that the Mimosa tree is an invasive tree from Asia that doesn’t belong here.  In fact, the Tennessee Exotic Pest Council ranks it as a severe threat.  This makes me sad because I was really enjoying the blossoms, but I feel strongly that invasive plant species need to be removed from non-native habitats.  Now I feel like a traitor–aggrandizing the enemy.

But, I can’t help but indulge my irresponsible self one last time before I turn my back on the Mimosa tree (don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll continue to indulge in the beverage on the rare occasions the opportunity presents itself–too bad it’s not the drink that’s invasive instead of the tree).

In case you are unfamiliar with the problem of invasive species, I confess it’s a bit of a sore spot with me.  Having spent many weekends trying to remove plants that were taking over my own yard as well as the neighborhood, I know how difficult these plants are to control first hand.

In the US, we tend to plant what we think is pretty and/or is easy to grow. We fiercely defend our property rights and believe what we plant in our yard is our own business.  Unfortunately, invasive plants don’t stay on our property.  They spread through an amazing variety of means and grow quickly out of control since whatever keeps them in check in their native habitat doesn’t exist in the ecosystem they have been introduced to.

While we sometimes call native plants “weeds” because we don’t like the way they look and they grow in places we don’t want them to, these aren’t the same as invasives.  Invasive species do outright harm to an ecosystem.

As we all know (I hope), every living thing has interdependencies with other living things.  Whether it’s for shelter, food, temperature control–all of the above, no creature can exist without other creatures to support it (depending on what you call a “creature,” I guess).  Plants are a critical component of this web.

Invasive trees like the Mimosa reek havoc upon the availability of necessities by crowding out the native trees and plants that would provide them.  Because invasives didn’t evolve with the rest of the ecosystem, they fail to provide the critical (and often subtle) requirements that the native plants would provide.

This is my plea:  the next time you plant something, remember that what you plant will spread far and wide whether you know it or not.  Make a choice that everyone can live with (including wildlife) instead of just what looks good.

A chunk of our tax dollars is spent trying to control these invasive species–even if you care nothing about your ecosystem, why would you want to make a choice that will be an ongoing cost to you and the rest of the tax-paying population for generations to come?

All right, I’m off my soapbox now.  Back to taking pictures.  🙂

It’s Official

It’s time.  I must get a Tennessee driver’s license and plate today.  I am officially 1 day late doing this since Tennessee law requires new residents to get their Tennessee license and plates within 30 days of arriving.  In this age of online everything, it’s extremely difficult to get the required documentation to prove that you’re a resident, but I managed to come up with two pieces of acceptable evidence–our lease agreement and a printed statement from the bank.

This is the 4th time I’ve tried to get my license.  The first three tries, the lines were too long.  Pat went ahead and took care of his two days ago, so now we have a plan as to how to get this annoying necessity taken care of.  First, Pat took care of my emissions test for me earlier in the week.  Second, we arrive at the Drivers’ Services Center at 8:10AM, 20 minutes before they open, in the hope of being first in line.  This did not work out so well–there are already 9 people ahead of us.  We stand in the parking lot and watch the other people in line.  3rd in line is a woman with graying hair sitting on a stool outside the door.  At about 8:25, a man in a sports jacket and dress pants arrives and greets her.  She has been holding a place in line for him.

At 8:33AM, someone finally opens the door.  We all file in with the faces of people being sent away to prison.  We line up along the wall, forming a square around the room.  We celebrate by exchanging silent, happy looks each time a person ahead of us is rejected for not having the right paper work or being in the wrong place–one less person to wait behind when we get to phase 2.  But, I feel bad for the graying woman who must have gotten here before 8AM–the man she was waiting for is being relocated here from Mexico by VW.  Apparently he didn’t read the memo, because he’s there without the necessary proof of residency.  The woman asks him to check his brief case twice to make sure he doesn’t have some document in there that would meet the requirement, but he doesn’t.  She says sweetly, “Oh well, we’ll just go to the bank and come right back” in a subtle Southern drawl.  But I know what she’s thinking, “You dumb &*#!  I waited here for your for over a half an hour so you wouldn’t have to stand in line and you can’t even show up with the &*#^%$@ documents I told you to bring!”  Well, that’s what I would have been thinking anyway.  🙂

When we get to the window, the woman checks my documents, makes copies of them, and hands me a form and a number and tells me to go sit in the next room until my number is called.  I am prepared for this since Pat went through it two days earlier.  We sit down and I fill out my form.  It’s now 9:00AM.  I pull out my MiFi hot spot and work laptop and get online and start to work.  It takes until 10AM before my number is called–partly due to a faulty license printer.  By this time, I have finished a presentation I needed to get done before vacation, answered a dozen or so emails, responded to multiple instant messages, and caught up on several administrative tasks.  I wonder if I could work from this waiting room every day–I get so much done here!

I walk up and hand the woman my form and other documents.  She keys in all the information I’ve written down on the paper.  As I watch, I wonder why we couldn’t do that from the web.  I ask her if my motorcycle endorsement will transfer and she says “Yes” and circles an “M” on the form without looking at my driver’s license to see if I actually have a motorcycle endorsement or not.  Just then, a man walks in carrying a helmet and asks about taking his motorcycle endorsement test.  Confirming he has an appointment, she tells him she’ll be with him in just a minute.  She finishes up with me and sends me over to wait to have my picture taken.

I stand there remembering my own motorcycle endorsement test.  I don’t remember all of it, but I remember the three hardest parts:  A slalom through tightly spaced cones at less than 20 MPH, a surprise swerve, and, the killer of those on big bikes, a U-turn at slow speed inside a tight box painted on the pavement.  There were 10 people in the group that took the test that day.  3 of us passed:  a woman on a 50 cc scooter, a man on a 750 who was taking the test for the third time, and me on my little 250 Kawasaki.  I seriously considered staying after and renting out my bike when I saw the next group full of 750s and bigger.

The woman who will take my picture is almost ready and she asks me to sit in the chair.  Before she can take my picture, the woman who took my paperwork comes over and I hear her ask the photographer woman, “I’ve got someone here for a motorcycle test.  What do I do?”  The other woman replies, “Just have him ride up the block a little ways, turn around, and come back.”  I find myself wondering how motorcycle death rates compare between Tennessee and Ohio.

After I passed my test that day so many years ago, on my ride back home, I was almost run over 3x.  I was happy I knew how to swerve unexpectedly, gear down quickly, and to always have an alternate plan for escape from such situations.  By the time I got home, I was also happy that I’d made the decision to trade in my Kawasaki for a 1340 Harley Dyna low rider.  Although it was a few more weeks before I got my Harley, when I finally did, the noise and size kept me in drivers’ sights far more frequently than when I was on the Kaw.  However, the Kaw was a life saver for the endorsement test–I never would have passed with the rake angle on the low rider.  I couldn’t turn that thing around on a 2-lane road, let alone inside the box required by the state of Ohio.  Sigh.  Those were the days!

The woman at the Drivers’ Service Center hands me my new Tennessee Driver’s license.  I look it over.  It’s not as colorful as my old Ohio license, but I can’t compare side-by-side because they took my Ohio license from me.  Although I’ve lived in other places for a few months at a time in the past, I’ve never become a resident of another state before.  I am suddenly struck by the officialness of having a driver’s license and it being from another state.  I guess I am a Tennessian–or whatever we’re called.  After putting away my new license, I gather up my things and Pat and I walk outside.  Pat drives me to transfer my title and get my new license plate (there’s only a rear plate in Tennessee), which, amazingly takes less than 10 minutes.  As he rushes me back to my home office for my next conference call, I suddenly realize that I haven’t driven a car in Chattanooga once yet.  Oh well, at least I can if I need to!