VW Plant

This is not a broken, black ping pong ball but rather a common fungus

This is not a broken, black ping pong ball but rather a common fungus

There comes a time in every bird walk when someone much more knowledgable about plants than I am suddenly stops and points out a plant.  Often, the plant is a fungus.  Is a fungus actually a plant?  According to http://herbarium.usu.edu, it is not.  Rather, fungi have their very own kingdom–and what a special kingdom it is.

Photographically, I am always challenged when we encounter cool fungi or plants along the trail while birding.  This is because I only take one lens with me birding.  It’s my 100-400mm and it doesn’t really perform well for macro photography.  This doesn’t stop me, of course, from trying my best to get a shot of the life forms we encounter.  Realistically, I am not going to tote my tripod and macro lens on birding walks to capture these plants better up close, so I will just have to live with the motion blur and shallow depth of field I end up with when shooting with the 100-400mm.  It’s still better than what I get with an iPhone.

The first really interesting fungus we encountered looked like a block ping pong ball that hand been broken open.  In fact, it looked so manmade to me that I would have assumed it was litter had we not had one of our plant experts on the walk.  It amazes me when I see things like this in nature that we ever think we invented anything on our own.

"My what big ears you have!"

“My what big ears you have!”

The second interesting fungus was a group of wood ears growing along a fallen log.  They really do look like slightly slimy ears growing on wood.  I believe this may be the birthplace of the idea for Mr. Potato head.  Perhaps the wood ears were growing on a potato and someone thought, “Hey!  That looks like a face with ears!” and then the idea grew from there.  You never know.

What kind of buckeye is that?

What kind of buckeye is that?

The next interesting non-bird we saw was, in fact, a member of the plant kingdom.  It was of particular interest to me because my Tennessean friends called it a Buckeye tree.  As a person from the buckeye state, I can tell you that I have never seen a flower on any buckeye tree that looks anything like this one.  I have read on more than one occasion that the buckeye tree is indigenous to Ohio and not found anywhere else.  I had doubted the truth of that, but now am wondering if perhaps what people call a buckeye down in Tennessee is not really the same tree at all.  Whatever it is, it’s quite beautiful.

An immature red-tailed hawk sends us on our way

An immature red-tailed hawk sends us on our way

We made our way out of the wetland a bit tired after such an early morning start.  We found many birds in the 3 hours we spent wandering about.  As we stood listening to a Cerulean Warbler just before calling it a day, we were surprised by the appearance of a Red-tailed Hawk, soaring happily overhead.  I managed to get this image of the immature hawk flying over head.

Private Moments and a Merlin

My first Green Heron of the season--usually, I see them daily at the park, but not during the birdathon

My first Green Heron of the season–usually, I see them daily at the park, but not during the birdathon

Continuing our excursion through the VW wetland, we made our way around to the far side of the wetland from our entry point.  This side was on the VW plant side.  They were doing a lot of construction between the wetland and the plant, but they had installed a protective barrier between the construction zone and the wetland to keep runoff from the construction from upsetting the balance of the ecosystem.

Because water does need to run from the construction area to the wetland, they installed a large pipe between the two that went under the barrier.  At the end of the pipe leading to the wetland, they installed what might have looked like a giant balloon waiting to be inflated and twisted into a life-sized balloon horse except that it was a dull, opaque black color.  It laid on the ground piled on itself looking lifeless and discarded.  Our guide told us it was a silt bag used to collect all the dirt and silt in the construction runoff.  When water is running through quickly, it does indeed inflate.  However, no one has yet tried to twist it into a life-sized balloon horse.

A tree full of Great Blue Heron on the far side of the wetland

A tree full of Great Blue Heron on the far side of the wetland

As we made our way around the end of the wetland, we got closer to the array of solar panels.  It was pretty darn impressive to see the field of panels growing electricity.  Our guide told us that over 20% of the power consumed by the plant comes from the solar panels outside the wetland.  This is an impressive amount of electricity when one considers how much power a manufacturing facility like that uses.  The Eastern Meadowlark definitely thought it was worth singing about–he perched on the edge of the panels and sung his heart out for us.

Spotting the Merlin at the end of a very thin-looking tree branch

Spotting the Merlin at the end of a very thin-looking tree branch

This was also about the time that everyone’s last cup of coffee kicked in.  First one person disappeared into a wooded area.  Next, another one started wandering towards the woods.  When we started following her, she stopped, turned and said, “I need a private moment.”  We all laughed at ourselves for blindly following her.  Next it was my turn.

This is one of those occasions when being able to spot poison ivy makes the difference between life and painful suffering.  I am skilled at spotting poison ivy at any stage of development–young poison ivy vines before the leaves sprout, fresh purple leaves dripping with toxic oils when they first burst forth, ancient hairy vines twisted around the trunk of a tree.  Unfortunately, I know all this because I’ve gotten it so many ways over the decade I’ve been allergic to it.

The Merlin seems to be testing the wind as he twists about, thinking about flying

The Merlin seems to be testing the wind as he twists about, thinking about flying

After I rejoined the group, I discovered they were all looking at a Merlin.  It graciously  remained in full view, perched long enough for me to get quite a few shots, although being about 100 yards closer would have yielded some really amazing images.  This was a life-list bird for me–I’ve never seen one before.  What a great day.

Off goes the Merlin

Off goes the Merlin

How Much Wood Would a Wood Duck Chuck?

This guy knows how to impress the ladies

This guy knows how to impress the ladies

Bright and early Saturday morning, I joined my fellow birders in a walk around the VW wetland.  After we saw many heron perched on their nests in a giant heron rookery and a collection of Canada Geese roosting on top of a beaver hut, we made our way back through the brambles to a trail that allowed us to circle the wetland.

This took a little bush-whacking.  Well, whacking may be an exaggeration.  It was more like taking 3 steps forward and then freezing in place when caught in the brambles and peeling the brambles off carefully, trying not to rip skin in the process.  Then, three more steps forward.  Fortunately, once we made it to the trail cut by the surveyors, we were able to make good progress.

She may look indifferent, but I think she's just being coy

She may look indifferent, but I think she’s just being coy

Everyone develops their own methodology for getting through brambles.  I think there are 3 main approaches to bramble thrashing, which one you choose is generally dependent on what you are wearing.

Still not optimally lit, this male Orchard Oriole impressed us with his song

Still not optimally lit, this male Orchard Oriole impressed us with his song

The three main approaches to brambles were:  1) accelerate through them as fast as possible and stop for nothing (approach taken by people who had on several layers and/or thick skin and who don’t care much for their top layer), 2)  Accelerate until you get stuck and then stop (approach taken by people with several layers but who do care about not ruining their top layer), and 3) Pick you way through slowly and carefully (approach taken by people with not enough layers to protect their skin).  I tended to fall into the 2nd category while our guide fell into the first. We didn’t have many people in the third category except when bare hands got tangled in thorns.

If this guy had moved just  a bit more, you would be able to tell he's a beautiful Orchard Oriole

If this guy had moved just a bit more, you would be able to tell he’s a beautiful Orchard Oriole

Thankfully, we all made it to the cleared trail with a minimal number of scratches.  We worked our way around slowly, passing the top of a major beaver dam in the process.  The work of the beavers was quite impressive–a testament to the expression “busy beaver.”  They had built a dam that must have been a good 50 feet wide or more.  It enclosed one end of the wetland, creating a waterfall given the amount of rain we’d been having.  On the other side of the dam, the wetland continued.   We was a second dam that had been broken apart.  Apparently the humans have to break the second dam every couple of days to keep the water from getting too backed up in the wetland.  The beavers are busy indeed.

As we came around the bend of the wetland, we spotted a male wood duck siting on top of a snag in the middle of a bright sunbeam.  As we all admired him, one of our group was looking at a different wood duck on tip of a different snag–it was the mate.  The male showed off for her, obviously trying to get her attention.  She ruffled her feathers and acted indifferent, but I suspect they lived happily every after.

I'm pretty sure this is the wood duck equivalent of "shaking your booty"

I’m pretty sure this is the wood duck equivalent of “shaking your booty”

Tisen looking for food (I think)

Tisen looking for food (I think)

 

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