Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Blessing of an August Rain

The rainy August roadside is lush and green. 
Watered by unusually bountiful rains of late July, the verdant ditch bank is broken only by sporadic clumps of Solidago, a few eager goldenrods getting an early jump on fall. 

Then, suddenly, silently, a shower of orange sparks!


Our old friend, the yellow fringed orchid, Platanthera ciliaris.


A solitary plant this year on a roadside right-of-way populated by a dozen or more in the year just past. 
But a blessing nonetheless, on a dreary August morn. 

And just down the bank, mere meters away, a shout of boldest orange-almost-red.


Three wild lilies, at the peak of their blooming, reminding us again that the August rain, even (or especially) on a busy Saturday, is a most glorious blessing.


Enjoy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Ephemera

On the canvas of a mountain morn, clouds and sun are one. 

Negative space or positive, 't is difficult to discern;

misty moisture permeates the one and dew drops cloak the other, 

while the golden, sourceless light emanates from each and every and all. 


Slenderest strands of spider's silk amidst a forest of flowering herbs, 
flowing with light and warmth and wet.

There's a lesson here, I just know it; 
No, I feel it... in my heart.

A million such dawns, and now another, come and gone, 
but we haven't learned it yet...

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Cajun Crayfish Invade the NC Museum of Art

 Hoot Owl Karma loves the North Carolina Museum of Art; although we never tire of the long-term exhibits, each visit is sure to hold a surprise or two as well.

After an enjoyable few hours exploring the treasures inside and picking up some bargains in the museum store, we strolled down the greenway for a quick nature fix before heading home.

While the boys took a few photos with their phones, Julie and I simply enjoyed the wildflowers alongside the path.

None of us suspected what lurked just around the bend in the muddy pond margin ...


We've seen some big crayfish, and we've seen some red crayfish.


We've even seen some big red crayfish...but none of us had seen anything quite like this before! 


Tail-tucking, tunnel-digging, tower-building, reverse-windmill freestyle claw-swinging creatures from the NCMA lagoon.


These crawfish could really bust a move, and once we encountered the first, these lanky, long-armed crawlers seemed to emerge from everywhere at once. Sitting solo in their tunnel openings, wrestling with rivals in the mud, cruising slowly in the shallows, or simply lurking among the cattails, they had thoroughly occupied this little corner of the pond.


And they seemed determined to protect their turf from all comers, even ones a few hundred times their size. Quick to strike a defensive pose, and aggressively confronting the camera, they might have been comical were it not for those wicked red claws.


This individual emerged from a water-filled tunnel constructed in the edge of the pond itself and put on quite a show for Jay's phone, gyrating from left to right and back again as Jay positioned himself for a better angle.


As a couple more crayfish skirted the scene in the shallows nearby, this character held fast to the ground between Jay and his burrow.


Quickly flipping through our mental checklist of native Carolina crawdads, we were pretty certain these bizarre creatures weren't from around here!


A bit of field-guide flipping back home confirms that these scarlet pincer-pumping crustaceans are invaders from the swamps of Louisiana. Whether originally brought here to be raised as food or fish bait, a few made their way into the wild and the rest is history at this point. These transplants from the deep south really seem to like it here, and they don't look like they plan to leave any time soon. 



Red Swamp Crayfish, Procambarus clarkii.

Not exactly a pretty picture.


Cajun crawfish camping out here behind the North Carolina Museum of Art, acting for all the world like they own the place. 

Imagine that.

Might just be time for some Jambalaya...

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Early Bird Gets the Thistle...A Blue Ridge Dawn

A thousand glistening drops of dew greet us from their spider-spun perches in every possible nook along the broad front porch as we slip out of the cabin and silently wade into the sodden lawn.


The early bird whose insistent song abbreviated our peaceful slumber is nowhere to be seen, but another early riser flashes a golden greeting from a dense clump of thistle on the ridge, thistledown still clinging to its dew-dampened brow.


The night clouds still lingering in the valley thin out and scatter in the warmth of the just-risen sun as yet another early bird lends its voice to the chorus; 
indigo bunting, a delicate scrap of bluest sky, rent from heaven's canopy and spilling its glorious song from wild cherry's highest bough.


The clouds ascend in earnest to our north, as the sun leaves the shelter of the eastern ridge behind for today, illuminating Queen Anne's delicate border of lace as she rises.


Perched in the cherry beneath our blue canary, goldfinch sings a tune that's cheery, despite the dreary damp of the early morning's rain.



Precious drops of life-giving liquid cling to every imaginable perch and prickle on thistle's lanky frame.  


And web-strewn wingstem, too, bears its share of the morning's watery burden.


The clouds dissipate, done for the day, 


but not without leaving ample evidence of their passing on every possible surface.


 And there, again, the unmistakable flash of ebony and gold amidst the irresistible thistle, visual lyrics as lovely and unforgettable as the chorus cascading to our ears from the cherries.


The clouds to our south lift further still in the cool morning breeze, revealing the restaurant and the river and the fields beyond; day dawns anew in the Blue Ridge, and our hearts are glad.


All the primordial elements of existence converge in this moment, in this place, in the life that pulses within us and all the other early birds as together we greet the dawn.


Fire and earth and water and wind and sky,


conjoined in twenty golden grams of flesh and feather and effortless flight and glorious avian song.


Fantastic feathered acrobat, 
flitting among the thistle from which seed it's built...


each fiber of muscle and sinew and feather and nerve,
every golden note that's uttered,
begins with a tiny flower seed.


The old field next door, not yet converted to lawn or planted with neat, never-ending rows of bright green firs, teems with the stuff of life.


Fueled by the fire of the sun and lubricated by the ever-changing clouds, 
the roots and the stems and the leaves and the flowers conspire with the bees and the bugs and the heart of the mountain itself



to give life to this year's brood of lovely golden finches.


The ceaseless cycle of life and death and renewal, playing out again this morning by the light of a Blue Ridge dawn...


By what clock does the goldfinch rise? 

By what calendar build its nest on the eve of July?

By what instinct resist the urge to fly from the watcher's curious eye?



Nature's mysteries abound in the light of another Blue Ridge dawn.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Stirring Up A Hornet's Nest, Or Not

Brother Henry called recently with an intriguing tip. 
Apparently a queen of the baldfaced hornet clan, Dolichovespula maculata, had located her summer residence in the middling branches of a small Bradford pear tree in Joyce and Elbert's front yard. 


At first a simple inverted origami cup, shelter enough for a tiny handful of brood cells, the nest escaped notice. 
But as the queen's initial offspring reached maturity and grew in number, and their edifice of paper expanded, the neighbors took note.


Less gracious (and courageous) folk than the Holders might have panicked and destroyed the burgeoning hive, but with cool heads and kind hearts and more than a little curiosity, they took the decision to watch and wait a while...


So while one set of neighbors watched and waited, another tirelessly chewed wood and added saliva and converted cellulose into layer after sturdy layer of wallpaper for the busy nursery within, and the queen's family grew.


Almost before the Holders realized it, July was at an end, and their front yard was home to an impressive, full-blown hornet's nest. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of winged workers now hustled in and out of the nest, some bolstering the construction detail, others hunting for insects to feed the growing brood within.


These "hornets" are actually one of several native species of North American yellowjackets, wasps from the family Vespidae, which live out their lives in the span of a single spring and summer season, except for a few fertile females which will overwinter in a sheltered spot and emerge to build a new nest next spring.


The baldfaced moniker refers to the pale yellowish-white markings on the hornets' faces, and is balanced by three white stripes or bands on their business end. 
While their skills as papermakers and engineers and builders are remarkable, these bald faced flyers are perhaps best known for their ferocity in defense of the queen and her nest, spawning the popular admonition against "stirring up a hornet's nest."


In fact, as I compose this last frame, it appears that I've been noticed by the just-emerged bald-faced beauty down in front, a signal to the wise photographer that today's session is at an end, and triggering distant, not-so-happy memories of another such encounter. . .

Once upon a time, under a sweltering summer sun in the backwoods of rural Harnett county, Brother Henry and Old Friend Matt spent the afternoon fishing with their shirtless friend and brother from the dam of an old farm pond. As evening drew nigh, and supper time beckoned, they led the way along the narrow earthen dam to where three dusty dirt bikes patiently awaited their riders.  

Senses dulled by the too-much-sun of a long and lazy afternoon in July, only too late did I notice the brown and white-streaked gray hunk of a hornet's nest neatly encasing a wood duck box on the trunk of a small pine.

Too late, because I was bringing up the rear, and Henry and Matt were already standing just beyond the massive hive, poles poised to strike. As the resounding whack of bamboo on pine roused me from my reverie, my eyes, wide with alarm, met the jet black eyes of half a dozen baldfaced hornets, equally alarmed, just before they launched with their legion of reinforcements.

In less time than it takes for a hornet's wings to beat twice, fear uncorked a gallon-sized bottle of adrenaline and thoroughly infused my leg muscles. I felt, more than heard,  the hornets as they pursued their bare-backed target, since we were all moving much faster than the speed of sound. I must have slowed a bit as I approached my bike, because I heard quite clearly the sound of my companions' laughter as they zipped away along the sandy lane.

The worst of the stings was the one that landed on my bare ribs, in the nearly fleshless area just below my armpit. Fortunately, the tip of the stinger lodged in my rib bone, effectively stopping the release of some of the venom, so the pain and bleeding and swelling was not as bad as it could have been. But it was bad enough that I'll never forget it, and I'll never get that close to a hornet's nest again.

Stupid people tricks notwithstanding, baldfaced hornets are actually very beneficial animals, consuming large numbers of insects, including other smaller yellowjackets, during their rather short lives. So, if you find yourself fortunate enough to encounter these impressive animals, take a moment to observe and admire them, just be careful not to stir up the nest.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Quiet Neighbor - Eastern Box Turtle

Eastern box turtle, Terrapene carolina, is a good neighbor. 

Quiet. 

He keeps a pretty low profile, really. 


He probably arrived here around the same time we did, fourteen or fifteen years ago, but this is the first time we've actually met. 
If he stays away from the roads, he may well be around long after we're gone.


He's not a night owl, but our paths rarely cross under the sizzling summer sun. Today's cooling shower, however, lured him from the shelter of his log in the little creek bottom down the hill. 
He and his kin haunted these hills for many millenia before folks like us arrived, but with our arrival, things changed a bit.


Legend has it that some American Indian tribes favored this ubiquitous "land turtle" for food and a variety of other uses, exploiting it to the point of extirpation in some locales.
Stories from more recent years relate to box turtles' longevity and remarkably small home range of less than 250 meters diameter. 


Tales are told of recording the births of children on the local box turtle's shell, with marks on some individuals spanning three generations. Thankfully, we're not aware of recent reports of this rather barbaric practice, and the only apparent markings on our neighbor's carapace are its own enigmatic gilded birthmarks.


Even more recently, the advent of the automobile and North Carolina's ascent to its status as
"the Good Roads State," has spelled plenty of trouble for these solitary wanderers. Because of their tendency toward very small home territories, they are particulary vulnerable to human development with its accompanying infrastructure of roads and rails.


Today's encounter with our reclusive neighbor occurred within less than a meter of our primary neighborhood thoroughfare, so we gave him a gentle lift across the pavement in the direction he was headed, silently wishing him safe passage should he come back this way again.


Box turtle photos by Hunter Randolph. Thanks, Hunter!