Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 in Pictures

I take a lot of pictures throughout the year and not all of them make it into a blog post. At the end of the calendar year, it’s a good time to reflect on the beauty of nature and share some of the extra pictures.

I believe that each day is an opportunity to find and appreciate something beautiful in the native plants and creatures of Georgia.

Spiraea virginiana

In January, this Spiraea virginiana was still putting on a delightful color show on my back porch (where it thrived in the absence of deer). The plant by the front walk never makes it that far although I keep it sprayed enough to have flowers in May.

February brought a mixture of blue and gray days as usual. This red-shouldered hawk is a regular in my woods, and for once I was able to take a pretty close picture of it as we both enjoyed the blue sky.

A few weeks later, gray skies brought snowflakes and I tried to capture a few of them. Now I have a new macro lens so I hope we get a few flakes in 2016.

Red-shouldered hawk
One snowflake stood out from the jumble of others

Stellaria pubera

March is an intensely floral month in Georgia and there is no shortage of gorgeous native flowers to photograph. Here is one of the underappreciated flowers of the native woodland - star chickweed (Stellaria pubera).

The floral show continues in April, but the addition of butterflies makes the outdoor experience all the more exciting. A picture of a flower with a native pollinator is the highest achievement for me.

We had a surprise visitor this month – a sharp-shinned hawk drove a mourning dove into a window and then rested for a bit before carrying it off to eat it.

Tiger swallowtail on native azalea
Sharp shinned hawk

Cordyceps fungus on insect

The weather is always fine in May so I headed to Blairsville for a 3-day botanical romp with the Georgia Botanical Society.

One of the interesting things to find was a fungus that had taken over an insect host. All those gray strands are the fungus coming out.

Prunus angustifolia

My native plum tree (Prunus angustifolia) produced fruit this year, the small green fruits turning various shades of pink and red throughout the month of June.

I also discovered that this plum is suckering like mad (which is typical for this species). I plan to dig up some of those suckers over the winter.

A pair of wrens raised some chicks in our front yard in July. It was amazing to think of how many bugs they must have caught and fed to those babies before they were big enough to leave the nest. It was only a couple of weeks and then they were gone.

Chamaecrista fasciculata

I was excited to find a wild population of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) in August. It is the host plant for the cloudless sulphur butterfly so I’d been looking to find some. The flowers are very popular with bees too. I was able to gather some seeds to scatter in my yard so let’s hope it comes up next year.

Common buckeye butterfly

There were more butterflies this year than last year. This common buckeye butterfly was the first one of that species that I’d ever seen in my garden.  I was so excited that I used photo software to make it look like there were two ....

Cloudless sulphur emerges

Last year I was able to raise a monarch and this year I did too (in the spacious arrangement of a new caterpillar cage that my husband built for me). I also raised many other butterflies including Gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs.

Pileated woodpecker

I have long heard and seen pileated woodpeckers in the woods around my house. This year one was in perfect photo range on a dead pine tree next to the driveway (that dead pine tree has been very good to the birds in my yard the last two years!).

Throughout the year I look to find plants that I can photograph for my collection of native plant pictures. Normally mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) is out of my range as the plants are high up in the trees. This year I found some in smaller trees and was able to snap some photos.

Phoradendron leucarpum
All in all, 2015 was a good year for photos, for plants and for wildlife. I look forward to more in 2016!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Year of the Frog

Have you noticed that sometimes there appears to be a population explosion of some flower, bug or critter in your garden? Last year was a great year for skippers while the butterfly population seemed lower than usual. The year before that, there were so many dragonflies.

This year was the year of the frog.

One of the most amazing things we discovered about this house when we moved in 12 years ago was the presence of tree frogs. The house came with a swimming pool; we went swimming the first night (it was July) and dozens of tree frogs jumped in to join us!

Tree frogs (Hyla species) are smaller than the frogs I normally associate with wet areas (like my neighbor's pond). Ours are light gray in color with wonderful mottling. They have hands and feet with noticeably sticky pads for clinging.

Sometimes I find other frogs, large, dark-green ones mostly hanging out in the pool, and those I try to relocate to my neighbor's pond so that the pool chemicals don't do them in. Others hang around in between my plant pots, startling me when they jump out as I'm watering or rearranging.

I'm always glad to have them (and the toads). It makes me feel like I'm doing something right if they are finding what they need here. (Click on any of the pictures to make them larger.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Forest Less Diverse

I love to explore new parks. One can find parks at the city, county, state and national level. Each one is a chance to explore the unique plants and communities found in those preserved spaces. There I often find other people enjoying the spaces: walkers, runners, dog owners, and families exploring with their kids.

Sometimes it is all I can do to keep from stopping every visitor and saying “This is not the way the land is supposed to look. This place is overrun with invasive plants from foreign lands and doesn’t reflect the beauty of Georgia.”  I’m sure that most of them would look at me strangely and sidle around me as quickly as possible. Most people are content to have clear paths and green plants in their outdoor experiences.

All that's green here is non-native
A visit to a park near Athens had me with my hand over my mouth recently. The paths through the park were at times carved out of thickets of invasive shrubs: privet (Ligustrum sinense), elaeagnus (Elaeagnus), and bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii).

Canopy trees like oaks (Quercus) and sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) soared high into the sky, immune to the invasion below.

One might wonder why green is not good enough. What is the difference between one shrub and another? The issue centers around plant diversity and the role that plants play in the greater community. An area that is choked out with one or two species of plants is not more diverse even though those plants came from another continent. The area becomes less diverse due to excessive competition.

Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera)
In this particular park, the canopy trees that existed prior to invasion are unaffected. Their progeny, however, may find it difficult to germinate when they land on ground that doesn’t get sufficient light or moisture below the thicket of privet. Herbaceous plants – flowering spring and summer plants plus ferns – have lost ground too. The faster-growing invasive plants have gotten the jump on them.

Insects that relied on those native plants have found less and less pollen, nectar and foliage to sustain them. Many insects are specialists, so a downturn in native plant populations equals a corresponding downturn in their populations as well. Birds that eat insects will not thrive here either.

Over time, the shift in the plant population tilts more in favor of the newcomers. Canopy trees may fall with age or due to storms, with few youngsters available to take their place due to reduced germination of their seeds. In order to restore diversity, often humans have to step in.

I was heartened at the end of the day to find signs about invasive eradication efforts getting started. These signs were there to educate the public about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why it was important. They've got a long way to go, but volunteers will be there to help, especially when they start to see the benefits: plants often return on their own when given a helping hand.

If you've got a chance to help out at a local park with invasive removal, please do so. The benefits to the local ecosystem are immense, and you get a chance to make Georgia more "Georgia" again!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Red Top Mountain State Park

The morning light was gorgeous through the beeches
I love to spend time outdoors so this year’s suggestion to “opt outside” on the day after Thanksgiving was one that I was willing to take.

I decided to use the day as an opportunity to get another Georgia State Park visit in the bank and picked Red Top Mountain State Park in Bartow County as my destination. I convinced my daughter to go with me, and we set out early that Friday morning.

I picked Red Top Mountain for several reasons. First, it is relatively close to me so it makes for a good day trip. Second, according to the park map on the website, it has a selection of good trails with scenic views of Lake Allatoona.

Third, the park has been recovering from deer overpopulation, and I wanted to see how the understory vegetation was doing.

The park is a great example of the good work that State Park employees do. Detailed trail maps are available to use, there is great signage on the trails, and trails are clearly marked with colored blazes on the trees. From the Visitor’s Center, we took the Homestead Trail (marked in yellow on the map and with yellow blazes on the trees). This is a 5.5 mile loop trail and you have the option to start the loop in either direction so we met people coming and going as we hiked.

Beech and sourwood trees

Fall colored foliage and views of the lake were a beautiful part of this path, but we couldn’t let them distract us from the many switchbacks needed to wind around the coves.

Elevation changes kept our heart rates up while providing many great views. Our interest in photography had us stopping to capture interesting angles and good looking plants. She teaches me photography and I babble on about plants.

Does the forest enhance the lake view or vice versa?

The deciduous forest had shed most of its leaves and at times we walked through areas with high diversity. The path was littered with the colorful reminders of red oaks, white oaks, southern red oaks, beeches, sourwood and some of the prettiest red maples that I’ve seen in a while. In other areas, we were in a pine forest and the path was all pine needles.

At least five different oak leaves in this view
As for the recovery of the vegetation from the deer control efforts, I found pretty good amounts of understory plants. There were beautiful sweeps of Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), river cane (Arundinaria), and hearts a bustin' (Euonymus americanus). The latter is always a deer treat at my house so clearly the control efforts are working to some degree.

Christmas ferns

The yellow fall color of hearts a bustin'

If you enjoy beautiful hikes on well-marked trails, be sure to visit one of our many beautiful Georgia State Parks. It's a great way to opt outside any day of the year.