Sunday, March 17, 2013

What Am I?

Although I see (and especially hear) these little birds all of the time, I don't usually get a photo of them.  But on Friday's ramble around the Pony Pasture, I was able to capture one in my camera's inner workings, and since they have always been a favorite of mine, I decided to write about it.  Can you guess this one?

Are you prepared right now to start?
My name consists of double parts

The first's the color of my head
But is it black or blue or red?

The second part's the call I make
Come on, think hard; now, stay awake!

I'm state bird of the Pine Tree State
I'm just an ounce or so in weight

I'm gray on wings and on my back
But throat and top of head is black

Upon my head is that a cap?
I must say, I'm a rakish chap!

I make the merriest of calls
It's heard throughout the forest's halls

But should I write down exact call,
The riddle's done; you'll know it all!

My cheeks are snowiest of white
Know me by now? I think you might!

Okay, that's
enough clues
I think that
you know
this one, so
after taking
your guess.

Proclaiming high up from a tree:
I am a Carolina chickadee!

What Am I?

On my nature hike at the Pony Pasture in James River Park yesterday, I saw this commonly seen feathered friend.  Can you guess what it is?  It should be easy, unlike my last one about the duck seen at Back Bay.

For starters, here is this good word -
For many states, I am their bird

Despite my name, I choose no pope.
If you think that then you're a dope

And if you think I'm man of God
I'll tell you now: your logic's flawed

From tail to beak, I'm dressed in red
Except for black on throat and head

With big red bill I crack hard seeds
For energy to meet my needs

I sing my fine song: "Wheat, wheat, wheat..."
To human ears, sounds very sweet

This should be
easy, so
take your
guess and
for the

A cardinal's quite the proper choice
If you guessed right, then raise your voice!

Commonly heard and seen here, the State bird of Virginia and many other states, there is nothing like the shocking red of a cardinal against the drab woods of winter and early spring!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Pony Pasture Ramble

I had the day off yesterday and had hoped to go hiking if it was a nice day - which it was.  But, alas, I had to have electricians and plumbers over to do some work - hiking would have been a lot less expensive, trust me! - and by the time their work was done (and my wallet was on empty), it was 2:00PM.  So I decided that at the least, a short, local hike was in order.  So I headed back to the Pony Pasture, where I had walked at the end of the year.  This map will give you it's location, within city limits but on the South of the James and west of downtown:

This was not going to be a fast walk, I decided.  I wanted to go slowly and quietly, and see what wildlife I could spot.  So I walked slowly, with my binoculars and camera out.  While I didn't see anything spectacular, I did see some birds and other wildlife, all the more cool for being in a big city.  Among my sightings - and I shall leave a couple for mystery guests in later posts - turkey vulture, tufted titmouse, various gulls, double-crested cormorant, golden-crowned kinglet (I saw his cousin, the ruby-crowned kinglet there on my December hike), an elusive kingfisher, Canada goose, mallard ducks, bufflehead, painted turtles, and another kind of turtle.  I also heard some kind of frog calling.  I could not identify it, but I heard spring peepers in my neighborhood for the first time about a week ago, so spring is coming!

Here is a map of my walk.  I started and ended at the orange arrow and walked roughly clockwise, detouring and stopping often.  The orange circle shows where I back-tracked multiple times on both sides of a slough trying to get (unsuccessfully) of a shy kingfisher.  My total walk was about 3.5 miles.

Before I started on the pathways, I walked northwest along the river a bit trying to look for ducks.  Other than a few buffleheads, I didn't see any, but I did see these gulls - and many more - on rocks out in the rough and tumbling James River in the Pony Pasture Rapids:

The river was pretty violent from recent rains.

I thought that this huge vine was pretty amazing.  I wonder if it used to be wrap around a tree which has since died and rotted away?  It was as thick as a man's arm.

I liked the way that these turtles were enjoying getting some rays.  I think that they are painted turtles.

Although not as vast as in my Great Dismal Swamp hike last month, there were some swamps and other wetlands here at the Pony Pasture:

I saw many mallards and took a bunch of photos, but liked this one the best.  This drake seems to know that he is one handsome fellow.  I love the iridescent green of his head.

Near the end of my walk, I spotted a belted kingfisher along the slough.  Every time I got close enough for a photo, there were little branches in the way and my camera would focus on the branches and not the bird.  When I would move just a bit for a clearer view, he would fly up the slough, or back from whence I came.  I walked back and forth several times on both sides of the slough, trying to get his photo.  But the camera shy bird wouldn't cooperate.  I settled on capturing an image of this large male (note the long claws on the front feet) turtle sunning himself.  I do not know what it is - does anyone?  It is not a painted turtle.  Chicken turtle was my guess, but according to my field guide, they don't get this far north.

Whatever he was, I enjoyed seeing this animal and the others during my walk in the Pony Pasture segment of Richmond's James River Park System.  A mystery guest or two blog post will follow....

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What Am I?

I saw this animal on my final hike in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks ago.  I already miss going there, but expect I will go back for old times sake at some point.  See if you can figure it out.

How’s this great clue for first clue luck?
I’ll tell you I’m a type of duck

But of the ducks there’re so many
Without more clues I could be any

So what kind of duck could I be?
You’ll find me in a group of three

By that I mean one of three kinds
Come on, think hard - use those sharp minds

It is quite clear from my hooked bill
I don’t eat plants; it’s fish I kill.

Upon my head I have a crest
With reddish band across my breast

Of course that more describes the male
My lady is a bit more pale

Fish eating duck? One of three types?
Come on and guess - let's earn those stripes!

and see if
you guessed
this duck!

I'm a red-breasted merganser
Did you get the correct answer?

When I first saw this dapper duck, he was on shore near a great blue heron that I was watching.  The heron's photo is on the original post about this final hike, noted at the top of this post.

Even though I posed no threat to his well-being, the merganser didn't know that, and quickly moved into the water.  I watched him for a while and took several more photos.  This one shows all the field marks one needs to identify a male red-breasted merganser.
I knew it was a merganser but was not sure which of the three kinds until I got home and looked him up in my field guide.  I was glad to see some wildlife on this last hike to Back Bay, which will always be a special place.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Am I?

Just over three weeks ago, I was hiking in the Great Dismal Swamp, and I saw an animal that I have only seen three times before in the wild - once from a boat in Lake Clark National Park in Alaska, once from a car in Big Cypress Preserve in Florida, and once while hiking in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge.  So it was a thrill to see this rarely seen creature once again.  Can you guess it?

For me, I'll take trout for dinner
But any fish I would call winner

My thick fur while in the rivers
Will keep me warm with no shivers

Although I'm clumsy while on land
My swimming style is simply grand

You must swim well to catch a fish
And add them to your dinner dish

I love to play and romp and slide
But if I see you, I will hide

I'm member of the weasel clan
Can you guess me?  What is your plan?

I think
I have
clues in
this short
verse, so
take a guess

I'm a group of river otters -
perhaps mother and her daughters

I was thrilled to see these four river otters about 3.5 miles into my Great Dismal Swamp hike.  It is a good thing that I was wearing my new binoculars, because when I spotted an animal moving near the edge of the path ahead near the water, I quickly got a look.  I could not believe it when I identified it as an otter.  It seemed to be rolling around in the path, and then it went into the water.

I got my other camera (the Sony with the better lens) out of my pack as quickly as I could, and went to where the otter had been, but there was no sign of it.  But I kept looking, and heard splashing back up the path from where I had been.  In time, using my binoculars, I spotted an otter swimming away from me.  So I moved back up the path several hundred yards, listening so splashes now and again.  Suddenly, I realized that the otter was back on the path and I then I saw that there were four of them.  They were frolicking and playing together.  I quickly got a photo or two from long distance before they all went back in the water.  I had to zoom in digitally back at home to get their image a little bigger.  I wish I could have gotten closer, but it was a thrilling wildlife moment of spotting a creature that is rarely seen by me.

There are four in the photo, although the middle two are very close together, and the leftmost one is lying down in the grass.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

A Simple Test for Osteoporosis

At the very start of my Greenville, South Carolina walk Saturday on the Swamp Rabbit Trail, I took a quick, simple, and inexpensive medical test for osteoporosis.  Here is how it works, in case it is of use to others.

  1. You do not have to fast before taking this test, nor do you have to pee in a bottle.
  2. Pick a rainy day.  This is important so that the rocks along the way become very slick.
  3. Wear a pair of hiking boots, which grip well on trails, but not on rocks.  You can substitute shoes with worn out bottoms if you wish.  You don't want a lot of traction if you are to perform this medical test properly.
  4. Walk on a steep area with smooth rocks.
  5. You should, at this point, slip and fall.  It is important to be surprised when you fall, and not anticipate it.  Make sure you land on your hip when you take the fall, and make sure you make contact with a rock and not the ground - which may be too soft to give proper results.
  6. If you don't break your pelvis, hip joint or femur, you almost certainly do not have osteoporosis.
  7. However, if you do break one of these bones / joints, then there is at least a chance you do have osteoporosis, or some other bone weakening condition.  You should seek medical attention for further tests, as well as to be put into traction for 6-8 weeks.

Note - even if you don't break something, this - like many medical tests - is quite painful.  Your hip area will hurt for some days after the test.  So if you decide to repeat this test within a month - which is probably not medically necessary - do everything you can not to fall on the same hip.

I took my fall very shortly into my walk, going down a steep slope to get this photo of the waterfall:

I was glad to have passed my osteoporosis test successfully, and walked for several hours after falling and landing on my left hip.  I guess I am lucky that all these miles of walking and running have probably strengthened my bones.  But my hip is still a bit sore five days later!  It is not a "medical test" that I hope to repeat any time soon!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Kings Mountain Battlefield

Tucked up against the border with North Carolina near the South Carolina high country is the Revolutionary War battlefield of Kings Mountain.  Whether you are familiar with this battle or not, it is considered of critical importance as American rebels defeated not the British army, but American loyalists - Americans loyal to the King of England.  Thus, it was essentially a civil war action between neighbors and kinsmen.  And it led to the British evacuation of the south and abandonment of their plans to win the American Southeast over with loyal subjects.  Ultimately, it led to the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia almost exactly one year later.  General Henry Clinton, British Commander in Chief of North America, later said about the defeat at Kings Mountain: "It was the first link in a chain of evils that ended in the total loss of America."

Prior to this battle, American rebel forces had been reeling in the south.  In May, 1780, the British had easily occupied Charleston, SC - the fourth largest city in America - and captured 5,500 American military prisoners in the process.  A couple of weeks later near Waxhaws, SC, a British force under Banastre Tarleton annihilated an American force of 400 - slaughtering and maiming several hundred after they attempted to surrender under a white flag, and leaving the wounded to die on the battlefield.  In August, near Camden, SC, General Horatio Gates was soundly defeated by a smaller British force and lost more than a third of his army of 3,000.  And along the way, guerrilla bands and partisans clashed in brutal fights, complete with looting, burnings, torture, and murder as neighbors fought neighbors.

About this time, Colonel Patrick Ferguson, a Scotsman and the only Brit to participate in the Battle of Kings Mountain, was given command of a large force of American loyalists.  A hundred or so were from the northeast and were trained in British Army tactics and wore red coats.  The majority were locals and wore frontier garb.  They were issued British Brown Bess muskets with bayonets and also trained in infantry tactics.  Here are a few interesting facts that I learned about Colonel Ferguson:

  • He was reported to be the best shot in the entire British Army.
  • In 1776, he patented a remarkable breech loading rifle.  It could be loaded and fired from the prone position, which had not been possible before.  It could be fired six times a minute, double the rate for a well-trained soldier with a musket.  And the rifling made it much more accurate than a musket.
  • Just before the start of the Battle of Brandywine Creek in 1777 in Pennsylvania, Ferguson had his rifle trained on an American officer on a horse.  He was within a range that Ferguson reportedly said he could hit a piece of paper 10 out of 10 times.  Before he pulled the trigger, the officer turned and began to ride slowly away.  Ferguson did not shoot, thinking that it was an act of cowardice to shoot a man in the back.  The officer who's life he spared was none other than George Washington!
But Ferguson made a bad mistake in September of 1780.  He proclaimed that if the "backwater men" of the mountains of South Carolina "did not desist from their opposition to British arms, he would march his army over the mountains, hang their leaders, and lay waste to their country with fire and sword."  About one-third of the population had stayed neutral up to that point, but the tough and independent Scotch-Irish of the Appalachians saw this comment as a direct threat to their lives and livelihoods, and were enraged.  So they headed east, some of them traveling through total wilderness for 200 miles to join the fight.  At the end, a group of 900 of the best riflemen, with William Campbell of Virginia commanding, pressed on all night during a soaking rainstorm with their rifles wrapped in blankets to keep them somewhat dry.

Ferguson and his army of 1,100 were waiting on the summit of Kings Mountain.  It seemed like a ideal defensive position to this 20 year career army veteran.  About 100 of his American troops wore the redcoat and the rest were in typical backwoodsman garb.  To differentiate them from their backwoodsmen American rebel opponents (who wore a piece of paper in their hatbands), the loyalists wore a spring of pine in their hats.  The rebels (or from our perspective, patriots) arrived just after noon on October 7 after their rainy forced march.  The wet forest softened the sound of their footsteps and they surprised Ferguson and his men  They encircled the mountain to cut off avenues of escape and began their advance about 3PM.

An hour later, it was over.  It was the accurate rebel long rifle and guerrilla fighting tactics among the large trees against horribly inaccurate smooth bore British muskets and massed British infantry tactics.  Even normally terrifying bayonet charges by the loyalists failed to break rebel resolve, and with their long rifles, they picked off the enemy forces who were silhouetted against the sky at the mountain top.  Ferguson was hit several times late in the battle and perished.  At that point, the second in command ordered a white flag raised, but the patriot commanders could not control their men for several minutes, and many loyalists were slaughtered while attempting to surrender.  One of them made a last entry in his diary: "The cursed rebels Came upon us killed and Took every Soul and So My Dear friends I bid you farewell for I am Started for the warm Country."

The battlefield was just a few miles from Interstate 85 in northern South Carolina on my trip home from Greenville, so I had to check it out.  There is an excellent 1.5 mile long loop trail with great interpretive signs that goes through the forest - first from the position where patriot forces gathered to attack, and then along the crest of the Kings Mountain summit.  I highly recommend it, as well as spending time in the fine museum and watching the film.  It was a nice way to break up my 400 mile long drive, and I wish I had had more time there.

If I'd had more time, I would have hiked more.  There is a 16 mile backcountry loop, with a remote campsite on it, that goes through the battlefield park and Kings Mountain State Park.  Because of my long drive, I missed a chance to do a 4 mile hike here which would have qualified it towards several of my 2013 hiking goals.  But because I couldn't do at least four miles of hiking there, I won't count it toward any of my goals.

Here are some photos of my tour of Kings Mountain.

A snowball?  In March?  In South Carolina?

Yep, sure is!  I told you that it was cold and rainy during my Saturday walk in Greenville, and this area was just high enough in elevation to get snow and sleet.
At the time of the battle, the trees here would have been even bigger than they are now, and it would have been wilderness.  You can see how rugged the terrain is here where they fought.  Coming here from 200 miles away up in the mountains would have been one rough trip by very tough people - no tents, no sleeping pads, no backpacks, no fancy, warm clothing or raingear.  Just a bedroll, a few staples, a rifle, powder and shot.

While the mountain was heavily forested with big trees, in 1780 the summit was nearly treeless.  Thus the advancing patriot forces had cover while the loyalists on the mountain top were exposed to accurate rifle fire with nothing to hide behind.
At this spot in 1930, the 150th anniversary of the battle, President Herbert Hoover addressed a crowd of 70,000 from this spot.  Can you imagine that in this wild and remote area?  The audience was the largest ever on the East Coast up to that time.
This is one of two memorials to the victory on the summit of Kings Mountain.
Colonel Patrick Ferguson, the only British subject to participate in what was essentially a civil war battle, died at this spot on October 7, 1780.
This memorial to Ferguson is near the spot where he died, and was erected during Hoover's visit for the 150th anniversary.  I like the sentiment expressed at the end: "This memorial is from the citizens of the United States of America in token of their appreciation of the bonds of friendship and peace between them and the citizens of the British Empire."  Here, here!
In the museum is this display of Ferguson's innovative breech loading rifle.  Only about 150 were manufactured after its patent in 1776.

Swamp Rabbit Trail and Greenville Zoo

If you are by yourself in an unfamiliar city, what would you do? Find a swanky nightclub and trip the lights fantastic until 3AM?  Locate the tony shopping district and spend money?  Have a great meal at a five-star restaurant?  Or explore all over the place on foot?  Well, I think you can guess which of these things I would do.

I was in Greenville, South Carolina for the weekend.  I went down there to help someone out with some things, but they were sick and so I spent much of the weekend on my own, rambling around a bit.  I don't know how many miles I walked but my pedometer showed over 38,000 steps for the two full days that I was there, so I definitely added some miles to my shoes.  There is a very nice urban trail, the Swamp Rabbit Trail ...

... that runs for something like 16 miles along the river, and I walked on a bit this last Friday (without my camera), which was a cool (for South Carolina) but sunny day.  I decided to walk more of this path on Saturday, and maybe go to the zoo.  But Saturday was definitely on the cold side. There was some snow in the air, and it was breezy and raining in the afternoon when I set out.  There were very few people out and about, and I actually wore gloves and a winter hat for part of my walk until I warmed up, plus my rain jacket over my fleece.  Even though the trail was paved, I wore hiking boots because they would not get soaked and were warmer than my running shoes.  I even saw some wildlife along this urban pathway, including a belted kingfisher (but no swamp rabbits).

I had lunch in the downtown and then set out on my walk this past Saturday, walking along Main Street.

This cool statue of a wild boar is actually a fountain, but the water was not running.  When I blogged a couple weeks ago about my final hike (of so many hikes) in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, I mentioned some of the animals I had seen there over the years.  One I never saw was wild swine.  But I saw this one in Greenville!

The first part of my walk was the most scenic, as it goes through the dramatic and popular Falls Park.  The falls are about 30 feet high.

Along the way, there were nice views of the river and parks, and sure signs that spring is here, even though the temperature was in the low 40's.

About halfway to the zoo from Falls Park is a memorial to local hero Major Rudolf Anderson, USAF, September 15 1927 to October 27, 1962.  Look at the date of his death and see if you can figure where he died for our country.  No - not in Vietnam (he had served in the Korean War, by the way).  He was the only American fatality in the Cuban Missile Crisis and was killed when his plane was hit by Cuban anti-aircraft shrapnel.

Just past the Anderson Memorial is a bridge on the Swamp Rabbit Trail named for him:

By this point in my walk, it had stopped raining and I was glad that I had done this walk, despite people where I ate lunch saying it was pouring and not a good day for a walk.  But as I told them, I knew I would dry at some point.  I kept walking and reached the tiny but excellent Greenville Zoo.  If it was still raining maybe I would not have gone into the zoo, so I am glad I got the chance.  One thing I liked a lot is that $25 cents of your admission fee goes to a conservation cause.  You get a token and use it to vote for one of four choices:

I voted for Operation Civet, which is attempting to restore the endangered Owston civet in Vietnam.  It had very few tokens.  The Philippine crocodile project had a few more tokens, the puma project had a lot, and the Orangutan International had tons of them.  They may have preselected because next to the poster shown above was a large photo of an adorable baby orangutan.  But I choose the least supported cause for my vote.  I like underdogs, I guess.  Or maybe "under civets?"

The Greenville Zoo is really nice.  It is small - only 14 acres - but its animals have a fair amount of room to act naturally.  Many of its animals are threatened or endangered in the wild.  Some are critically endangered.  Some of the animals I enjoyed seeing included the African elephant and the lion:

Also in the African area were a beautiful giraffe couple and their calf.  As a funny aside, a little girl who was there with a bunch of friends and their moms, announced in a voice that most of the people at the zoo could hear: "There is a boy giraffe and a girl giraffe.  I know how to tell the boy from the girl...." Then she very loudly stated exactly how to tell.  I could not help but laugh (as did the women in their group).  Here is a photo of mother and calf:

I'd zoomed in for a close-up of Mom, part of her 18 inch tongue sticking out:

The saddest animal there was the Amur leopard, the rarest big cat in the world.  There are 35 individuals left in the wild.  The zoo had three of these magnificent and beautiful cats - equal to about one tenth the entire wild population.  In their glassed-in enclosure, one could get very close to them.  It would be very sad if these cats disappear in the wild, but it seems likely.  It is hard to believe that in our big, beautiful world, there may not be enough room for this cat to go on living.

The leopards live in a very cold part of the world, and probably enjoy the cold weather we were having this day more than the sweltering Greenville summers.

After leaving the Greenville Zoo, I returned on the Swamp Rabbit Trail to the downtown, and snapped a couple of photos of the impressive falls, this one from along the path, showing the pedestrian bridge above....

... and this one from the bridge, which looks down on the falls.
I enjoyed my time and explorations in Greenville, even though it represented a change to my original plans.