Nov 112014
 

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I took a late-day Indian Summer walk through the forest of Dauset Trails Nature Center, in Jackson, Georgia.  The light in the trees was enchanting as the sun dropped lower in the sky.  The forest is so lovely there; trails lead through open woods of pines and hardwoods.

 

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Jul 292014
 

Eleven days ago, I paid a late-day visit to the Atlanta Botanical Gardens.  A stunning array of lilies and water lilies was in bloom, and dragonflies were everywhere.  There were some butterflies, too, to round out my adventures.  The first photograph is of a Pineapple Lily.  I did not get the opportunity to identify any of the other flowers.  The dragonflies are male Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis), while the butterfly is a Fiery Skipper (Hylephila phyleus).  The last photo is of a female Blue Dasher perched on a tomato cage on my back porch.  I figured that she belongs with the males, although in this case, they are actually separated by a couple dozen miles.

 

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Jul 062014
 

Here are the same three images from the previous post, all taken at Newman Wetlands Center on 4 July 2014, now in color instead of black and white.  I am not sure which I prefer.  Readers, what are your thoughts?

In taking these photographs, I have begun to appreciate that the woodlands of the Southeastern Piedmont offer inviting landscapes, as well — they are not limited to the Appalachians, seacoasts, and points West.  Of course, this is something that Clyde Butcher has been showing us, through his spectacular photography in the Florida swamps, for many years now.

 

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Jul 062014
 

There is far more to Newman Wetlands Center (near Jonesboro, Georgia) than just the wetlands, stunning and teeming with life though they may be.  On a sunny afternoon in early summer, a visitor might be surprised to discover enticing forest vistas illumined by sunlight.  Much though I enjoy these photos with their rich greens, I find just as much allure in the simplicity of black and white.  I will include the same images, in color, in a separate post.

 

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Jul 062014
 

One of my first sights, upon entering a patch of woods adjacent to the wetlands at Newman Wetlands Center, was of an adult five-lined skink (Plestiodon fasciatus), a common species of lizard that is quite abundant on our back patio this time of year.

 

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Along the first stretch of boardwalk, I encountered this red ant resting on the railing.

 

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Continuing down the same stretch of boardwalk, I found a popular trailside perching area for Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis), a dragonfly species common in the Eastern United States.

 

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I try to be an equal-opportunity photographer, including a mix of good, bad, and ugly.  When it comes to flies, though, I often hesitate.  I am proud to say that I photographed this fly and added it to this blog, all the time thinking it was a vicious deer fly.  Now I have to revise my opinion of this creature.  According to folks at BugGuide on Facebook, it is actually a member of the family Bombyliidae, or bee flies. It is quite possibly Xenox tigrinus, or another member of that genus.

 

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Further along, my next discovery was of another Blue Dasher willing to be photographed (the dragonflies were everywhere, but most darted too quickly from spot to spot, and/or had perches that were out of my camera’s macro range).  This is my favorite dragonfly portrait of this particular outing.  But I will be back again soon.

 

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Stepping onto terra firma once again, we immediately saw this female Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina) in the path ahead.  Valerie estimates her age at 75 to 100 years, and suspects that she may have been in search of a suitable location for laying eggs.

 

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A short side spur led up the ridge, gaining about twenty feet in elevation and offering a view out over the wetland.  In a tree hollow near the top, I glimpsed this insect, which was reluctant to be photographed.  It is probably a Brown Lacewing (family Hermerobiidae).

 

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After so many photographs of insects (particularly dozens of dragonfly shots, nearly all Blue Dashers), I paused to take a couple of wetland plant photographs.  The first one, I admit, I took because of all the Least Skippers feeding on it.  The white globe of tiny flowers turns out to belong to the Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).  Now that I have a name for the flower, and appreciate how unusual it is, I ought to go back and photograph it properly!

 

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At last, a photograph simply in appreciation of the late afternoon sunlight shining through the underside of a leaf — in this instance, Common Arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia).

 

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On one such Arrowleaf, an Ebony Jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) was perched.  Although these damselflies are often quite timid, this one allowed me to get quite close with my macro lens.

 

 

 

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On a couple of occasions, the damselfly opened its wings for just a moment.  I caught this once, but my 1/30-second exposure was too slow to avoid some blur to the wings.

 

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Nearing trails’ end, I paused to enjoy the reflection of wetland plants and dead branches in a pool.

 

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Just before the final section of boardwalk on the main loop trail, I saw an Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis)doing a bit of late-day feeding.

 

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My ramble through Newman Wetlands took over two hours.  In addition to the main loop, I also walked a few of the upland trails.  There, wildlife was less abundant (or, at least, much less readily apparent).  However, the sunlight through the trees afforded several stunning forest landscape photographs.  These will be included in a Part Three post later today.

Jul 062014
 

On the late afternoon of July 4th, Valerie and I journeyed to the Newman Wetlands Center in Hampton, Georgia, southeast of Atlanta and not far from Jonesboro.  Clayton County Water Authority constructed a wetlands there, including a series of connected pools, as a means of managing treated waste water.  The result is truly magnificent.  It is among the most beautiful, species-rich, and healthy islands of wildlife that I have encountered in the Georgia Piedmont.  The site includes about a mile and a quarter of trails, mostly boardwalk through the wetlands, with a couple of enticing loops onto adjacent ridges.  There is so much to see there this time of year, from dragonflies and sunfish to turtles of all kinds, that anyone planning to take photographs should allow at least two hours to explore it all.  There is also an extensive visitor center with an adjacent pollinator garden.  This post features some of the insects seen in the garden; a separate post later today will cover the wetland wildlife.

Quite a few flowers were in bloom there last Friday, including several butterfly bushes (not a native species, but very popular with pollinators nonetheless).  Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) was also still flowering; though I did not see any insects land on them, the blooms were lovely enough to merit a photograph in their own right.

 

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Bees were everywhere, and they were too busy gathering nectar to pay any attention to a photographer in their midst.

 

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Small butterflies (Microlepidoptera) were in abundance, too.  One was the tiny orange Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor), with a wingspan of less than one inch.  The Least Skipper may be found throughout the Eastern United States.

 

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Another, slightly larger butterfly that was frequenting the pollinator garden was the chocolate brown Ocola Skipper (Panoquina ocola).  A primarily tropical species common in the Deep South and found occasionally as far north as Pennsylvania, the Ocola Skipper has a one-and-a-half-inch wingspan.

 

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After half an hour entranced by the pollinators, I set off down the boardwalk trail and into the wetlands and adjacent woods.

Jun 032014
 

Yesterday afternoon, I visited the Shoals Spider Lilies (Hymenocallis coronaria, also known as Cahaba Lilies) along Flat Shoals Creek, in Harris County, Georgia.  The property containing the stretch of Flat Shoals Creek where the lilies bloom has been in the same family since the 1830s, and the present owner, A. Stephen Johnson, has placed a Conservation Easement on the land, as well as willing it to the Nature Conservancy.  The kind-hearted Mr. Johnson has not only made his land open to the public during the lily bloom period (late May into early June), but has gone so far as to place numerous trail signs and blazes along the path, as well as chairs for visitors to rest along their quarter-mile journey.  He has even posted directions to his site here.  There is limited parking, and it is a quarter-mile stroll down a pine-needle-covered driveway to reach the trailhead by Mr. Johnson’s cabin.

A bit of context is in order.  A few days ago, I pulled a muscle in my leg; two days ago, I was so incapacitated that I had to get around the house wheeling myself in an office chair.  It was only possible to visit Piney Woods Church Road by car, after an ordeal getting between the house and the garage.  Yesterday, earlier in the afternoon, I hobbled down part of Piney Woods Church Road under my own steam,  but only dared to venture part-way.  Still, I hesitated to abandon the trip.  I felt compelled to visit the Shoals Spider Lilies, whose bloom I consider to be one of the great natural wonders of the Southeast.

There are many species of spider lilies in the Southeast, but the Shoals Spider Lilies are among the most rare of them all.  Thanks largely to dams and impoundments, the lilies (which grow only on islands among rocky shoals at the Fall Line in Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas) are restricted to about 50 populations.  Among the most robust of Georgia’s holdings is this one, outside West Point, Georgia.

After an easy drive down I-85 and less than four miles of two-lane highway, we arrived at Mr. Johnson’s site.  We parked our car at the driveway gate and set out down the trail.  Thanks to a walking stick, I managed to press on down the driveway lined by mixed hardwoods and pines, along with a couple clusters of blooming wintergreen, which I admired but did not photograph.  I was eager to see if the lilies were, in fact, still in bloom .  We arrived at Mr. Johnson’s cabin; sadly, he has had to put iron bars over the doors and windows and install an alarm system, a high price to pay for inviting the public onto his land.  A sign pointed to the beginning of the trail; below the sign, a pile of hiking sticks awaited reuse.  A short jaunt through a forest that felt closer to an Appalachian woodland than a Piedmont one led us to a series of overlooks of the Shoals Spider Lilies, each one equipped with several lawn chairs.  A sea of white greeted us as we looked out across the creek.  We continued on, arriving at last at a convenient spot for accessing the water.  Here, not only were chairs provided, but also a number of pairs of old sneakers for wading in the water.  I did not have the courage to risk jeopardizing my injured leg by setting off into the stream channel; fortunately, a couple of flat rocks by the water’s edge led me to several blooming lilies.  I was entranced, taking photograph after photograph of them.  Like tulip poplars leafing out, the lilies have such complexity, such grace, that it is impossible to take a single picture and check them off a life list (if such a thing exists for wildflowers).

Here are a few images from my time among the lilies.

 

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Among the lilies, I also saw quite a few half-inch blooms of a lovely magenta, blue, and white orchid-like flower, which I was able to identify as American Water Willow (Justicia americana), a native perennial herb commonly found in dense colonies in shallow streams and rivers throughout the eastern United States.  Although not as showy as the Shoals Spider Lily, the American Water Willow provides great cover for aquatic life, including frogs and fish.

 

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Emboldened by having somehow managed to walk as far as the lilies, I noticed that the trail continued upstream, toward “Cades Cave”.  The further I went down the trail, the more I felt committed to seeing whatever was at the end.  This trail was less heavily traveled, though, and much steeper in places.  I pressed on, perhaps another quarter mile, to what was more like a cove than a cave; a massive rock had fallen from the steep bank of the stream, forming an alcove without a roof beside the creek.  While it was a bit anticlimactic, nearby were showy white blossoms of Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) and brilliant red blooms of Fire Pink (Silene virginica).

 

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May 202014
 

This afternoon, my wife and I went for a four and a half mile hike in the Eastern Palisades section of Chattahoochee National Recreation Area, just inside the Perimeter on the northwest side of Atlanta.  During our outing, I got the chance to get “up close and personal” with a variety of critters living there.  I am still reaping the result — two ticks found so far, and counting.  These photos renew my appreciation for the rich diversity of life on Earth, and particularly here in the Atlanta region — even just a short distance from I-285!

The first creature I encountered was a gorgone checkerspot butterfly (Chlosyne gorgone), considered by the Butterflies of Georgia Field Guide to be a “local and uncommon resident”, though abundant in the Midwest.  It frequents open woodlands and stream corridors; I found this one on a trail along the Chattahoochee River.

 

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A bit further down the trail, I noticed a southern golden tortoise beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata sexpunctata).  This is one of three species of tortoise beetles found in the United States.  I am proud to say that I did not disturb him (or her) while taking this photograph, because the beetle’s dome remains a bronze color.  When disturbed, the beetle will display black spots against the bronze.  Tortoise beetles feed on a variety of host plants, including sweet potato.

 

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Nearby, I noticed a large black ant on a leaf, and it noticed me, too.  It opened its jaws wide, holding its ground against my camera lens pointed in its direction.

 

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The riverside trail eventually climbed steeply upward toward a ridge perhaps 100 feet above the water’s edge.  There, I encountered rhododendrons in bloom.  For a change of pace, I photographed the blossoms; only later did I realize that the blooms contained tiny eight-legged pollen mites.

 

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We took a spur trail downhill toward the Chattahoochee River again.  On our way down off the ridge, I noticed this juvenile common snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), its shell perhaps an inch and a half across, standing on the trail.  He (or she) was a bit annoyed at my ministrations with the camera, as you can see by his (or her) expressions in these photographs.

 

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Finally, toward the end of our walk, shortly before we headed down off the final ridge to the river’s floodplain again, I stumbled upon a patent leather beetle (Odontotaenius disjunctus) on the path.  After seeing a close-up of this beetle’s mouthparts, I am comforted by the fact that it feeds on rotting wood.  This beetle was perhaps one and a half inches long — nearly the same size as the young snapping turtle!

 

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Apr 042014
 

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I hiked a few of the trails in the Sope Creek Unit of Chattahoochee National Wildlife Refuge in Marietta.  In addition to encountering numerous wildflowers (both native and otherwise) and bursting buds on many shrubs and trees, we also visited the ruins of the Marietta Paper Company’s milling operation.  Constructed in 1859, the mill produced paper for Confederate currency during the early days of the Civil War.  It was burned by federal troops in 1864, but reconstructed after the war ended.  Finally, it was abandoned in 1902.  The mill machinery is long gone to rust and vandals, but the stone walls are quite impressive, with enormous window spaces providing views of Sope Creek or deeper into the ruins themselves.

Here are a few images from my day.  First, a few images on the path to the mill ruins:  a flowering dogwood; purple violets blooming along Sope Creek; an eastern redbud in flower among the ruins; and maple keys developing on branches overhanging the water.

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Maple Seeds

Next, a few view of the paper mill ruins along the banks of Sope Creek.

Mill Ruins One

Mill Ruins Two

Mill Ruins Three

Mill Ruins Four

Finally, a few more signs of spring, from later in our walk. Yellow violets were blooming in a charming little ravine, where the water splashed over rocks and fiddleheads of ferns unfurled in the shade.

Yellow Violet

Waterfall

Fern Fiddlehead

Fern Shadow

Toward the end of the walk, we passed a pond where a pair of Canada geese were swimming.  On the earthen dam, European immigrants were in bloom:  crimson clover (Trifolium incarnatum; also called carnation clover) and star-of-bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum).  The latter had flower heads so perfect that they looked artificial.  Other names for this beautiful perennial include nap-at-noon, snowdrops, starflower, and dove’s dung.  All parts of the star-of-bethlehem plant contain cardiac glycosides, making them toxic to livestock.  Unfortunately, the star-of-bethlehem is also considered to be invasive in ten US states.  Crimson clover, on the other hand, is an annual  commonly planted as a cover crop for hay, affording excellent forage for cows and sheep.

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Feb 232014
 

A view of the granite outcrop landscape, Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia..

As a resident of Chattahoochee Hills now for nearly five years, the author has grown to appreciate more and more all of the open space that has been preserved as parkland in our community. While he still takes long day trips in search of new trails to hike or wildflowers to photograph, he also enjoys the pleasure of being able to drive only a few minutes from home and set out onto the trail. One such place he has come to treasure is Hutcheson Ferry Park, a 103-acre park on Hutcheson Ferry Rd near the intersection with Hearn Rd. in Chattahoochee Hills. The park will officially open to the public in a ceremony on Saturday, June 18th, 2011.

At a glance, the park seems unimpressive, more of a venue for a concert or fair than a stunning natural area. Much of the main entrance area of the park is mowed, with isolated trees scattered in the lawn. But go off the beaten path a bit — over a berm or beyond a fence, and wonders await.

The park includes a rock outcrop habitat with mosses, lichens, and aged eastern red cedars. It also has an extensive swathe of former pastureland that has an open, almost prairie-like feel to it. While Cochran Mill Park, a larger park with woods and streams a few miles away, has a few outcrop areas of its own, they do not quite achieve the species variety and beauty of the one at Hutcheson Ferry Park. And the hillside meadows of Hutcheson Ferry Park are not like any other spot this author has seen in other parks in the region.

The first treasure lies just over the hill, literally. From the open entrance area, set off across the grass (avoiding the fire ant nests) headed east, go up a short slope, and find a path through the tangled growth to a space where the land opens out, and the ground is nearly bare rock, with a layer of lichens and mosses. If you are particularly fortunate, you will arrive after a rain, when the rock moss that is usually dry and purplish-black has turned emerald green, and the resurrection fern growing on the side of an old red cedar is brilliant green and thriving rather than appearing brown and dead.

For most of the year, tough, the rock outcrop environment is a harsh place. During the summer, daytime air temperatures just above the granite surface can climb to 120 degrees or more, and the only water is a memory of a thunderstorm many weeks previous. Without soil, the thirsty lichens and mosses take what water they can after a rain, make food and grow for a short time, then go dormant again, waiting for another storm.

Life has specialized to survive under such conditions. Take lichens, for example. They are an odd partnership of a fungus and an alga. Algae usually live in water, but the fungi provide them with “space suits” so that they can dry out and still survive. Fungi, on the other hand, usually have to live on rotting vegetation in order to make their food. But as part of the lichen partnership, they have “taken up farming” by recruiting algae to make food for them. Fungi are one of the few life forms able to occupy bare granite. Another plant well-adapted to almost no soil or water is the prickly pear cactus, which can be found scattered about the outcrop.

Although the plants may be tough in the face of climatic extremes, the granite rock outcrops here in Georgia are actually very fragile places. Too many feet tramping across the outcrop can kill lichens and mosses, leaving scars that won’t fully heal for decades. Historically, granite outcrops were treated like waste places; often rubbish would be dumped or even burned on them. Fortunately, the outcrop at Hutcheson Ferry has been left alone for the most part, although one area was quarried many years ago. After the park opens, will we all be able to visit and appreciate this marvelous spot without harming it?

To get to the meadows at the park, your path leads back down the hillside and south along the mowed roadway. Soon, you arrive at a newly constructed fence, evidently planned to keep visitors far away from Palmetto Reservoir until reservoir access arrangements can be made with the City of Palmetto. Until then, the open landscapes will be off limits. Or they will be, that is, once a gate is constructed and a sign put up. Meanwhile….

Beyond the fence, the path leads briefly upward onto a hilltop, and then down the other side, eventually arriving at a stand of pines and sweet gums and, beyond that, the reservoir. The lake water is lovely, but I find greater appreciation in the open space between. On sunny days, you are liable to find dragonflies, damselflies, and grasshoppers on your walk. The various grasses mostly grow in only a thin mantle of soil. In one spot, the rock beneath is exposed at the surface over an area of several feet. This may be why the forest has been taking so long to reclaim areas that are no longer mowed, or mowed only very infrequently. So far, persimmons have been almost the only tree species to occupy former pasture ground. There is also a stand of mature red oaks beside the path, about halfway between the fence and the reservoir. Beneath the oaks is a ground cover of periwinkle, a non-native plant with dark-green, oval leaves and purple flowers that would have been planted there by someone. Although this writer has not been able to find evidence of a building foundation, he is convinced that the oak grove was once the site of someone’s house. It would have been a lovely place to call home.

This article was originally published on June 3, 2011.  Since that time, the path beyond the fence has no longer been maintained.