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Winter sparkle

Snowflake on sadie mkj

A perfect snowflake graces a good dog’s coat

Hours of sleet from Tuesday’s winter storm gave way to an afternoon of dark clouds mixed with sunshine and snow showers. Big flakes floated from the sky. And a few bejeweled my Border Collie’s fur.

Winter interlude

Today’s snow and graupel in this crazy, mixed-up winter followed yesterday’s sunshine and 70 degrees when little bits of blue played across the meadow in the warm March wind. The season’s first brood of Spring Azure (Celastrina ladon) butterflies are beginning to emerge.

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Spring Azure butterfly

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A closer look

Spring Azures overwinter in chrysalis form in meadows, old fields and woodlands. A common and widespread butterfly in North America, Spring Azures are almost indistinguishable from several other Azure species. They are one of the earliest butterflies to emerge each year.

Maybe too early this year. I don’t know their fate in the week of sub-freezing weather ahead. Perhaps they’ve already started laying eggs for the next brood.

 

Osprey super-highway

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Osprey on the look-out for its returning mate atop their most unusual nesting site

Ospreys that breed along the east coast of the United States are returning now from their wintering sites in remote areas of South America. Ospreys breed for life but migrate and spend their winters separately. Remarkably, pairs return to previous nesting sites to reunite, rebuild their nests and breed in the spring.

For years, ospreys have successfully nested on a road sign over a busy main route across Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Ospreys have adapted well to man-made structures — channel markers, docks, purpose-built osprey platforms — located on the water or shoreline. What makes this spot different is that it is located over the highway.

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Spot the osprey nest on the left stanchion over the median. The osprey is above the T in Exit.

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I’ll be waiting above the T in Exit!

I suspect this osprey is waiting for its mate to return. Because active nesting had not started, I determined it safe to pull to a side road and snap a couple photos — still at a distance and from behind a structure. Breeding birds are to be respected always.

Creeks and tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay are nearby to provide fish for adults and young. And the nests have been successful over the years. Observant travelers can see parents feeding their young, and growing nestlings peering out of the nest and eventually venturing from the nest.

The location has been so successful that other breeding pairs have built several more nests along the same stretch in the past few years.

How many hundreds of thousands, millions of people have passed under these nests and enjoyed the activity — or missed it entirely?

For a closer look at an osprey nest, view and support a Chesapeake Bay osprey nest cam maintained by the Chesapeake Conservancy and follow the informative and entertaining companion blog by the tireless Crazy Osprey Family.

A little winter color

From the first to bloom to the last to bloom, a little bit of winter color on a winter’s walk.

The first wildflower of the season to bloom in Maryland’s Piedmont — Skunk Cabbage — is emerging now along streambeds.

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Skunk cabbage bloom

Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), a relative of the better known Jack-in-the-Pulpit plant, has the capacity to warm and thaw the earth around it, allowing it to emerge months before other wildflowers. The flower will die back, and big, skunk-scented leaves will unfurl to become an unmistakable mainstay of a thousand classroom trail walks.

But Skunk Cabbage is still subtle in early February. Here are other views of its reds and greens.

 

I had hoped and expected to find Skunk Cabbage in February. What was a surprise was discovering yellow still clinging to an American Witch-Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that bloomed in the fall.

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American Witch-Hazel post-bloom (February 2017)

This is how the same native Witch-Hazel tree looked last autumn.

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American Witch-Hazel blooms in late autumn (October 2016)

While we wait for the blossoms and colors of spring, there’s beauty to discover in winter.

 

Snow bunting visitors

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Snow Bunting making a rare visit to the Chesapeake Bay

In late November, four Snow Buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) were spotted in a park along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Snow Buntings are considered scarce this far south, and worth braving a cold wind to see.

Snow Buntings breed among rocks and crevices in Arctic Canada and Greenland. They migrate south to winter in Canada’s southern provinces and across the northern US. Every so often, a few venture farther south.

Even in their winter plumage, they are a very pretty little bird.

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Our visiting Snow Buntings chose an old earthen pier habitat that provides large rocks for concealment from predators and protection from the elements as well as grasses that supply seed for foraging. They are well camouflaged amid the rocks and grasses.

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Good camouflage for Snow Buntings

Despite their name, Snow Buntings are more closely related to Longspurs than to familiar buntings.

Time will tell whether the four visitors will stay the winter or move to another shoreline or field.

 

Chilly beach scenes

The full Hunter’s Moon rose over a chilly, windy beach a couple weeks ago. Even though I didn’t see the Monarch migration I’d hoped to see, there is always something interesting along the Maryland seashore.

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American Oystercatcher — The dark beak tip reveals that this is an immature bird. From the coloration of its legs, eyes and plumage, I’d guess it is 12 – 24 months.

 

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Ghost crab, one of many scurrying in the sunshine on Assateague Island

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Ghost crab camouflage

The full moon and wind made for extreme tides.

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Patterns cut in the sand by the changing tide

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The moon creates tides. October 2016 Full Hunter’s Moon

 

 

A season of butterflies

With the cold weather arriving to the Maryland Piedmont, here is a look back at the butterflies that visited my native plant garden this year.

While no match for country meadows or coastal flyways, this succession of native plant blooms (listed below) support butterflies, bees and other beneficial pollinators from spring to fall, creating habitat even on the edge of a city.

In my garden (photos not to scale):

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Eastern Black Swallowtail male emerged in May, having over-wintered as a chrysalis. Released here on Golden Alexander, one of its host plants, although they seem to prefer to lay eggs on fennel.

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Eastern Black Swallowtail female ready for take-off

Gray hairstreak milkweed crop

Gray Hairstreak on swamp milkweed

 

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Red-banded Hairstreak on mountain mint

 

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White M Hairstreak. See the “M” touching the red spot.

 

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Eastern-tailed Blue on white clover. At less than an inch in size, the Eastern-Tailed Blue and Summer Azure in the next photo are the smallest butterflies in my garden.

 

Summer Azure better crop

Summer Azure on Mountain Mint

 

Eastern tiger swallowtail coneflower

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are common visitors to purple coneflowers

 

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Eastern Comma, named for the white comma mark on the underside of its wing

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Variegated Fritillaries were abundant this year

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Common Buckeye on mountain mint. A small, fast, beautiful, migrating butterfly, it’s my favorite.

 

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Pearl Crescent on white aster

 

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Fiery Skipper, one of many skippers to visit the garden

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Clouded Sulphur

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American Lady on aromatic aster

 

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Monarch, one of 16 that paused to nectar on aromatic aster on a late October afternoon on their journey to Mexico

And seen nearby:

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Red Admiral on neighbor’s zinnia

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Spicebush Swallowtail on Allegheny Monkeyflower in a park meadow

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Silvery Checkerspot on Queen Anne’s Lace in a park meadow

 

Sun-loving flowering native plants in my garden include Golden Alexander, False Indigo, Bee Balm, Blazing Star, Cardinal Flower, Wild Petunia, Mountain Mint, Swamp Milkweed, Butterflyweed, Joe Pye Weed, Purple Coneflower, Prairie Coneflower, Black-eyed Susan, False Sunflower, Ironweed, Goldenrod, and — the best for late-season and migrating butterflies — Aromatic Aster. Common blue violets, clover, white aster and white snakeroot grow wild in abundance. Late this season I added Boneset and Button Bush that will bloom next year.

Butterfly Hairstreaks

 

Gray Hairstreak MM crop

Gray Hairstreak is North America’s most common and widespread Hairstreak butterfly

Hairstreaks are a family of small, fast-moving butterflies, each not much bigger than an inch — easy to overlook and a delightful challenge to photograph. It is said they are called Hairstreaks for the thin “tails” on their hindwings. Most Hairstreak species are specific to selected patches of the country. Several Hairstreaks are found in Maryland and a few visit my garden, particularly attracted to the abundant native Mountain Mint.

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Gray Hairstreak basking with open wings – an uncommon sight

Red banded hairstreak blue spot

Red-banded Hairstreak is more common in the southeast than in Maryland. Like many Hairstreaks, it sports hindwing spots or “eyes.”

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White M Hairstreak, also more common to the south, named for the prominent “M” touching the red spot

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A closer look at a Gray Hairstreak probing sedum for nectar

 

 

 

 

 

Tranquility

Green frog on lily pad mkj

Green frog on lily pad

A little water garden is nestled between the old fields and woods of a local park. On this August day, a Green Frog soaks in the late afternoon sunshine, surrounded by Common Water-Lilies. It’s a peaceful scene.

Common water-lily mkj

Common Water-Lily

Common water-lily in a row

Blossoms in a row

 

 

Queen Anne’s Lace

Queen Annes Lace Silv Chkrspt and red spot crop

Silvery Checkerspot butterfly on Queen Anne’s lace. The tiny red flower in the middle of the blossom is said to represent Queen Anne pricking her finger while making lace.

Queen Anne’s lace is in bloom in every field and roadside. It is so common it is easy to overlook. When viewed from different angles and at different stages, the flower is in its lacy glory.

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Another full-bloom view

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Post-bloom nest

Queen Annes Lace January HoCoCo

Queen Anne’s lace in winter

Since being introduced from Europe, Queen Anne’s lace has spread across the US and most of Canada. It is listed as a noxious weed in a handful of states where it fouls pasture land. Also called wild carrot, like other members of the carrot/parsley family, Daucus carota is a host plant for Black Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars.

Queen Anne’s lace resembles its close relative, the highly poisonous Water Hemlock. Even touching Water Hemlock is dangerous and ingestion fatal. The flower heads of Water Hemlock are looser than the tight umbrella of Queen Anne’s lace, and its stems are smooth with purple or black streaks compared to the hairy green stems of Queen Anne’s lace. But identification can be tricky, so beware!

 

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