Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Christmas in Florida

Pink Perfection Camillia

We spent Christmas with my parents in Milton, FL. The camillia bushes in their yard were blooming. This one is one of my favorites! We had a wonderful visit with most of my family, including my son Curtis and his girfriend Jeanie, who were in from California and my brother's family from west TN.

The Florida panhandle had received a lot of rain. There were lots of different kinds of fungi that popped up in the yard and along the roadsides. This weird Columned Stinkhorn (Clathrus columnatus) was growing next to a stepping stone in my mother's garden. These fungi have a strong, foul smell that attracts flies to the slimy, greenish-brown spore mass. The flies get the spores on their feet and spread them to other areas assisting the fungi in growing in new areas. We also found lots of mushrooms, earthstars and puffballs.

I was excited to see this Red-headed Woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus) when we went to Grassy Point, a nature preserve on East Bay (see map and zoom in on the lower arrow). My family spent a week on a houseboat at this area for 13 summers when I was growing up. I was delighted to learn that the area had been protected for wildlife. The woodpecker flew from a Live Oak tree with acorns it plucked from the branches, to a dead pine tree where it stored the seeds.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Another adventure we had was when we went to Munson and hiked at the
Blackwater River State Park (click on the little hiker symbol). It was an unusually warm December day and the cold-blooded critters were out. We saw numerous Brown Anoles (Anolis sagrei), an Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus), and an Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus) which was too fast to photograph!

But best of all, we were amazed to see a beautiful little ~18" Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus)! It watched us as closely as we watched it. :) We got a kick out of watching it slowly move its tail back and forth. Since it had only 2 little buttons, it was not able to make the warning buzzing sound typical of larger rattlesnakes.

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake

We thought it was appropriate that we saw Christmas Lichen on some of the oak trees that grew along the boardwalk. I was happy to find the tiny Sundews growing along the trail to show Jeanie. I put a metric ruler next to one to show how tiny these carnivorous plants can be! Notice the little sticky tentacles on the leaves, they attract and trap small insects which the plant will later digest. This plant measured ~1 centimeter (~1/2"), but there were others that were even smaller.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Sandhill Cranes

On Dec. 21, 2008 we took our son Curtis and his girlfriend Jeanie, who were visiting from California, to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge (near Birchwood, TN) to see the Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis). For map to refuge, click:
Today was the first day of winter and it REALLY felt like it! The wind chill made observing and photographing the birds quite a challenge! I was veryanxious to try out my spotting scope with my camera on the cranes so I "toughed it out". I still didn't have my bracket to attach it to my tripod, but a nice man who was also photographing the birds let me borrow his.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Management Agency (TWRA) plants grains at the refuge to attract and keep the birds there over the winter each year. It is an amazing sight to see and hear thousands of these large gray birds in the fields and in the air. We had hoped to see Whooping Cranes and Snow Geese like we did last year. Those birds were not there, but we did see a few ducks and a red-tail hawk that made the cranes a bit nervous.

It is a challenge to photograph the cranes when they fly directly overhead!

I always get such a kick out of watching the cranes come in for a landing, they look so awkward as they seem to fall from the sky!
There didn't seem to be as many cranes this year and they weren't in some of the other areas away from the refuge. I guess the farmers outside the refuge limits got tired of gawking birders parking near their fields! That's too bad, they provided some of the best views! The cranes should be at Hiwassee until the end of January or until TWRA mows the grain fields (their not-so-subtle way of telling the cranes it's time to leave!).
For more information on the Sandhill Cranes check out the Cornell birds website:

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A few Backyard Birds

I'm enjoying my new spotting scope! We have a bird feeder hanging from a branch in the tree outside our living room window. I can sit on the couch and take pictures as the birds eat or wait their turn on a nearby branch. Here are a few photos that I took with the scope today. These birds are a handsome red male Cardinal (left) , a cute little gray Titmouse (right) and a comical, upside-down Nuthatch (bottom). Click on the photos to enlarge them.

The Nuthatch was grabbing bites of suet, which you can see in its mouth. These are such funny little birds, they walk upside-down on the branches.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

(Posted by my friend Diana)
I took this photo of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter from a jet at 32,000 ft when I was flying back to Knoxville from Minnesota on December 1st, 2008. I was pretty amazed I got such a good shot due to trying to block out the light reflection off the planes inside window and the slight bumpiness at that part of the flight.

Full Moon, Venus and Jupiter

Surprise! There are no spiders, snakes or other creepy crawlies in this entry! :)
I got my Christmas present a couple of weeks early and I couldn't wait to try it out! The "gift" was a Nikon ED82 spotting scope and FSA-L1 camera adapter. Unfortunately, a very important component --- the universal mounting bracket for the tripod attachment---was back ordered, so I had to compromise. I put the camera/scope up on a sofa pillow and rested it on the patio railing to get this shot of the full moon at perigee. It is at the closest to the Earth in its orbit now. I can tell that I am really going to enjoy having the spotting scope! Look at the difference between the photo taken with it and my 300mm telephoto lens. The spotting scope shot is not cropped, the telephoto lens shot is fairly heavily cropped. For more information about perigee and apogee, check out:

I can tell that I am really going to enjoy having the spotting scope! Look at the difference between the photo taken with it (left) and my 300mm telephoto lens (right). The spotting scope shot is not cropped, the telephoto lens shot is fairly heavily cropped.

Moon taken with spotting scope

At the end of November we had another interesting "celestial phenomenon", Venus, Jupiter and the waxing crescent moon were very close together (this won't happen again until 2052!). I took my telephoto lens out and tried to get a photo. I have just the 2 planets in this photo, this was taken the next night (due to clouds the previous night) and the moon was a bit farther away. I was excited to get 3 of Jupiter's moons in this shot. Gee, I wish I would have had my spotting scope that night! Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Venus and Jupiter and 3 moons

If you don't normally go out and look at the night sky, please do! The moon, the planets, constellations, satellites and space station, and even the occasional "shooting star" are beautiful to see! :) Even if you don't have a telescope or binoculars, you can still enjoy them. Winter skies offer clear air and some great constellations to view.

Happy Holidays to my readers!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

I was so excited to find another butterfly had emerged in my bug cage. This one is a Gulf Fritillary. I was glad it was a warm day today as I watched it to fly off towards the sun.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Last gasp of fall!

Kenny and I decided to go to Frozen Head State Park on Nov. 16 to see the trees one more time before winter sets in for good. It was a chilly day, the first time we've had to don our longjohns this season! The 1" of rain we received in our area on the previous Friday night didn't do a lot to help the water level in Flat Fork Creek. We had hoped the waterfalls would be running at a good pace, but they weren't.
DeBord Falls - Frozen Head SP

Most of the trees had already shed and left a carpet of multicolored leaves on the trail. I especially liked the red maple and yellow poplar leaves. Some of the poplar leaves had drops of water on them, I got this shot of one on the bridge with the sun shining through the drops. Notice how the drops magnify the leaf below them. This is another "thinking outside the box" photos. I'm trying to branch out a bit from wildflowers, insects and spiders!

As we hiked we enjoyed seeing the beautiful white Sycamore branches shining behind the red maple leaves. These trees were called "Ghost Trees" by the Native Americans due to their ghostly white branches. These trees grew along the creek.

We ate lunch up at Emory Gap Falls. It was pretty "anemic" too!

Emory Gap Falls

As we were leaving the park Kenny saw an animal run across the road in front of our car. We were amazed to see a small, dark brown Bobcat! Unfortunately, I wasn't able to change my lens on the camera fast enough to photograph it. Travis, one of the rangers, stopped his truck and watched it with us as it ambled up the hill into the forest. As we were talking I heard a strange sound of some kind of bird. As we listened more closely, I suddenly realized we were hearing Sandhill Cranes! We looked up and saw a large flock flying in a very strung out "V" formation. Most likely they are on their way to their wintering grounds in Hiwassee. As we left the park we saw a small herd of White-tail does in a field.

Sandhill Cranes in flight

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Autumn Spectacular!

Kenny took a vacation day and I didn't have to teach on Oct. 30, so we headed to Piney River, near Spring City, TN, for a hike. We picked a spectacular day, the weather was perfect and the trees were in their fall glory! We hiked 3 miles back to the 100' bridge. The water was very low due to the ongoing drought that our area has been suffering.

On the other side of the bridge I got some photos with interesting effects of the reflections of the trees on the river. It is good for me to try and think outside the box every now and then.

Well, I couldn't do a hike without getting some photos of critters! Kenny spotted this spider on the rock wall by the river. I was surprised at how patient it was with me to let me get so close to it!

As we were hiking back we passed one of the rockhouses, a rock ledge outcropping, when Kenny made the comment that it would be a perfect place for a snake. Just a minute or two later we heard a rustling in the leaves, then Kenny hollered and jumped back, lost his balance and fell over the side of the trail. I was laughing, checking to make sure he was ok, and trying to get a picture of the cause of the excitement at the same time! He had been startled by a large (about 5' long) Black Racer. Those snakes vibrate the tip of their tail in the dry leaves to make them sound like a rattlesnake. It did a pretty good job of getting his attention!

Before driving home we drove up to the firetower above the Piney Falls trailhead. The views from the top of the tower were incredible!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

New Mexico Vacation

Kenny and I took advantage of my fall break from school and went to southern New Mexico from 9/30 - 10/8. It was a fabulous trip! We went to Alamogordo (which means "fat cottonwood"!) and visited White Sands National Monument. We picked a very good year to visit. Thanks to the recent rains from the hurricanes and thunderstorms that area has had over 10" of rain, a lot for there. I documented over 135 different wildflowers on the trip! Many people we talked to said it was the greenest they had seen the desert in years! White Sands is an incredible place to visit with the spectacular dunes, insects, lizards, spiders and of course numerous wildflowers.

We also hiked at 8200' in the Sacramento Mountains above Alamogordo. It was cooler and had very different plants. We especially enjoyed the beautiful golden Quaking Aspens. While we were up there we also visited the National Solar Observatory in the little community of Sunspot.

The next 5 days found us in Las Cruces visiting my cousin Sam and his family. We hiked 10 miles in 2 days in the rugged Organ Mountains there.

We had some very exciting experiences in the mountains. We saw black grasshoppers with red wings, a hawk, and best of all 6 tarantulas! One of the tarantulas climbed up Kenny's pants leg when he tried to corner it with his boot so I could take a close up photo of it! It got a little too close for comfort! :-0

We had lamented all week that we had not seen a snake. As we were driving down a gravel road after our hike at Dripping Springs in the Organ Mountains on our last day, I yelled, "Snake!" Kenny skidded to a stop, right over the snake that was sunning itself in the middle of the road. Fortunately, he didn't hit it. I was glad I had changed my lens on my camera to the telephoto, because as we approached we saw it was a large Western Diamondback Rattlesnake! He was not happy about having been run over by a car and then gawked at by 3 humans (my cousin's daughter, Shelly, was with us too). He rattled his tail at us and reared up into a strike position! Thanks to my 300mm lens, I was able to get some really good photos at a safe distance. Wow! What a fantastic grande finale that was to our trip! :-)

Monday, September 29, 2008

I was amazed to watch this process from a beautiful Jade green chrysalis to black and orange to a wonderful male Monarch Butterfly.

A Monarch emerges!

My friend, Diana, witnessed a spectacular event this morning when she and her husband watched a Monarch butterfly emerge from his chrysalis. She sent me the video she took and gave me permission to post it on my blog. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Bluebird "bathing beauties" and an unusual larva

There has been a family of Bluebirds visiting our yard each evening lately. It has been so entertaining to watch them bathing in the birdbath! Yesterday there were 3 in the bath at one time. I got tickled at the mother looking a bit annoyed at one of her nearly-grown fledglings waiting its turn as she bathed. She seemed much like a human mom wanting to relax in the tub while a toddler is banging on the door wanting to get in the bathroom! :) I was excited to catch one of the parents splashing away in the bath as the other parent looked on. The water was flying everywhere!
Father Bluebird is quite a handsome guy, especially when the sun shines on his brilliant blue feathers.

The fledglings (middle and right) still have a bit more molting to do before they are as striking as their parents. I'm thrilled to see the bluebirds are doing so well!

During my lunch break at school, I went out into the Secret Garden and found this odd beetle larva hunting aphids on one of the Coreopsis plants. These, along with Ladybug larvae, are good little aphid eaters. The black ants will often protect their "ant cows" (a.k.a. "aphids"), because they drink honeydew produced by the aphids.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Latest sightings

Fall has now officially arrived and the plants, birds and other animals are showing signs of change. The Monarch caterpillars are munching away on milkweed leaves getting larger before turning into a chrysalis. As I watched this one eating in the garden at school, I noticed a small fly checking it out. My guess is that it is a parasitic fly and she wanted to lay her eggs on the caterpillar.

One of my students came up to me during one of our outdoor classes today and said, "Look at this bug I found, Mrs. Light!" It was a brilliant red and gunmetal blue-black bug nymph. I took it back to the room and looked it up on It turned out to be a Florida Predatory Stink Bug nymph. It was extremely active, I had to put it into a petri dish to photograph it.

Over the weekend I taught a teacher workshop at the UT Arboretum for some of the members of the Tennessee Environmental Education Association, the annual convention was held in Oak Ridge. After it was over, I was poking around the office building in hopes of finding something interesting to photograph. I saw what looked like a twig on the side of the building, I was delighted to see it was a male Walking Stick!

The big Black Gum tree outside our living room window is loaded with ripening berries now. I always enjoy watching the birds and squirrels eating them since I have such a close view. The berries attract a wide variety of birds such as robins, bluejays, bluebirds, and (unfortunately) starlings. Here is a bluebird I photographed enjoying the berries.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Bumblebee? Fly? and a Day-Glo Green caterpillar

I saw 2 interesting insects yesterday while I was teaching the homeschool students in my outdoor science outreach program. The first was an excellent example of mimicry. This Bee-like Robber Fly (Laphria spp.) looked so remarkably like a bumblebee I had to examine it very closely to make sure of its identity. The factor that finally clinched my identification were the small yellow halteres, the vestigial wings located behind the wings of all flies. Click on the photo, then note the yellow dot above the middle leg.
The second discovery was made by the students as we were walking down the gravel road. It was a spiky "Day-glo" green caterpillar that was quickly crawling across the road. I immediately recognized it as an Io Moth caterpillar (Automeris io). I told the students not to touch it, because it has venomous spines and it can sting if handled. The bright green color along with the white and red line are warning colors to potential predators.

The Io moth looks nothing like the caterpillar. It is yellow with light brown spots under normal conditions, but if threatened it will suddenly open its bottom wings to reveal the fake "eyespots" to repel predators such as birds.

Io Moth