Thursday, May 7, 2009

A Flower Maze, a Fuzzy fly, and a "baby butterfly"

It's been an emotional week going back to school and seeing the teachers for the first time since I turned in my letter of resignation. It has helped that they have given me their support and understanding! I've been hoarding boxes from the cafeteria and packing in between teaching the Health and Human Body unit to the students. I still can't believe I'm having to leave the room and position I've loved for 13 years, but I guess all good things must come to an end. I'm grateful for the time I had with the students and staff!

On Sunday I went to Knoxville with my friends, Charlie and Roseanne. We had planned to do some outdoor nature photography, but Mother Nature had other ideas. Her "liquid sunshine" made us go to Plan B. We went to the East Tennessee Historical Society in downtown Knoxville (on Gay St.). Although I've lived in this part of the state for over 30 years (including 4 years in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee), there was a lot I didn't know about the history of the area. I learned about the people behind the names of some of the schools where I have done my science outreach classes, such as Bonny Kate and Horace Maynard Elementary schools. This area has a rich and fascinating history!

It quit raining later in the afternoon, so after we celebrated Roseanne's upcoming retirement (she is the school nurse where I teach), and my "embarkation" on new career possibilities, we headed to a near-by park to see if we could find some interesting wildflowers. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to reveal the location for fear of poaching of the Pink Lady's Slippers (Cypripedium acaule). These wild orchids are fascinating flowers. They are like a "floral maze" because the bees that pollinate them have to enter a hole in the pink, sac-like structure, then they exit at the top through an opening near the round pollinia. Here is a website that better describes the process: Enlarge the photo at the right to see the illustration of the flower structure.
As we were leaving I noticed a pretty little blue flower that was planted in a garden near the visitor center. It turned out to be a wildflower that I had wanted to see for many years! It is called Blue-eyed Mary (Collinsia verna). It is in the Figwort or Snapdragon Family. I've seen this flower in several wildflower books, but never growing.

On Tuesday this week I was out in my yard looking at the plants in my gardens when I spotted this funny fuzzy fly. I enjoyed watching it wash its face with its front feet. If you click on the photo to enlarge it, you'll notice the fuzz between the fascets of the compound eyes.

Ok, now for the "baby butterflies"! Often when my students catch a small butterfly, like a skipper or an Eastern Tailed Blue, they'll run up and show it to me in the jar and exclaim, "Look Mrs. Light, I caught a baby butterfly!" I remind them it is actually just a small adult since "baby" insects don't have wings. The female Monarch butterflies laid their eggs on the leaves of the Common Milkweed in my yard 1-1/2 weeks ago, now they are starting to hatch. We also have Milkweed in the Secret Garden at my school outside my room. I stayed busy finding caterpillars to take to the classrooms (in between teaching and packing!). This has been a tradition at my school for over 23 years since I took a monarch caterpillar to my son's kindergarten teacher. I was very excited to find a tiny caterpillar that had just hatched, it was still eating its eggshell, its first meal! The butterflies often lay their eggs on the underside of the leaf to better protect them from the elements and predators. The caterpillar in the photo on the left is a few hours old (and only about 1/16" long) and had already eaten the eggshell, I had to put it on a different leaf to get a picture of it. After the caterpillar eats the eggshell it begins to eat the tiny hairs on the leaf, next it starts to eat the leaf. An easy way to find caterpillars that are a day or 2 old is to look for small holes (1/4" or less) in the leaves; turn the leaf over and you'll probably see a tiny caterpillar. I'll try to follow the life cycle of a caterpillar and post the photos during the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Job update; Obed hike

Here's an update on my school job situation: Two weeks ago I found out I was going to lose my beautiful 1170 sq. ft. science room so it could become a new 4th grade classroom. The only place that I could be moved to was the old boys' locker room tucked into a corner of the school which measures less than 420 sq. ft. and it has very little storage space. Over the past 13 years I have accumulated a lot of equipment, supplies, books, posters, globes, etc.; in order to do my job well, I need much of that. Since the position is only half-time, I was also being nudged to quit my other part-time job (teaching science outreach programs for the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, which I have done for 22 years and pays twice as much) so I could be at the school every afternoon instead of just on Mon., Tue., and 1/2 day Wed. After much soul-searching I finally made the painful decision to resign. I decided to "quit at the top of my game" rather than be downsized into a much smaller room and see the quality of my program suffer next year. I dearly love working with the students and staff; I am going to miss having the kids bring in their dead bugs, feathers, caterpillars, leaves, flowers, and such. I'll really miss the smiles and hugs from the kids and hearing them ask, "Are we going to get to come to your room today, Mrs. Light?" It has been a wonderful experience working with a generation of children (this year's seniors were kindergarteners when I started teaching at Willow Brook). Here is the link to my website gallery on my science room to show what I will miss:
Although this door is closing, I am going to work on some other opportunities to be able to work with children and share my love of nature and science.

Ok, enough of the depressing stuff! Yesterday I led a wildflower hike at Obed National Scenic River in Wartburg, TN (Morgan Co.). It was pouring rain when we left Oak Ridge, so I decided not to take my Nikon camera (which I greatly regretted later!). Kenny and I were surprised that by the time we made the 45-minute drive up to Obed, it had quit raining! There were 2 ladies from Pikeville, TN who showed up for the hike. They were very interested in everything there was to see, thank goodness, because we saw very few wildflowers. I was happy to find some very unusual lichens. British Soldier Lichens (left) have always been one of my favorites, these were growing on a rock at the Lilly Bluff Overlook. I noticed several other types of lichens including the unusual Ladder Lichen (right) that looked like hundreds of tiny pagodas. My little waterproof Olympus pocket camera just couldn't do these lichens justice, but I didn't want to take the chance of ruining my Nikon out in the rain. Wouldn't you know it would quit raining!
Unfortunately, there have been some car break-ins at the trailhead parking area lately. When we came back from the overlook, the ranger who was accompanying us noticed one car parked heading out and 3 scruffy-looking young people hanging around the parking lot. They resembled the discription of the suspects who had been spotted after the earlier break-ins. So the ranger and my husband stayed behind in the parking lot while I finished the hike with the 2 women. Fortunately, there were no problems and the 3 people left. I'm glad the men stayed behind, I'm sure we would have returned to broken windows! It is such a shame there are low-life people like that in the world!

Although my 2 new friends and I didn't see many wildflowers other than a few violets, Bastard Toadflax (I have no idea why it has that name!), fleabanes, and a Perfoliate Bellwort (left), we saw other things of interest. Last year when I led this hike we saw a lot of Swamp Beacons (right, an aquatic fungus) in the creek on the Boulder Trail. I found a few growing in the creek this time.

I nearly stepped on a cute little Eastern Red-spotted Salamander eft (kind of like a teenaged salamander) in the trail. His bright orange color is a warning to predators that he (or maybe she, I can't tell the difference!) is poisonous if eaten. We saw 2 of these 3" creatures. They are much more active after a rain. Another interesting organism we saw were some large shelf fungi that looked like pancakes! They were growing on the stump of a large hemlock that had died. Unfortunately, the Hemlock Wooly Adelgids have invaded Obed too. I was disappointed, but I wasn't surprised to hear that since nearby Frozen Head State Park has them too. So, I guess this nearly wildflower-less wildflower hike was a success after all! :)