Sunday, April 29, 2012

Potpourri to End the Month

It seems like I've had to work very hard this last week to get close to birds.   The early spring has morphed into a late one as we've had a string of mornings that begin with a hard freeze.  I even saw some clumps of snow at higher elevations.

While some birds are already hatching their young (Eagles, Herons, Owls and Geese), the insect and nectar eaters are definitely behind right now. I've had few images to select from.  Perhaps the most encouraging has been the Eastern Bluebirds that have finally begun to nest. This male was seen hunting from a high perch next to a lawn.

Male Eastern Bluebird

Nearby, some interest is finally being shown in the next boxes.

Female Eastern Bluebird

At a nearby pond, I noticed a small bird swooping down to dapple the surface, obviously feeding on hatching insects.  It is an Eastern Phoebe.

Eastern Phoebe

I've found the nest and hope to have more photos soon.  And, yes, they really do say Phoebe quite distinctly.

Went up to Cornell University's Arnot Research Forest today hoping for Louisiana Waterthrush and other warblers or sparrows with no luck. One Phoebe teased me but never came into sight.  Did happen upon a flock of  Eastern Towhees, and enjoyed watching them as they too teased me from within the piles of branches and leaves.  Finally, in an act of mercy, one allowed me a clear view.

Eastern Towhee male

Tomorrow, I am going after wildflowers in a new location.  Unlike birds, they cannot fly away even if they can hid in the branches and leaves. Maybe I'll have something to show for my efforts.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Ever Vigilant for Us

You rightly might wonder at the title for a blog on bird photography. ( I will explain.)  I remember when as a child, it was not worrisome to parents when their child went off alone to spend some time exploring the woods.  But, that was then and now it is different.  There are issues including the low lifes who brew illegal drugs in isolated places such as birders, hikers and photographers visit. They are not above any sort of violence.

This  morning, my chore list suggested to me that it was best to stay close to home for my photo outing.  I picked an abandoned road nearby, that tragically was the site where a New York trooper lost  his life to some drug-addict bank robbers. It has been transformed into a park to honor him, and all those who serve the public safety.  It was, and still is a haven for wildlife.

This  morning, I had found mostly Northern Cardinals, American Robins, and very vocal Song Sparrows. It was going slowly.  I heard many birds but they were not giving me many clear compositions.  Still, it was a great way to begin the day.  This one Northern Cardinal did peer at me through a very narrow opening. 

I had parked my car at an angle in the middle of the road to  face face a nice bit of bird cover and the Song Sparrows were there, but always inside the bushy cover. The road, being dead end now, is a favorite for the casual walker and the occasional fisherman who drives to the end to access the large pond that parallels the road. So, I keep an eye in my rear view mirror to be sure I  can pull over if anyone needs to pass.  I caught sight of a car close behind me and so I  pulled over to the side.  As I did, I saw that the driver, nicely dressed in a business suit, was getting out.  As he approached, he identified himself as New York State Police.  So, they keep watch on this special place, ever vigilant.  Reassuring to me.  We had a nice conversation and I noted that this place held special meaning to a lot of people who will never forget that tragic day in March.

The morning passed quickly with no spectacular results. There were many American Robins along the road, some even right next to the car, but only once did a Robin perch nicely for me.

Yes,  the Robin was that close.  Sometimes I realize that the most commonplace birds are missing in my files, so I am glad to get this image.  And, I am glad that the troopers keep a special watch on this park now.  The future of this park should be as a safe place to remember those who serve.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Smoky Mountain Waterfalls

This April's trip to the Smoky Mountain area was rich in two of my photographic passions - wildflowers and waterfalls.  There was no time to address the third passion, birds, though we were constantly hearing warblers singing in the treetops.  This time, I will present the best of the waterfalls.

Our dear friends near Knoxville took us to the Bald River near Tellico Plains. In my research on the area, I had not been alerted to this location, and I wonder why.

Bald River Falls, Tellico Plains, Tennessee

Most interesting in this particular falls is the pool halfway down on the right side. Notice the large boulders resting in the pool. I'll surely return to this waterfalls on any future visit.  And, I'll be sure to again visit the little bakery in Tellico Plains for lunch. It is a must.

Little River Cascade

Arriving at the Smoky Mountain National Park on Tuesday, we drove the Little River Road as a roaring rainfall slowed traffic.  The nearly continuous progression of cascades and small waterfalls  set my first priority for the next day, mapping the best waterfalls.

A key to this area is locating both the nice drops and the safe parking areas.  I noted the key areas as we drove up to Cades Cove with mileages, and checked the weather to learn that the next morning would begin cloudy, perfect for waterfall photography. The next morning I began at a nice cascade about 2.5 miles below the Sinks.

Working upstream towards the Sinks, I found this nicely framed drop in the river. To me, this image is about the plants that frame the waterfall.

Streamside Flowers- Little River

Now, to reveal why the Sinks is perhaps the most popular site on the Little River.  This falls has steeply inclined plates of richly color rocks, and is the largest drop on the river.

The Sinks on Little River

There are many different ways to look at the Sinks.  I also like this view.

Newly Leafed Trees at the Sinks

Our wildflower forays were usually around streams, and so we also discovered some nice hillside cascades coming down steep slopes. This was near the Elkmont campground on the upper reaches of the Little River. It was a rich wildflower area. The cascade was lined at places with Brook Lettuce that resisted my attempts to photograph; preferred not to take a bath because of the slippery rocks.  Next time I will take hip boots so I can move around more freely.

On a second cloudy day, I found the nice cascade seen below. It was along the Little River in a site  that required a little rock scrambling to see.  I only wished the Rhododendron was in bloom for this image to add more "pop" to the scene.

Large Cascade on Little River

On our final day in the park, we went east of Gatlinburg to the Porter Creek area. The Little Pigeon River is  a beautiful trout stream formed at the junction of the Porter Creek and the Ramsey Cascade.  The junction is an intriguing setting that proves to be very difficult to capture, largely due to the large trees along the river bank.  Rather than eliminate the one Y-shaped tree, I decided to use it as the inverted pattern of the two branches of the incoming Ramsey Cascade. The Ramsey Cascade splits around an island in the middle ground as the Porter Creek spills in from the right hand side. Another photographer told me "Someday I will get this right.  Someday."

Beginning of the Little Pigeon River

I cannot close without showing why the Porter Creek area was a favorite that will call me back on a future trip. It was very rich with wildflowers.  I found beds of  Hepatica acutiloba that covered areas the size of a queen size bed.  They were past bloom, so I must go again earlier in the season.  But, we also found this delicate little Pink Lady's-slipper.  Wild orchids and waterfalls are sure to excite me about future visits.


Paul Schmitt

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Smoky Mountain Wildflowers

A first visit to the Smoky Mountains offers the opportunity to find and photograph native wildflowers not common to the northeastern United States. The trip was a success, and I'm sharing images of six native wildflowers that I found most interesting.

When  I scheduled the trip for the first week of April, I feared I could only find the earliest spring ephemerals.  But this has been an extremely mild winter and a very early spring, so the early ephemerals were mostly finished. As an example, instead of blooming Hepatica, I found its seed head and new array of  leaves that are formed only after blooming is complete.  This meant I'd be looking for the later blooming natives, and of course adding some waterfalls given the wet spring they were having.  I'll share the waterfall images in a later blog.

Showy Orchis

So, here is the first of six native plants that I found in bloom.  All are interesting to me, and hopefully to you. The Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis) seen at left  is in some ways similar to the much  larger Showy Lady's-Slipper (Cypripedium reginae). Standing only 5 to 10 inches high, it presents a cluster of blooms. It has two basal leaves and a leaf-like bract at the base of each flower.

 I found it in numerous locations within the Smoky Mountain National Park including the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the Porter Creek Trail, and several trails near Elkmont campground. It was also prolific in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest just southeast of the park.

Crested Dwarf Iris

The second wildflower that I found interesting was the Crested Dwarf Iris (Iris critata).  Standing only 4 inches typically, I was sure to get muddy knees every time that I got down to photograph it.

Each sepal of the bloom has a yellow crest, and the leaves have a rich spring green.  We found this in many moist locations, sometimes in great clusters. This proved a difficulty in that I wanted a single plant isolated so its form was immediately recognized.

It is a very lovely plant that seems to fade rapidly. Probably the largest numbers were on the Porter Creek Trail in the park.

Foremost on my list of plants were two trillium that are unique to the area, Catesby's and Vasey's Trillium. Each is a nodding type where the bloom hangs down below the leaves. Neither is widespread.

Catesby's Trillium


I was successful in finding a very few Catesby's Trilliums (Trillium catesbaei) at a location near Cades Cove. This example has white petals, but I also found one with a light pink as the field guides suggest.  In any future visits, I will concentrate more on areas around the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest near Robbinsville, North Carolina. In this first visit, I mostly stayed on established trails so that I could cover more ground and learn the best areas.  I did see a few possible examples of the Vasey's Trillium, but I was uncertain of the identification and will not include those images.

Now to the fourth and arguably the most interesting flower, a relative of the Wild Ginger common from the northeast to the Smoky Mountains.

Little Brown Jugs

Little Brown Jugs (Hexastylis arifolia) is a Birthwort which stands about 4 to 6 inches tall. The waxy arrowhead shaped leaves are distinctive for identification. That is fortunate in that the reddish -- mauve?-- flowers on  nearly every plant I found  were hidden within the leaf litter. The only exceptions were with  a few on steep  hillsides. The flowers are reported to be pollinated by fungus gnats. Noting the small opening in the flower, it certainly must be a small creature.

A local book reported that the stems were used to make a tea used to treat whooping cough.What else did they have in that early era?

Now to a flowering plant that may not be unusual, but is charming.  We had talked with one of the visitor center ladies in Cades Cove, who volunteered that concerning wildflowers, "Joe knows". So we found Joe and he suggested some great places including a rock cut on the Laurel Creek Road coming out of Cades Cove. We found it.  It happened to be one of the few with a flat area to safely park in.

Wild Bleeding Hearts

 The nearly vertical rock face was dripping with water and a huge number of plants grew on the rock faces and small ledges. Stonecrop, trillium, violets and beautiful Wild Bleeding Hearts, (Dicentra eximia).  This plant was growing out of  a moss covered vertical wall which I have to assume remains damp all summer.

Squaw Root

Finally, a most unexpected plant was Squaw Root (Conopholis americana). The average height was about 6 inches. It is a parasitic plant that derives nutrition from  oak tree roots since it has no chlorophyll itself.  To me,  it looks like small ear of corn. Each protrusion from the stalk is a flower.  I often found large clusters of Squaw Root, as many as ten in a single group.

My main challenge in photographing this unusual plant was to find a fresh example as it appears to quickly turn brown.  Black bears are know to feed upon them although we saw no evidence of that.

Now, final comments on visiting the Smoky Mountain area. First, consider if your visit coincides with school breaks in spring; ours did and it made for more traffic.  Next, consider some alternatives in lodging location. The most popular town for lodging is Gatlinburg which is a huckster's dream and at times approaches gridlock. If a quieter  visit the north side of the national park, I suggest looking at Townsend.  It is closer to some prime areas such as Cades Cove and trails such as Chestnut Top, Lead Cove, and  Elkmont. Cades Cove can be excellent in early morning for wildlife too. Finally, recalling that I was very impressed with the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, I also recommend looking for lodging in the southwest corner between Robbinsville and Tapoco where you are more likely to find only B&Bs. Keep in mind that US129 west of Tapoco is a twisting road that attracts large numbers of motorcycles.  Lodging near Tapoco might be a tad noisy at times. We often noted  the profuse number of Rhododendrons and wished we could also visit when they are in bloom.  Some of the waterfalls and cascading streams would be spectacular when they bloom.  I guess you can't have it all in one visit.

Paul Schmitt