Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 122

September 29, 2014 ~ Jeffersonville, OH to Miamisburg, OH

In my map box, I had an Ohio Prairie pamphlet. These are the tallgrass prairies here in the Midwest with several areas in southwestern Ohio. I used to think of prairies as mostly a monoculture of waving grasses but:


Tallgrass prairies are an extremely complicated web of life. At first sight, one sees a landscape dominated by grasses. Eighty percent of the foliage is indeed made up of grasses, from 40 to 60 different species. The other 20% of the primary vegetation is made up of over 300 species of forbs or flowers. The prairie also has over 100 species of lichens and liverworts as well as numerous species of woody trees and shrubs along creeks and protected areas. 

Historically, periodic fires and grazing (buffalo) helped maintain these landscapes, but the plow changed that. Wikipedia states that "99% of the original tallgrass prairie is now farmland." Of course the birds and mammals dependent on them disappeared also. Today, remnants are found in old cemeteries, railroad rights-of-way, on high bluffs above rivers. And there are the restoration projects.

Possum Creek MetroPark is one of the places where tallgrass prairies are being restored. I wandered about several habitats in this peaceful park, trying to imagine a tallgrass prairie to the horizon. This time of year, it is a melange of drying flora, including autumn wildflowers, not brushy or woodsy or impenetrable but still dense with plants 6-8 feet in height and home for an insect orchestra. The bugs were much fewer in the woods. Instead, dry and crinkled leaves dropped continuously - a leaf rain - making a crackling sound as they landed. I stood with my eyes closed and that was all I heard, other than an occasional buzz or a very sporadic bird call...a relatively uncommon wood-music.

It was 85 degrees, not humid, sunny, with few other park visitors. Many of these preserved places have educational and/or historical information at the trailheads. I came on two old rusted streetcar frames back in the woods, leftover from the days when a WWI veteran bought the land and created a grand park for the people.


Argonne Forest Park was founded in 1930 by Daytonian Null Hodapp, who returned from WWI and had a successful career as a judge in the area. Null purchased nearly 400 acres of wooded land along Germantown Pike and named the property Argonne Forest Park in honor of the Unit he served in during the war. Development of the park began with the construction of a veteran’s clubhouse. Behind the clubhouse, to the south, was a carnival-like midway. Development of the clubhouse area was followed by other additions. These included a swimming hole and diving platform, baseball diamond, shooting range, dance hall, pony and horse tracks, and a figure-eight auto race track.

Possum Creek MetroPark - OH (near Dayton) 

I am a reluctant historian but keep coming on fascinating vignettes, like this one but go right on by thousands of others. Wherever I travel in this country, here are the back stories...

Indecisive about my immediate next NWR, I found a Starbucks, then very unexceptional Mexican food and finally a Walmart.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 121

September 28, 2014 ~ Marietta, OH to Jeffersonville, OH

I had the idea I would go to Athens, OH, home of Ohio University. I have a vague memory of driving through an Ohio college town years and years ago and thought maybe it was Athens, although now I think it was Bowling Green. Anyway, I was up early, drove to Athens, found a coffee shop in the campus area, parked right in front on an old brick street and settled in. The place was almost empty...for about 15 minutes and then it filled up, first with a girls' soccer team and then with parents and other students. As it turned out, it was Parents Weekend. Definite nostalgia and mild envy... the girls were lovely, the boys handsome, and the parents proud (maybe).

I couldn't resist one of many nearby bookstores and bought two by Philipp Meyer: American Rust and The Son. I have read The Son; it is historical fiction and one of my favorite recently read books. I gave it to Richard who also liked it and passed it on. So this is a recommendation. The setting is Texas.

I decided to work another several hours so made a Priceline reservation for Athens and, too late, discovered it was for Athens, Georgia. Damn! as it was non-refundale, or so their web site said, but I spent an hour dealing with customer service and finally, finally got half of my money back IF I made another reservation ("Due to the extraordinary circumstance....we will refund....."). I then reserved a nice Marriott in Jeffersonville at a very reasonable price, it being Sunday. I cannot be the only person who has made this mistake. A simple warning ("Are you sure you mean Athens, GA?" or any of the hundreds of towns carrying the same names) is definitely within Priceline's capability, but then they wouldn't get their fee for stupidity.

The motel was in my favorite venue...out in the country along a major road but with windows overlooking fields. DHC, it was like Falfurrias, with a nice sunset, which is happening earlier every day. This I do not like...the shorter daylight hours.
On the road to Athens, OH

Blue Goose ~ Day 120

September 27, 2014 ~ Canaan Valley, WV to Marietta, OH

When I asked the proprietress of the motel if there were laundry facilities, she first said no, that they were too small, but then reconsidered and said that if the people in the rooms above their washer and dryer were up by 0830 (I needed to leave by 0945 for the bird walk and the dryer makes a lot of noise), she would knock on my door and I could wash and dry my clothes...which she did and I did and it all worked out perfectly. Another generous gesture on the road. I was glad I stopped and spent the night as I almost went on by.

The bird walk also was good. An extended Asian family with a young boy (probably grandparents, parents and this kid) were present, along with two other women and the volunteer guide, Steve. We drove to a small boardwalk trail and took our time moving on a loop through rather open fields and by an area of tiny springs with open water all year. Watching closely, I could see the mud consistently bubble. It was such a perfect morning...with warm sunshine and blue skies...again. We saw a few birds...not many, moving slowly and stopping frequently. We had a good look at a Swamp Sparrow and Solitary Sandpiper probing in the mud, saw a flicker, goldfinches, a Cedar  Waxwing, a meadowlark....but mostly I felt blessed to be in this place, on this incredible fall morning, chatting quietly with the others, and feeling I was more than holding my own as a birder.  Note the resourceful book-reading, never-bored kid.....
I get it! Canaan Valley NWR bird walk - WV

I went back to the trail from yesterday for an hour, walking down to the Blackwater River, through sunny hardwoods where warblers and chickadees and phoebes were rummaging. I spent at least an hour, half the time just standing, looking and listening, which is getting easier to do all the time. I usually see at least one Nashville Warbler as I did today, along with a female Black-throated Blue and always a mystery bird or two, usually too flitty to see well.
Canaan Valley NWR - WV

All afternoon, I drove US 50 west up and down mountains with warnings for the 9% down-grades posted for trucks. It was a beautiful and scenic drive, with 500 curves. The side roads are often named "Runs" and go up into the hills  along the creeks.

The only other NWR in West Virginia is Middle Island, part of the Ohio River Island complex. Access to Middle Island is from the river town of St. Mary's, over an old steel bridge with a 90-degree turn at the top onto a steep road down to the island. I only drove the auto route here. There were trails through the trees and brush, although some were closed to the public to allow bow hunting. The island is one of 22 protected islands along 362 miles of the Ohio River in this complex. It had that lonely feel, although I did see a few other people. A Huck Finn hideout sort of place.

The first Walmart had a huge parking lot but with not one tree so I moved on to Marietta, OH. There is usually at least one large RV nowadays (one from Utah a few days back) and I park sort of close, feeling an unacknowledged road-trip affinity. It is hard to tell who else is "car-camping/sleeping" as there are always other possibles nearby.

I bought two more packages of the delicious new favorite Almondina cookies and some deli potato salad, read more of The Boys in the Boat and slept fitfully. It is getting colder at night. I have more blankets so will get them out soon.
Middle Island (Ohio River Islands) NWR from the WV side

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 119

September 26, 2014 ~ Frederick, MD to Canaan Valley, WV

Finally, finally I got out of traffic. I felt that since early August (for nearly 2 months) wherever I went, so did everyone else. Yes, there were a few exceptions, like in parts of New England, but too few.

I drove in thick fog to a nearby Starbucks, left in bright warm sunshine and spent several hours riding into increasing fall loveliness as I went into West Virginia and specifically to Canaan Valley NWR at an elevation of 3200 feet. Of course, as WV is mountainous, the road constantly meandered up and down and around but the leaves were stunning. Every single fall I am awestruck by this spectacle, and today was a surprise since it was unexpected. It was warm but not hot, with no insects except a few grasshoppers.
West Virginia

I passed through Davis, WV, as they were setting up for an annual Leaf Peepers Festival, a typical small town celebration with inflatables, tents, yard sales, a police presence for crowd control, music - all colorful and very different from an urban event. Kids, a horse carriage, people in lawn chairs or moving slowly up and down the 2-3 blocks of the main street, ice cream, hot dogs, the enticing aroma of barbecues grills and smokers, pickup trucks, families pushing strollers....

It took some to actually FIND Canaan NWR. At one trailhead, I met a gentleman who was also looking for it, a professor scouting out venues for birding trips next spring. He taught Recreation  and Ecotourism at West Virginia State University, and we began talking. He had visited many refuges and could speak my language...St. Marks, Necedah, Santa Ana, Bosque del Apache, Bombay.... Between us, we figured the headquarters was only a bit farther down the main road, so off we went, and he talked with a helpful volunteer about contacts and got more information, and I wandered about hoping I could resist buying another book...or anything...successfully.

He told me (the refuge-visiting guy) that he would never forget the time he was visiting St. Marks NWR in Florida. There is a lighthouse here and he arrived the morning after a foggy night in which hundreds of birds got disoriented, were attracted to the light, crashed into the lighthouse and died. He saw bird bodies (all types...big and small) lying on the ground that day. For further information about this hazard, google Lights Out. Many large cities are now at least aware of this problem and are educating the public and industry to take measures to mitigate lethal lighting. Hundreds of thousands birds are killed this way every year.

I learned that there was a guided bird tour the next morning. Since it was one of the loveliest of days and now well into the afternoon, I stopped at the only motel, a quarter mile away. I was wary as it looked a bit marginal so asked to see the room and emphasized that I needed a good Internet connection.  The room was OK, about what I've come to expect from a 1 or 2 star motel, and I was assured re the Internet. I reserved it and went back to the trailhead where I sat there for an hour, in the sunshine in almost total silence at the edge of a woods. Actually, the last 15 minutes I did walk a very short distance on the beginning of a trail leading to the Blackwater River and watched Carolina Chickadees repeatedly return to pick at some weed that emitted white fluffy stuff when they poked at it. Back and forth...back and forth. It was such a perfect day, so evocative (as fall always is for me) of a sense of goodness and well being.
Carolina Chickadee at Canaan Valley NWR - WV

I remembered the last fall Maria was alive, and how we went to the UP for a color tour, which exceeded anything we had ever seen before...or so we told ourselves. We were in cabins on Trout Lake. We collected rocks at the mouth of the Two-Hearted River...a very poignant memory, but I love to remember how she was able to do this and still fully revel in nature. The sun shone that whole weekend. We also went to Whitefish Point and saw a Harris' Sparrow and unsuccessfully looked for Black-backed Woodpeckers on old logging roads in the burned areas. And had completely unmemorable meals, although that was mitigated at one restaurant because it was situated high on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan.

Back in Canaan Valley, there were two restaurants next to the motel, though this was not even a town and, if not ON the refuge, then directly adjacent. Almost all of the refuges have irregular borders which change as more land is acquired, by purchase or donation, so things are dynamic regarding pre-existing properties.

In the first place, a kid that looked like Matthew told me they didn't serve alcohol but "right across the pawnd" was another restaurant that did. I looked around the room since it almost seemed there were two adjoining places wondering what he actually and said, but he repeated himself and I realized he was saying "pond."

And yes, across the pawnd was a small pizza/Italian place, the door was open to the air, the customers a mix of locals and tourists. I learned about the Blackwater Falls Astronomy Weekend event nearby in the state park which I googled when back a the motel. I learned mostly how ambient light is the enemy at a"star party," and all participants (this was mainly a free event, scheduled when the skies were dark) were asked to observe rules concerning whatever light sources they might potentially bring. It takes at least 15 minutes for eyes to adjust again to the skies after exposure to ambient light.  A group at the table next to me were visiting for this, which I learned when I left (paying with a check requiring no ID since credit/debit cards were not accepted) and a gentleman was smoking outside. We got to talking when he told me about the astronomy deal and that one of his party was from Michigan - "the part just below Canada..." And he told me something that still amazes me: the pronunciation of Canaan hereabouts as Ka-nane' - rhyming with sane, the accent on the second syllable. I keep thinking on this and, in fact, asked two other people, thinking maybe he was kidding as it seemed so unlikely to me.

There were tall pines, the pond and surrounding hills all with flaming fall foliage. The people in the house next to the motel were playing bean bag toss. The ambiance worked on me; the motel was modest but not marginal. It was the kind of place that left a key on the desk for a late-arriving guest. The Internet service was fine, the sheets actually kind of silky and the tub/shower worked well.
Canaan Valley NWR - WV

Friday, September 26, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 118

September 25, 2014 ~ Bowie, MD to Frederick, MD

Wet red leaves were plastered on my windshield this morning. It was still raining and felt like fall with cooler but not cold temperatures. I found a nearby Starbuck's and spent a couple of hours before heading to Silver Spring on the beltway with the combination of rain and five lanes of heavy traffic significantly reducing visibility, AND my gas warning light was on. 

But it all worked out, and I had a delightful lunch with my former roommate catching up on 50 years....spouses, kids, grandkids, retirement, jobs, vacations, trips, mutual friends, current interests books, parents, future plans, memories.... I had only seen her twice in the years since college. 

She gave me easy directions to "get out of town" so to speak, and I stayed in Frederick, MD, eating Chinese where my fortune cookie stated that "You are not one to give up" or something like that. Not that I had serious intentions of doing so, but......

Great Dismal Swamp NWR - VA

Blue Goose ~ Day 117

September 24, 2014 ~ Fredericksburg, VA to Bowie, MD

I woke at 4 in the morning, but the Starbucks 1/2 mile down the street was open 24 hours. Lucky me. I hung out there until the sun rose and then some before traveling north on old US 1 to Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR...another refuge illustrating what one determined person can accomplish:

In the early 1960’s a developer sought out land on Mason Neck to build a planned community and airport. Elizabeth van Laer Speer Hartwell, a local resident, who valued the pristine nature of the peninsula, organized an effort to stop this development. She recognized the potential of the Mason Neck peninsula as a safe haven for the endangered bald eagles along the Potomac River. Armed with enthusiasm and a gift for writing and public speaking, her citizen crusade convinced key Federal, state, and local officials the value of protecting the Neck and the bald eagle for future generations. Elizabeth Hartwell’s steadfast work resulted in the establishment of the Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in 1969 earning her the nickname of “The Eagle Lady”. On August 6, 2006, Congress approved a name change for the refuge to the Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge in her honor. 

Mason Neck is just north of Quantico along the Potomac and, since I've read Vince Flynn novels, I felt I was probably on camera somewhere which was actually reassuring as the refuge was wooded and deserted for the most part. But definitely not swampy.

Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck NWR - VA
I walked the paved ("mobility accessible") Great Marsh Trail through gorgeous mature hardwoods to an overlook where I spent an hour, mostly watching the Great birds - Blue Herons (one of which flew in and perched just above me so I got to inspect its reddish thighs, long legs, knobby knees and impressive black feet) and White Egrets which stood in one place preening or resting, and then flew about croaking before setting into a new spot. I saw a Bald Eagle, a Belted Kingfisher, an Eastern Phoebe and Grey Catbird and a Sharp-Shinned or Cooper's in the distance. It was nature-quiet with only large yellow/brown Chestnut Oak acorns dropping and a light breeze shushing in the canopy. The woods here were remarkably lovely even on this day with no sunlight.

Mason Neck is part of the Potomac River NWR Complex, which also includes Occoquan NWR (across a little bay from Mason Neck) and Featherstone NWR (not open to the public).
Great White Egret at Mason Neck NWR - VA

I had an hour of indecision: start moving west or try to connect with a college roommate who lives in the area, and while I was dithering in my mind, I was also on BirdsEye checking out area hot spots. I saw that a Connecticut Warbler had been seen yesterday at the Visitor Center at Rock Creek, a 2-mile long, 1/2-mile wide park administered by the National Park Service right in DC, with dense foliage, steep hills, massive hardwoods and paths and roads and horse stables, a space big and wild enough to support populations of coyotes and grey and red fox. I did eventually get there (no thanks to Siri who directed me in confusing circles through and around downtown Washington, around Dupont Circle, through neighborhoods, passing by the Lincoln Memorial, the Kennedy Center, the Tidal Basin...basically having me go in circles and constantly "re-routing" in her monotonal dispassionate way). I finally pulled over in a bus stop and figured out exactly where I was, where Rock Creek was and how I could get there. I really really love driving in a big unfamiliar city with no good paper map and an impersonal voice directing me willy-nilly, all the while trying to stay in the proper lanes, avoid encounters with other vehicle or pedestrians or not find myself headed toward major limited access routes or beltways or tollways.

All part of the grand adventure and still not as bad as getting on and off Long Island.

At the Visitor Center, two different employees told me precisely where to go to see birds, but I saw more at the garden there, including three warbler species, a juvenile rumpled and very vocal Carolina Wren, robins, catbirds, chickadees, cardinals, jays....

The special spot directions were: "Go to the Maintenance area and walk along the fence and you'll come to an open area, but don't stray too far since there's quite a drop-off; it's steep in there....often birders come after work, or if you're here at 7 in the morning, there will be 10 birders..."

So I went there after a couple of wrong turns and talked the only other birder present, a gentleman who looked like a relative...like he could have been my Dad's brother, and I the immediate thought that my brother would look like this guy in 20 years. He hadn't seen any "neotropicals" in an hour of watching, but I could see this would be a prime viewing venue. I saw three modest metal stools with "Birding Stool" written on the seats. The gentleman had birded all over the US....northern Ohio, Arizona, the Atlantic coast, etc. He noticed my Calvin College jacket and knew Calvin was in Michigan although said he gets it mixed up with Hope and Albion, etc. He indicated he taught (or had been a teacher). I didn't see the Connecticut Warbler, but he told me I might find one at Cromwell Park in Baltimore where the local birders give "very specific" directions as to where they see specific birds. I thought about going there, perhaps tomorrow if the roommate deal doesn't work out.

For the next 30 minutes I listened and watched for the flutter of leaves or movement in the trees indicating bird presence but never got a decent look at anything.

It was now late afternoon, so I emailed my roommate and headed for a Walmart somewhere to the east, wending my way through city traffic until I crossed the Anascostia River in Bladensburg and saw a couple of crew boats on the water. I am reading The Boys in the Boat so pulled off in time to see the kids carrying their boats overhead. Now I wished I had gone to the big venue for rowing on this river at the Anacostia Community Boathouse. And I learned that sculling involves two oars per person with 1, 2 or 4 people in a boat, while rowing (sweep rowing) involves one oar per person with teams of 2, 4 or 8 people per boat. And that coxswain is pronounced cox-n.
Anacostia River - MD

I moved from one Walmart parking lot (sketchy and prohibited parking) to another farther east at Bowie, had delicious salmon at a restaurant across the street and read for awhile. I woke to rain and felt totally cozy in my wee house.

My roommate had responded, so I'll meet her for lunch tomorrow.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Blue Goose ~ Day 116

September 23, 2014 ~ Virginia Beach, VA to Fredericksburg, MD

I woke to a definite change in weather. It was fall-like for the first time this year with much cooler temperatures, overcast skies and dry leaves skittering in the parking lot.

Smart phones are everywhere....everywhere. I too use mine constantly to navigate and find places and check on bird sightings and text and email so shouldn't have been annoyed this morning when I sat too close to a 60+ year old woman who acted as though her iPhone was the most interesting thing in life. She chattered incessantly to a male companion about what she was seeing on the phone and how she uses it and what she does with it, ad ad ad nauseum. Like she was so flushed by her tech knowledge. Her inane chatter at loud volume showed she had a disregard of the rules of the social interface in a public place. Then a 30-something woman came in, did the air kissing thing, talked about kids and vacations and houses, but mostly wanted someone to go "shopping" with her. Occasionally, she would expertly and quickly get the phone woman back on track as she jabbered about her tech issues and couldn't figure something out. The older woman was tanned, trim and almost for sure "enhanced" if you get my meaning. Sad for women who do too much to retain a youthful appearance, like the whole boob thing....

Back on the road, getting turned around trying to find the bridge across the James River before I finally got on the interstate to Richmond and listened to NPR as Terry Gross talked with new actor and rap musician Andre Benjamin and director/writer John Ridley (who also wrote 12 Years a Slave) about the new film All Is on My Mind, a year in the life of Jimi Hendrix when he lived in London and before he became a star. NPR is my companion through the days of driving. I will go through the dial and 50% is that hyper-manic advertising; the rest is country music, Christian radio, occasional right wing spouting, very occasionally a blues or jazz station, rock music or lots of forgettable music which isn't my style and seems bland and generic most of the time.

Having said that, I did actually listen to a show in Virginia hosted by a black preacher in which issues of domestic abuse were discussed in a candid, refreshing, realistic way, pointing out how family and social culture and customs are complex and complicate the dialogue, and that asking why women don't "just leave" is naive and simplistic. All done with humor and hard facts and concluding with a blessing for all of us.

The day cleared and the traffic increased by the time I got to Fredericksburg where I stayed. The sky at sunset was glorious behind Walmart.

The other day, I paid $2.99 a gallon for gas in Virginia!

First signs of fall - Great Dismal Swamp NWR - VA