Although walks targeted towards specific animals or plants (bird, butterfly or wildflower walks) can be a lot of fun and educational, the ultimate nature walk in my opinion is the “ramble” designed to discover what nature has to offer on that particular day and location. The excitement of such an outlook is that nothing is certain, and anything can and sometimes does cross your path. Although you might object that it is too difficult to attempt to identify more than a small fraction of the life that you observe even on a single day, such is really not the case. Not only are many of the life forms you encounter the more common ones in your area, but there are now a host of popular guides available, plus the internet groups that can often identify photos. Your most important companion is indeed a camera to document what you find.
During the first week of May at our Virginia farm, there is essentially a blizzard of new life to observe and enjoy. The spring wildflowers at this elevation are still astonishing. I was very surpr ised to find showy orchis (orchid) growing on a northern slope in rich soils; I have never seen this plant before on our farm, yet here were at least three plants growing in an area that I had made into a walking trail last year. A much more common flower is the wake robin trillium which is a good bioindicator of a healthy woods ecosystem. They are said to be pollinated by flies attracted to their vile odor, in a manner similar to the un-related skunk cabbage.
Perhaps not coincidentally I have now twice seen a group of four mature woodcock in the same area as the orchis, foraging for food; I have not gotten a very good photo of them since they are surprisingly quick walkers and repeatedly probe the ground for worms. Since I have now seen four woodcock together in this same area, I am curious to know if they are a family group. We have breeding pairs on our farm which we heard “peenting” in March.
One of my favorite woods insects is the bright green six spotted tiger beetle. It requires a fairly high temperature for its very active pursuit of prey and is thus often seen sunning in light flecks. A much less common invertebrate was a very large and intimidating dark fishing spider which I found in a hill-top wood pile that I was moving. It is interesting that this representative of the fishing spiders (genus Dolomedes) which are normally seen around ponds is often found far from water. The only other one I have seen was on a rotting stump. While they strongly resemble wolf spiders, they are in a separate family and are thus not closely related. The resemblance is likely due to their similar raptorial method of hunting prey by chasing them down and jumping on them.
A very common bird in our fields and marshes is the red-winged blackbird and presumably everyone is familiar with the spectacular male (bl ack with red shoulder patches). Yet the female shown here defending her nest is probably one of the most mis-identified birds, even by experienced birders. We need to remind ourselves that even common “trash birds” are worthy of notice and study.
So e njoy yourselves in this glorious May since there is really no other time of year that is so exciting as new life returns to the frozen north-lands. Jack Frost is even yet reluctant to give up his grip since we are having many morning frosts this first week of May.
Bill Dunson, Englewood, FL & Galax, VA