Walk in Avondale Park: a Great Blue Heron Takes Flight

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden Blog, Avondale Park, Birmingham, Alabama, blue heron

A great blue heron is a fairly common sight at Avondale Park, a 40-acre public park in Birmingham, Alabama.

There are tasty little fish for a heron to eat in the spring water-fed pond. A small island at the pond’s center provides a human-free respite in this urban park. The natural spring has attracted locals and travelers to the area since pre-Civil War days (and Native Americans long before that).

Birmingham, Alabama, Avondale Park
Vintage postcard showing Avondale Park c. 1911 via Bhamwiki

In the 1930s, the city added a stone amphitheater designed by landscape architect Rubee Pearse. The spring flows from the depths of a cave, but unfortunately for any spelunkers out there, the city’s 1930s improvements included blocking the cave entrance. In 2012, the park installed baseball diamonds and restrooms along with other renovations. 

After a recent lunch at Avondale’s Taco Morro Loco (so good!), a friend and I took a stroll around the pond. There were lots of ducks and one solitary blue heron. I approached him slowly, snapping photos with each step. Then he took off.

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden Blog, Avondale Park, Birmingham, Alabama, blue heron

Check out the water trail as he lifts himself from the water.

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden Blog, Avondale Park, Birmingham, Alabama, blue heronJust one more big lift…

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden Blog, Avondale Park, Birmingham, Alabama, blue heron

And then he sails. How beautiful nature is.

Wednesday Walk

To capture April in Alabama I’m venturing beyond my garden. I took these snapshots during a recent neighborhood walk in Birmingham.


(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
This oak-lined street is a piece of Americana perfection.

When oak trees first leaf out, their young green leaves shine in the sun as if golden. It always makes me think of Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which begins “Nature’s first green is gold.” I love the sight of a huge oak five times the size of the house it grows beside.

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
A tree-lover’s ideal tree-to-house ratio
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Oak tree canopy against a blue sky

The wildflowers (or weeds, if you rather) are out.

The flattering name of this plant is, wait for it, Philadelphia fleabane. I saw this member of the daisy family today blooming along nonresidential roadsides and in natural areas. It may look a little weedy, but it’s native to North America. (In Europe and Asia, where it has been introduced, it’s considered invasive.)

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Suggested ID: Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus)

A friend once told me dogwood trees should look like clouds in the landscape.

I have to agree. This dogwood in bloom looks exactly like a cirrus cloud floating in the sky.

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Dogwood tree in April
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Dogwood blooms

Japanese maples offer vibrant color at a time of year when most everything is green, white or pastel.

I recently wrote about my Shaina Japanese maple, which is a dwarf variety. On today’s walk I encountered medium and large varieties.

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Japanese maple with tall sculptural trunk
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Japanese maple
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Maple, sidewalk understory view, in April

Magnolias bloom in the summer, but their dark, glossy leaves and massive trunks are beautiful all year.

The low-hanging branches of the magnolia below are so inviting. I will be sure to revisit this tree in the summertime when it is in bloom.

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Magnolia tree
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Another example of a tree-lover’s ideal tree-to-house ratio (magnolia edition)
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
My mom carried a bouquet of magnolias at my parents’ June wedding decades ago. This photo, taken this April, shows a bud in progress.

I believe I encountered an azalea that is native to Alabama!

If my ID is correct, this azalea is a pinkster flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides). If I get another ID from the iNaturalist community, I will update this post. I spotted this small shrub growing wedged in a tall, groomed evergreen hedge. It seemed out of place in the best way possible. 

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Suggested ID: pinkster flower (Rhododendron periclymenoides)

The topography of Birmingham can vary fairly dramatically within a small radius.

My neighborhood is all steep hills. The area I walked today (the adjacent neighborhood) is flat and carved with natural creeks and urban waterways.

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Urbanized creek bed
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
This creek bed is nearly dry, but it must carry a lot of water during storms.
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
What if this were your driveway?
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
A rocky outcropping and babbling creek belie the residential setting (see the street view below).
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Can you spot the hidden creek? (Hint: It’s to the left of the sidewalk. I drove on this road for years without noticing it.)

Thanks for visiting. I’d love to see what spring looks like in your neighborhood, wherever that may be.

 

Nature Walk at Jemison Park

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Lesser Celandine (“Ficaria verna”)

Jemison Park Nature Trail is one of my favorite local spots. This greenway follows Shades Creek and meanders through Mountain Brook. It’s just a hop, skip and jump away from central Birmingham.

I’ve written about iNaturalist on this blog before, and I’m featuring it again in this post about my recent nature walk through Jemison Park. If you’re in the Birmingham area and want to learn about iNaturalist from an expert, I recommend “Introduction to iNaturalist,” presented by Dr. John Friel of the Alabama Museum of Natural History on May 6, 2018, 1-3:30 p.m., at Ruffner Mountain.

I’ve been using the iNaturalist app since attending one of Dr. Friel’s presentations last year. I find it helps me better observe and appreciate the intricacies of nature, which makes spending time outdoors all the more rewarding. I also like recording and identifying plants in natural areas because my hope is to gradually transform our privet-filled wooded backyard into a woodland garden.

Here is what I observed on my walk through Jemison Park:

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Lesser Celandine (“Ficaria verna”)

I believe this ground cover (also pictured at the top of this post) is lesser Celandine (“Ficaria verna”). iNaturalist’s photo identification software suggested this ID. I carefully compared the database’s photos against mine. I think it’s a match, but the ID needs confirmation from the iNaturalist online community of citizen scientists. This plant is definitely going on my woodland garden wish list. [Update: I have since found out that Lesser Celandine is considered invasive in America, where it is not a native species. So it is off the wish list!]

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Next is Italian Arum (“Arum italicum”). Once again, iNaturalist software helped me venture a guess on the ID. A fellow user, who happens to be pursuing a doctorate in marine ecology and phycology, agreed. That moved my ID up to research grade. It will stay that way as long as two-thirds of iNaturalist users concur.

I also learned that some gardeners underplant Italian Acum with hostas. When hostas die back in winter, Italian Acum will maintain an attractive ground cover. I already have hostas, so I am definitely going to try this!

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Beaked Trout-Lily (“Erythronium rostratum”)

The identification of the Beaked Trout-Lily (“Erythronium rostratum”) above illustrates the combined power of software and collective human brainpower in making sense of the vast numbers of observations uploaded to iNaturalist.

After looking through the software’s suggestions, my best guess at an ID was a Yellow Trout Lily (“Erythronium americanum”). However, another citizen scientist, self-described as a “hobbyist botanist, reasonably well-read on trillium and solidago,” countered that the plant I observed was in fact a Beaked Trout-Lily. His argument: “prominent auricles at the base of the tepals which encircle filaments; tepals not streaked with purple; flower not nodding; petals not sharply reflexed.”

This is a good time to mention another tip about using iNaturalist. Even if you are an amateur, do your best to research and identify your observations starting with kingdom at a minimum, and narrowing down the taxonomy as much as you can. The iNaturalist software and other references can help you do this, as long as you employ common sense and pay attention to the details. The more you can help narrow it down, the more likely someone who actually knows their stuff will look at what you’ve posted. They can then confirm your ID, further narrow it down or correct it if needed.

I’ll close this post with a few more iNaturalist observations from Jemison Park Nature Trail.

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Red Buckeye (“Aesculus pavia”)

 

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Little Sweet Betsy (“Trillium cuneatum”), also known as toadshade

 

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My suggested ID, unconfirmed: Common Blue Violet (“Viola sororia”)

Photo of the Day: Taking Flight

Add the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) to the list of butterfly visitors to our zinnias.

When I showed this photo to a co-worker at our frequented “cheap Mexican” lunch place, I learned she grew up calling zinnias “old maids.” It might not be the most PC nickname, but it makes sense. Their blooms last a really long time and even age gracefully, as is the older-but-still-beautiful bloom in this photo. 

Here are a few more pics of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly to show the nuances of its wing pattern.

Happy Saturday.

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Fungus Among Us

Lately, I find myself missing grade school, good old-fashioned K-12. I know there’s a lot of debate today about public education and what’s wrong with it. But as an adult with a job that only uses a narrow scope of knowledge and specialized skill sets, I find myself longing for the brain calisthenics of five to seven subjects a day.

Recently, I discovered a way to work a science fix into my life, as panacea to my decidedly unscientific profession. iNaturalist is a social network of citizen scientists, but it’s not social media in any sense you’re thinking of. It’s nerdy and fantastically free of political bickering and narcissism.  It’s just people, ranging from amateur nature enthusiasts to professional scientists, working together to document and identify species and biodiversity worldwide. If you check out the iNaturalist widget on my blog, you can link to my log of observations in various stages of the identification process.

That brings us to the title of today’s post, “Fungus Among Us.” This spring and summer has brought a lot of rain to Birmingham, Alabama, and the fungi are loving it. This morning I documented all the mushrooms that have popped up in my yard.

 

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No species IDs have come through on these mushrooms yet, but maybe I’ll eventually learn more about them via other iNaturalist participants.

Last weekend, I had luck with several IDs of my observations. This Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) is one of them. I must admit that before, I would have assumed any orange and black butterfly I spotted was a Monarch. Now I’m paying more attention to the details of the world around me, and it makes life more interesting.

 

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I get a kick every time there is enough consensus among iNaturalist users and my observations become “research grade,” which means data uploaded by me can be used by professional scientists for all sorts of research projects.

The iNaturalist software identified this Common Five-lined Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus) on the first crack, without human help. However, for this observation to move to research grade, human users had to agree with the ID, which they did. (Warning, the artificial intelligence program used to aid amateurs with making IDs is pretty good, but it also suggested that a photo I uploaded of a pitcher plant was a bird. So a little common sense and the consensus of human users is essential.)

 

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Being a novice who hasn’t taken a science class since college geology, I didn’t think I would be able to contribute to the identification process; I thought I could only observe.

I learned about iNaturalist at a lecture held at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, taught by Dr. John Friel, director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Dr. Friel told the class that part of iNaturalist is giving back to the system/community by helping identify the observations of others. That is to say, uploading and relying on others to ID your observations is “taking” from the system in a sense. Helping identify is “giving back.” iNaturalist only works because of the give and take of many.

I got the concept; I just didn’t think I could be of much help as an identifier. The aforementioned reptilian visitor to my yard changed my mind. Shortly after I learned what he was, I saw a photo of what was unmistakably another Common Five-lined Skink hanging out in the “needs identification” section of iNaturalist. I suggested the ID, and when other users concurred, the observation became research grade. In a very small way, I had helped give back to the system, and, frankly, it was a bit of a thrill.

On a closing note, I will leave you with this Reddish-Brown Stag Beetle hanging out on our window screen, who became a lot less freaky once I knew what he was. Woo-hoo for citizen science!

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