A very “snowy” New Year’s Day

No, it actually didn’t snow, but this is an irruption year for Snowy Owls. So what do I do on New Year’s Day? Driving more than 400 miles and 7 hours, of course, to see the Snowy Owls!

After 3.5 hours of driving I arrived at Delaware Seashore State Park on this sunny and crispy first day of 2014. The day before, there were reports of Snowy Owls at a location in this park. Sure enough, there were people lined up along the Coastal Highway watching a large white bird on the sand dune — the Snowy Owl! However, because of the rather long distance from the highway to the bird, I could not get very good pictures at this time.

But I did make a trek to the beach. There, in the Atlantic Ocean, I could see Northern Gannets, gulls (several species), and Red-throated Loons and Surf Scoters, both were new life birds for me! It sure looked like my New Year got to a good start!

Red-throated Loon

Red-throated Loon

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter

After some stopping at some places along the way, seeing Snow Geese, Redheads and Canvasbacks (both duck species) and other waterfowls, I decided to go back to the beach to get a closer look at the Snowy Owl.

And this time it paid off — after trekking rather laboriously over the soft sand for more than a mile, finally I spotted the owl (and some photographers) at a sand dune. The sun was setting, but the Snowy Owl was very cooperative and allowed us to get pretty close. I managed to take quite a few clear pictures of him (“him” would be right, this appeared to be a male bird).

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

Satisfied, I headed back in the setting sun and chilly breeze. But it seemed that my day was not quite over yet — just then three Snow Buntings flew to the beach and stopped right in front of me. Unlike the Snowy Owl, which is irruptive, Snow Buntings are regular winter migrators found in the northern half of the United States (they spend the summer or breeding season in the Arctic). But it is a new bird for me nonetheless.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

I still had more than 200 miles to go back home, but the roads did not look that long after these encounters somehow …

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To the far-flung places – A year in review (3)

My third and last big trip of 2013 was a two-week trip to Spain, Morocco and Gibraltar.

I take bird (and other wildlife) pictures. One thing I’ve learned is that to get new birds, it is best to travel to new locations — there, even the most common, even “nuisance” birds are new. Although this trip was not a “birding trip”, and in fact I did not even bring my big lens, I managed to get a few good pictures of new birds.

Black-headed Gull

Black-headed Gull in Barcelona

Yellow-legged Gull

Yellow-legged Gull in Barcelona

Gray Heron

Gray Heron in Cordoba

Lizard

Lizard in Granada

Eurasian Collared Dove

Eurasian Collared Dove in Serville

Red-billed Chough

Red-billed Chough in Segovia

But the most memorable wildlife encounter happened in Gibraltar, where the Barbary Macaques are protected in the Upper Rock Nature Reserve.

Barbary Macaques

Barbary Macaques

Barbary Macaque

Barbary Macaque

Barbary Macaque

Barbary Macaque

But wildlife watching was not our only occupation on this trip. We immersed ourselves in the culture of Spain, Britain and Morocco. The following are some scenic and street pictures on this trip.

Park Guell

Park Guell in Barcelona

Alhambra

Alhambra in Granada

Mezquita

Mezquita in Cordoba

Bath House

Bath House in Serville

Europa Point Lighthouse

Europa Point Lighthouse in Gibraltar

And on this trip, I set my foot on Africa for the first time — I took a day trip to Tangier, Morocco.

Cape Spartel Lighthouse

Cape Spartel Lighthouse in Tangier, Morocco

So, yes, I am still firmly a “traveler at home”, but I certainly do not mind going to a few far flung places once in a while.

For more on this trip (including more pictures), you may visit the dedicated page on my personal website.

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To the far-flung places – A year in review (2)

In June we took a road trip on the west coast.

In 2004, we took a cross-country trip — from the east coast to the west coast and back. However, we actually missed a section of the west coast — from San Francisco north. In 2006 we took a trip to Washington and Oregon and covered part of the coast around Olympic National Park. This time, we were determined to cover the California coast from San Francisco north and the entire Oregon Coast.

This we did. And more.

This section, I must say, is in fact the most spectacular of the entire west coast. From San Francisco northward, the coast is rugged, with the road winding almost endlessly, but the scenery is breathtaking. The following two pictures were taken along California 1:

Muir Beach

Muir Beach

Point Arena Lighthouse

Point Arena Lighthouse

Unfortunately, the weather worsened as we entered Oregon, but that did not diminish our enthusiasm. There is abundant wildlife along the coast.

Sea Lion

Sea Lion

We eventually drove into Washington State and visited Mt. St. Helens National Monument.

Mt. St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens

On the way back, we returned through the central part of Oregon and the central valley of California, visiting Crater Lake and Lassen Volcanic National Parks in the process.

Crater Lake

Crater Lake

Mt. Lassen

Mt. Lassen

Because this was my first extended trip to the west coast since I “got into” birds, I was able to “get” quite a few new birds (in fact over 20) on this trip. The following are a few bird pictures:

Cassin's Finch

Cassin’s Finch

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbird

This is why I like road trips: it allows me to explore the places at a more leisurely pace. Air travels always give me the sense of being transplanted abruptly from one place to another. And this one was certainly one to remember for a lifetime.

For more about this trip, you may visit the special pages on my website as well.

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To the far-flung places – A year in review (1)

It has occurred to me that I have not blogged for some time. In fact I have not blogged much at all this year.

Perhaps there has been to much life to live! Well, it is near the end of year now and maybe it is time to reflect a bit on the past year.

Although the title of my blog is “Traveler at home”, and I do believe that to appreciate nature — or life for that matter — one must first learn to appreciate what’s around him or her. However, from time to time, I do make excursions to places, some quite far.

In May, around the time of Memorial Day weekend, we made a trip to the Delaware Bay. We timed this trip to see the spawning of the Horseshoe Crabs. Despite the somewhat bad weather, we did witness this nature’s spectacle in person for the first time.  To see these ancient, armored, and almost alien creatures emerge from the ocean to the beach is an experience one unlikely to forget, and to think that there was a time when these creatures thus emerged, Pterosaurs were patrolling the skies gives me chills in my spine.

Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe Crabs

The eggs of the Horseshoe Crabs provide nutrition for migrating birds, such as these Semipalmated Sandpipers.

Sandpipers

Sandpipers

At night, under the dim moonlight, clusters of Horseshoe Crabs keep arriving onshore, one of the most eerie scenes I’ve seen in nature.

Horseshoe Crabs

Horseshoe Crabs

The Delaware Bay is also renowned birding “hotspot”, near the end of Spring migration, there were still many shorebirds around, such as this endangered Piping Plover.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

At Cape Henlopen, we even saw a pod of feeding dolphins.

Dolphin

Dolphin

If you live on the east coast of the United States and have not seen the Horseshoe Crabs spawning and the Spring bird migration, I suggest you add the Delaware Bay to your “places to visit” list for next Memorial Day!

For more about this trip, you may visit the dedicated pages for this trip on my website.

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Urban Oasis

Frying Pan Farm Park is is a small county park located in Fairfax County, Virginia. It has a working farm (Kidwell Farm), a Visitor Center, a country store, an indoor arena (for equestrian competitions and practices) and other recreational facilities. But it also has nature trails and wildlife habitats.

Although Frying Pan Farm Park is just a little piece of land hemmed in Northern Virginia’s immense suburbia, although it is not created as a wildlife refuge as such, whatever still remains here — woods, thickets, streams, ponds — still provide a sanctuary for wildlife. So, while it may be a stretch to call it “urban oasis” or anything like that, it does have its wild side.

Over the years I’ve taken countless strolls in the park, most of the time with a camera slung over my shoulder. I’ve had many encounters with wildlife. I will show a few highlights on this blog.

The topmost predators that one will see in the park are Red Foxes, hawks (Red-shouldered, Red-tailed, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned, owls, and occasionally an American Kestrel.

Red Fox

Red Fox

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The most thrilling encounters are the seasonal migrants, especially warblers. These delicate and beautiful creatures migrate every spring from the tropics or as far as South America, and back in the autumn. They add color and music to our woods.

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Prairie Warbler

Prairie Warbler

But warblers are not the only migrants. kinglets, phoebes, thrashers, swallows also pass through or nest in the park.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Tree Swallow

Tree Swallow

But to me the most incredible encounter is with the Solitary Sandpiper — each year they migrate between South America and the Arctic. Categorized as a “shore bird” and covering such immense distance in their migration, that they choose to stay, however briefly, at Frying Pan Farm Park, is no less a miracle to me.

Solitary Sandpiper

Solitary Sandpiper

But year-round residents are no less special to me; they keep me company throughout the year. In the cold months, the loud and melodious songs of a Carolina Wren can warm one’s heart and seeming even melt the snow.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

American Robin

American Robin

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

I have in fact too many pictures to show in this blog, and I’ve created a page on my website to celebrate the wildlife at Frying Pan Farm Park (and surrounding areas). If you are interested, you may visit my Wildlife at Frying Pan Farm Park (and surrounding areas) page.

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10 years to finish a book

The book is “Best Easy Day Hikes Shenandoah National Park“; it has merely 101 pages (mine is the second edition, published in 2002).

It’s taken me 10 years to finish it.

How so? Because I hiked it.

Table of Contents of "Best Easy Day Hikes Shenandoah National Park"

Table of Contents of “Best Easy Day Hikes Shenandoah National Park”

Actually, I did not set out to “finish the book”. In fact, I hiked many trails not listed in the book, and many hikes in the book I have taken more than once (for example, I have been to Mary’s Rock no fewer than 4 times, and White Oak Canyon 3 times). In all, I have hiked in Shenandoah National Park 39 times.

But enough with “been” counting.

My first hike was to Mary’s Rock, back on April 13, 2003, and that was when I stepped on the AT (Appalachian Trail) for the first time. This was the picture I took on that day of the AT sign post:

Appalachian Trail Sign Post

Appalachian Trail Sign Post

A storm front was coming today, but my spirit was unfazed. Indeed I was excited as I had not been to Shenandoah for over 2 months. All kinds of flowers were blooming at this time of the year, such as these Wild Columbine:

Wild Columbine

Wild Columbine

The nectar from the wildflowers provided high energy food for insects, and the beautiful Tiger Swallowtails were everywhere:

Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail

The ample moisture nourished all kinds of plants, including mushrooms and fungi. I saw many different types of fungi on the forest floor, many of which I could not identify. I just call these “tube fungi”. They are incredibly colorful and delicate, although I suspect they are probably highly poisonous.

"Tube Fungi"

“Tube Fungi”

And how can you talk about the Appalachians without mentioning the ever-active, colorful and melodious warblers? This Ovenbird and this Hooded Warbler were among the ones I saw today (the other frequently seen warbler is the American Redstart).

Ovenbird

Ovenbird

Hooded Warbler

Hooded Warbler

I took 3 short hikes today — Loft Mountain Loop, Ivy Creek and Powell Gap, totaling about 7 miles, thus rounding up the hikes in the little book. Of course, as I said, my goal has never been to “finish” the book; my goal was to enjoy nature and get some exercise at the same time. Having seen wildflowers, butterflies and warblers, and knocked my knee onto a rock, I guess I can say I’ve accomplished my mission.

In the late afternoon, the thunderclouds finally rolled in from the west and it started to rain. When the rain hit the sun-heated soil, fog rose from the wooded sea. Clouds, fog … there is a blue haze in the air. This is what gives the Blue Ridge Mountains its name, I suppose.

Shenandoah Fog

Shenandoah Fog

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Nature’s Spectacle

just1stepaway

Our first sighting of the horseshoe crab at Sandy Point Park in Maryland was not the last we would see of these prehistoric creatures.

Horseshoe Sandy Point

Horseshoe crabs are in fact not crustaceans at all, they are related to spiders and scorpions and have evolved over millions of years.  They live at the bottom of sandy or muddy floors of the ocean and thousands come ashore to spawn during the spring time.

We got to Slaughter Beach (Delaware) around 7:45pm and thousands of horseshoe crabs were washed ashore by the high tides.

Coming ashore

The males, about 20% smaller than the females, usually arrives first.  He will cling on the female’s back while she digs a hole in the sand and deposit her eggs which will then be fertilized by her mate.

Horseshoe crab one on onejpg

Most of the time, though, other males will attach themselves to the pair forming a cluster with five or six males and…

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