Out & About: cool stuff I find outside

Cactus Spines

I got a chance to travel to the desert this winter, thrilled for a break from our prolonged below-zero temps. Once there, I discovered Moorten Botanical Garden near Palm Springs, which has a spectacular collection of desert plants.

red succ

There were succulents of all shapes and sizes . . .


Some of which looked like they came from a Dr. Seuss Book.




The cacti—like the Totem Cactus, above, and the Golden Barrel Cactus, below—were also extraordinary.



I started noticing the spines, and how they were all different.



But all similarly serious-looking. 


(Well, maybe not ALL of them . . . )


When it comes to protection, desert plants have it all figured out. After all, there are so few of them in that dry, desolate expanse, and so many hungry animals. I’d think twice before taking a bite, wouldn’t you?

An Abundance of Ladies


This September has brought an abundance of Painted Lady butterflies to our yard. When I am out weeding or raking, an enchantment of orange wings swirls around me—sometimes up to thirty butterflies.

on finger

The object of their desire is my “Autumn Joy” sedum, which is in full bloom. Sometimes these butterflies are so intent on collecting nectar that I can coax one onto my finger, which it will gently explore with its proboscis, seeking sweetness.

b + b

They must share these late blooms with other pollinators, such as busy honeybees . . .



red admiral

 . . . and other butterflies like Skippers and Red Admirals.


Even the treefrogs join the party, although they are in it for sunbathing rather than nectar.


I know Painted Ladies are gearing up for their fall migration to southwestern United States and northern Mexico, where they will overwinter.

But I thrill to have them even for a week or so. Last summer, I carefully raised a dozen Ladies from caterpillars. Perhaps a some of these hardy, beautiful insects are their offspring? Either way, their presence is an autumn sweetness.


Because of my recent book Round, I have been noticing round things in nature, both circular and spherical. While researching my book, I rambled around with my camera, asking myself: why are bubbles round? Fruit? Pebbles? Planets? I discovered some very interesting reasons, but . . . to find out, you’ll have to read the book!

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Horsetail fern

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Bromeliad wih a circular pool 



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Chipping sparrow nest

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Giant puffball mushroom


Insect gall on goldenrod.


Zinnia bud


Dandelion seedhead

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Barrel cactus


Meyer lemon

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Frozen bubbles

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Tumbled stones

Stark Beauty

Winter has been too gloomy and/or extreme to bring my camera out walking lately. But today I was heartened by that special low winter light, pastel and luminous. 

Also, my niece had given me a hand-knitted pair of fingerless gloves, which would warm my hands while allowing me to manipulate the camera in five degree temps:

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As usual, I like getting up close to things. 

frost ferns

The stream had just frozen a few days before, and frost ferns bloomed at its edges.

fox track

Out on the lake, the snow squealed beneath my feet. I followed some fox tracks. 

And investigated the beaver lodge.

beaver lodge

Wind had sculpted the lake surface . . .


 . . . and blown snow into cracks. 

ice cracks

The lake boomed as thick plates of ice shifted somewhere beneath me. 


On the way back, I found two things. A stray leaf . . .

deer hoof

. . . and a deer hoof buried in the snowbank. A stark and beautiful time, winter.

Winding Down

Summer has come and gone in a whirl of dappled sunlight. I have planted, traveled, paddled, swum, collected, read, and investigated. I even raised Painted Lady caterpillars . . .


. . . and watched them transform.


Now, suddenly the autumnal equinox is upon us. The mornings are dark and the evenings do not linger. The natural world is winding down.


The bees work busily, gathering nectar for the winter ahead.

tree frog

Treefrogs soak up every bit of warmth before they burrow into the leaf litter.

crab spider

Crab spiders catch their last few bugs.

dill seeds

The dill has gone to seed . . .



. . . and the swamp milkweed sends forth gossamer parachutes.


Even the zinnias have lost a bit of luster. Still, they drink in the September sunshine as greedily as I do. 

Ducks in Trees

I love walking in the woods this time of year when the leaves aren’t quite out. You can see the slope of the land and the gracefully twisted oak limbs reaching to the sky; as well as objects closer at hand like mosses which are sending up their spore capsules now:


Certain heart-lifting birds are returning, such as this bluebird scouting out my neighbor’s birdhouses:


And this tundra swan pair, which I glimpsed from the farther shore . . .


. . . then visited more closely on the other side of the lake. 


They were totally unafraid of both me and the black-footed swamp monster, below.


This morning, I also heard a pair of wood ducks, looked up, and saw them perching on a branch. While I know that wood ducks nest in trees, and that their many chicks jump fearlessly out of a 30-foot-high nest hole, it was astounding to see a duck in a tree for the first time. I did not have my camera, of course! But here is a photo from the web by Gerald D. Tang to give you the idea:

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Apparently wood ducks have extra claws on their webbed feet to be able to grasp bark and branches. Such an interesting adaptation to provide a safe spot for eggs and chicks.

Spring is a wonderous time indeed.

Early Thaw

Hard to believe it’s only the end of February and not the end of March. On this beautiful, sunny, 50-ish afternoon, signs of thaw were everywhere. 


The chickadees were out in force, chattering to each other excitedly and uttering an occasional territorial fee-bee call.

tree mouth

There were also signs of housing excavation (or tree crooning?).

wild cucumber

And the prickly remains of a wild cucumber vine.

Wats on ice

Watson ventured out onto the ice,

spongy ice

. . .  but it was a little too spongy for my taste.



Especially since elsewhere, rivulets had sprung up.



And, best of all, puddles! 

They will ice over again soon enough, but for now I am enjoying this time of light and reflection.

Winter Camouflage

We’ve had a mild, gray winter here so far, but there have been some interesting patterns and colors to be discovered, like these frost lines on the porch window . . . 


. . . and the occasional flash of a pileated woodpecker:


 The surprising beauty of a paper wasp nest . . .

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. . . and the loveliness of a blue winter dusk:

Watson loves following deer tracks and just generally sticking his nose into the snow:

Wats in cattails

But this time of year, the whole forest is brown and white, just like he is—so I often lose track of him, and can’t spot him until he moves. Can you find him in the photo below?


Another slick piece of camouflage I found the other day was this cecropia moth cocoon on a buckthorn tree:


Looks just like a dead leaf, doesn’t it? But I can tell by the little hole on its left side that last spring, a gorgeous moth (like the one below, from my Cecropia Watch blog)) crawled out of it and flew away:


Amazing to think what else might be out there in the winter woods, hiding in plain sight. Who knows what I’ll find tomorrow?

A Restless Wind

In a restless mood this gray afternoon, I headed out with my camera to look for wild grapes—or anything else of interest. It’s been a mild fall, and I imagined big, plump grapes to photograph (and maybe eat). The leaves are mostly gone, but I did find some beautiful color in small doses, like these poplars:


And a spray of some shrub I never notice until it turns a lovely pink:

pink shrub

And this small yellow filigree:

tiny yellow leaves

I did find the grape vines, but they looked like this:


So much for plump purple grapes! The birds had already found them. It’s November, after all, I realized. And no sooner had that thought occurred to me than the wind began to pick up, and everything I tried to photograph began to bend and thrash. Like this goldenrod:


And these grasses:


And even the dried, curled leaves:

weed curl

The wind sharpened and chilled, and I made tracks for home, Watson galloping behind me. In the space of a ramble, the season had turned. November had arrived.

The Mushrooms Come

In fall, the woods smells of . . . well, mold. Organic matter droops and falls, becoming earth. Recycling itself, so to speak. And what helps this process more than anything else? Fungus, of course! Yes, in fall, there is a fungus amongus . . . many, many fungi, actually, doing their slow, steady job of decomposition.


The first and most startling fungus I notice is the moon-like Giant Puffball (Calvatia gigantea—such a great name), the size of a soccer ball at the edge of the forest. Apparently one can eat this mushroom, and they say it tastes like tofu or melted cheese when cooked. It would be a big (gigantic) meal. I, myself, have not yet been brave enough to try it.


Equally startling but much, much smaller, are these tiny orange mushrooms (Red Chanterelle, I think?) that sprout among the green moss like jewels.


Smaller versions of puffballs dot many logs and even trees . . . and I always take the opportunity to gently swat them, eliciting a sulfurous cloud of spores.


Some fungi have a gift for placing themselves dramatically, like this yin-yang-centered fungus, which I haven’t yet identified.

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Some people (I’m not naming any names) wander through parks in major European cities (like Madrid), and take photos of . . . mushrooms? Growing sideways out of trees?


A wonderful russet shelf fungus.


On this drizzly day, here are some half-inch-sized white stalagtite fungus (just made up this name) on a dead sumac, amidst the green dripping trees . . .


. . . and also up close. 

Fairytale fungus. Just doing its job. But looking mysteriously spectacular at the same time.

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