Butterflies, Gems, & Friends

On Friday last, a friend, my husband, and I took a daytrip downtown to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.  Our objective was to take the DC Metro down to Metro Center, have lunch at M&S Grill, stroll down to the Natural History Museum and spend a leisurely afternoon checking out the Butterfly Pavilion.  It was a good plan and it worked out splendidly.  It turned out to be a gorgeous although cool day and perfect for a trip downtown.

Well, we did get off to a bit of a rocky start – the Metro train was waiting at the station and so we jumped into the first car just as the bing-bong alarm signaled the door was closing.  And, of course, the first car was filled to the gills.  I had hoped rush hour would be over but guess it goes longer than I had remembered.  But, like seasoned pros, we hopped off at the first stop and got on the second car where there were plenty of seats and we could relax our way into the Capitol.  And, it is open today – no Government shut-downs threatened for a few more months.  I often wonder what other countries think of this country with its political disagreements and airing of dirty laundry on world-wide TV.  I have heard it said that democracy isn’t pretty and I would have to agree – nope, not pretty at all – but so much better than the alternatives.  But I digress.

HamiltonBack on track (no Metro pun intended), we soon found ourselves outside Metro Center only to discover that the M&S Grill had closed down.  Backup plan needed pronto.  No problem. This is the Capitol of the whole United States and there are restaurants everywhere so we headed on down the street to The Hamilton.  We were early but that worked to our advantage because we didn’t have reservations.  And The Hamilton is a beautiful restaurant – think gentleman’s lodge or club or something like that – no, not the stripper kind – I mean the aristocratic kind you read about in books.  The Hamilton is all white table cloths, crystal, leather upholstery, wood paneling, beautiful nature prints on the walls, soothing lighting and impeccable service – not to mention delicious food.  Lunch was pretty darned good, if I must say so myself and I’m glad the M&S was closed come to think of it.

Smithsonian 2Out of the restaurant, down a few blocks and over a couple more and we found ourselves in front of the Natural History Museum.  We were getting close on the time so we headed straight up to the second floor and into the IMAX Theater.  We were given our nifty humongous red 3D glasses and found ourselves nice seats in the upper middle of the stadium style seating.  I had worried about things being a bit too crowded on a Friday but ‘twas not the case. And minutes later, the movie began.

Flight posterThe Flight of the Butterflies (filmed in 3D) tells the story of the annual migration cycle of the monarch butterfly and of Dr. Fred Urquhart and Norah Urquhart, the scientists who studied the monarchs and discovered that monarchs do migrate and documented that migration path from the eastern US and Canada to Central Mexico.  The mystery of the scientists’ lifelong study (40 years plus) to be solved was to find out where the monarchs went in winter.  Dr. and Mrs. Urquhart developed a system of tagging the butterflies and enlisted volunteers everywhere (citizen scientists) to find and tag monarchs. They formed the Insect Migration Association which is still active today as the Monarch Watch.  Ultimately, with the help of a couple in Mexico, Ken Brugger and Catalina Aguado, the winter home of the monarchs was discovered in the Transvolcanic Belt of Central Mexico.  The film was good.  I loved the 3D effects when the movie was showing the butterflies.   I especially loved the feeling that you could reach out and touch the butterflies that seemed to be flying throughout the movie theater. But, otherwise, I thought the 3D effect was somewhat wasted on other scenes and sometimes the panning of the camera gave my stomach a little lurch so that I thought I might get a little seasick.  There is a small fee (about $8) for the movie but I thought it was worth it.

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After the movie, we headed on over to the Butterfly Pavilion.  Now it has been some time since I visited one of the Smithsonian Museums and I am always amazed and overwhelmed at the size of the Institute and the museums.   When I was in elementary school, the highlight of the each school year was a field trip.  I remember two.  One was a trip to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company.  Being Atlanta, going to see Coca ColaTM might be a bit obvious but, for us, the highlight was getting an ice cold CokeTM and a little souvenir after the tour. I do not remember much about the tour but I do remember that CokeTM at the end and the little brass CokeTM key chain that I kept for many years. The other field trip I remember well was the trip to the Museum at Emory University which had an Egyptian exhibit that included a real live mummy.  Now, of course, by definition, mummies are not alive but one never says “real” without “live” when one is in the fifth grade and wanting to emphasize something truly stupendous….believe you me, it was a real live mummy and nothing at all like the mummies in the horror movies that showed on the Friday Night Midnight Shocker each week.  The mummy at Emory was all orangey and dirty looking – not a bit of clean white gauze anywhere.  Other than these two and other art galleries and museums over the years, I have never visited a museum that is even close in size to the Smithsonian.

smithsonian1We always talk about the Institute as if it were just one big museum.  It is not.  The Smithsonian Institute (SI), founded in 1846, is, in fact, the world’s largest museum and research complex.  It is huge and includes nineteen (19) separate museums and galleries, the National Zoo, and nine (9) research facilities. The Smithsonian had more than 30.3M (yep, that’s million) visitors in 2012 and includes over 137M objects, artwork, & specimens and more than 8.45M digitized records.  So, when someone says they are going to the Smithsonian while they are in town, you might want to suggest that they narrow down the itinerary a bit.  For this visit, we are, as noted above, at the Natural History Museum. Other museums routinely visited by tourists in town for a week or so would include the American History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and just maybe they might squeeze in one of the art galleries or maybe the American Indian Museum.   (For the complete listing – http://www.si.edu/Museums )

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And I am no less amazed on this visit although we are limiting our time to seeing the IMAX movie and seeing the Butterfly Pavilion.  One thing that really amazes me is that there is this climate controlled, separate vault of sorts right smack dab in the middle of the second floor of the museum.  We have visited butterfly gardens and houses before but none in the middle of another museum like this.  It is not huge but it is big enough and is filled with a good assortment of tropical butterflies.  No monarchs in the pavilion as they are native to the area and a month ago, you could probably see them outside the museum in the butterfly garden.  Of the butterflies in the pavilion, I (just like everyone else) was captivated by the Blue Morpho.  Unfortunately, the two Morphos that I saw just would not perch for even a moment so that I could get a photograph.  So you’ll have to be content with what photos I managed to capture. Again, there is a small fee ($6) for entering the Pavilion…..otherwise, the Natural History Museum is free.

group photo 5Not wanting to leave exactly yet, I suggested that we look in on the gems & jewels exhibit and strolled into what I thought was the gem display area.  My husband kindly advised me that I had wandered into the souvenir shop for gems and was not actually in the display area.  (Silly me.)  But that tells you how big the place is overall…..the souvenir shop was pretty danged big.   We found the Rocks and Gemstones area and spent some time meandering through the exhibit.  We would have been there hours had we stopped to read every sign or look at every rock or crystal or gemstone in the place.  We did stop to touch the oldest known rock (gneiss) on Earth at 3.96B years old. (And, yes, you can touch it – look at the sign beside the rock. It says “please touch”.)

Oldest Rock

And the crystals simply fascinated me – they are so very lovely. I wondered about people who attribute special powers to crystals and ancient tribes who felt that they could use crystals to communicate with the gods.  My husband notes that early radios used crystals that vibrated at a particular frequency to facilitate radio communications.  So maybe there was something to the old legends and stories after all. (Go to Wikipedia and search for crystal radio and read the article – rudimentary but organic materials needing no power source to build a passive radio receiver.  Food for thought – you couldn’t talk to the gods but they could talk to you or to your high priest.)group photo 6

No visit to the gems exhibit at Natural History would be complete without seeing the Hope Diamond.  I mean it was just right there and would take only a few moments to slip through the doorway and take a quick look.  Well, it was a bit more crowded in there than I had realized and nothing is every easy but we did got in to see the Diamond without too much trouble.  I’m afraid my photo is not too good as it was taken relatively quickly as the display rotated the necklace around so that it could be seen from all sides of the exhibit and the gem looked a little dirty on this day…but it was very impressive at 42.52 carats.  It is known more for its flawless clarity, blue color, and history more so than for its size.

Hope DiamondThinking about history, the hope diamond existed more than a billion years ago – before dinosaurs and before humans. It was discovered sometime around 1668 (before the United States) in India.  It was originally about 112 carats which was cut down to 67 1/8 while owned by Louis XIV.  It was lost for about 20 years after the French Revolution and later showed up in England.  You can read the full history here.  The Hope Diamond is surrounded by 16 white diamonds and held by a platinum chain with another 46 diamonds….quite a piece of jewelry. There is a funny story about it that shows how the uber-wealthy do not think the same way as us poor hicks do. It is said that one of the last owners before the stone was donated to the Institute kept the necklace hidden under the seat cushions on the sofa for safe-keeping and has a photo of her dog wearing the necklace. Familiarity breeds, well, familiarity – nothing special about this old thing – it’s been hanging around the house for years.

Quite a necklace, quite a story, and quite an interesting day.

If you would like more information about Flight of the Butterflies and the Smithsonian Butterfly Pavilion and Museums:

Smithsonian Institute:  http://www.si.edu/

Natural History Museum: http://www.si.edu/Museums/natural-history-museum

IMAX Theaters: http://www.si.edu/imax/

Flight of the Butterflies site at Smithsonian:  http://www.si.edu/Imax/Movie/71

Butterfly Pavilion: http://spotabutterfly.com/

Video of Butterfly Pavilion: http://www.voanews.com/content/exhibit_highlights_butterfly_beauty_diversity_value_to_ecosystem/1629981.html

Flight of the Butterflies Movie Site: http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/home/

Flight of the Butterflies – Secrets of Filming:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Majz0IAc9Lw

Free Book for children – ITunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/flight-butterflies-enhanced/id620240557?mt=11

SI Gems and Rocks:  http://www.mnh.si.edu/earth/text/2_0_0.html

Hope Diamond: http://mineralsciences.si.edu/hope.htm

History of the Hope Diamond: http://www.mnh.si.edu/earth/text/2_1_1_1.html

Dr. Fred Urquhart and Norah Urquhart:  http://www.flightofthebutterflies.com/discovery-story/

Wikipedia Crystal Radio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_radio

Why I Don’t Go Birding Everyday

gov bridge lake wideIt’s 7:15 AM and we’re heading out to go birding.  It’s very early for me – way too early for me, in fact, since I retired. I gave up early mornings and 5:30 AM alarm clocks when I stopped having to head out at that some-unGodly time to fight traffic or catch a train to get to work.  I used to think I was a “morning person” but now have decided I am definitely a “mid-morning person”.  But we were up early (relatively) and heading out to do a little birding. Okay, only one more thought on ‘early’ – most birders have already been out, hiked 5 miles through the wetlands and parks looking for warblers and are, by 7:00 AM, showered, had breakfast, updated their life lists on eBird and are heading out to work.  I applaud them for being the “early birder that gets the bird” knowing I am probably not ever going to be that kind of birder.

We grabbed a travel mug of coffee and headed up to the local WA WA (those of you in Maryland know the place) to get a ham, cheese, & egg croissant.  We obviously cannot go birding on an empty stomach and can’t waste any more time getting our usual bowl of cereal and fruit at home.  That done, we headed on down the road to Governor Bridge Natural Area.  I had been reading about all the birds there from a friend’s blog.  Hugh is an avid birder and nature photographer who birds every day – come rain or come shine, or more lately, come sweltering August heat and oppressively high humidity. He posts his beautiful photographs at his blog site, My Birding Photos.  We hadn’t been down to Governor Bridge in many months so I figured it was time to check the place out again.

Did I mention rush hour traffic delays? Yeah, guess there are quite a few people who slept past 5:30 this morning and were out on the roads just when we wanted to go somewhere.  Then again, it could have been that all those early morning birders were now on the road trying to get to work.  We took every back road and alley way we could think of to get off the main roads and get down to our destination without too much traffic stress.

As we drove into the preserve, I recalled that I had meant to download trail maps since we hadn’t been there in a while. Oh well, we can just follow the sound of birds singing in the trees.  Then again, maybe not.  It’s now about 8:30 AM and the cicadas, katydids, and grasshoppers are buzzing and droning and scratching their legs together and making an awful racket as they are inclined to do in hot summer heat.

cannibalflyHmm.  Bugs. Thank heavens, we have bug spray in the car.  Vowing to stay on the trails and away from possible tick and chigger zones, we spray down anyway just in case.  Good move as it turned out to be a buggy day….saw some rather unique ones along the way.

I asked a gentleman getting out of his car about the trails and he very kindly and generously pointed out the main trial we could take up to a little bridge, turn left onto the trail that encircles the lake.  As an alternative, we could take a smaller but closer trail and go back towards the ponds.  Wow, it has been a long time since we were here. Lake? Ponds? Maybe I have this preserve confused with another one we have visited in the past.  I notice that he heads off in a completely different direction towards the canoe/kayak launch….guess he thought the river would be more peaceful and quiet than the ponds or lake…or taking the same trail we were taking.

PondNow that didn’t take long so we’re moving up an old service road towards the lake area by 8:35-ish. There is a slight breeze that is a cool relief from the heat.  I immediately hear an Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) calling in the woods and hoped that we will spot him (or her) at some point on our walk. We found the bridge with no problems. We stopped and took a couple photos and headed over to the lake which was beautiful in the early morning sunlight.  There were wildflowers and bugs everywhere but no birds.  There did seem to be a funny looking branch on a snag on a little island in the middle of the lake.  Holey moley, it’s a Belted Kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon)…..and a beauty too.  Too far away for a great photo but I gave it a try all the same.

kingfisherAt times like this, I think maybe I should have opted for a better camera with a bigger zoom lens.  Then I remember that I don’t like having to tote around a big ole heavy camera and long lens and heavy tripod and I am happy with my little Canon Powershot SX50 HS.  The 50X zoom gives me enough to keep me satisfied and taking photographs but I will admit I miss out on some more distant birds. Like this kingfisher way out there in the middle of the lake.  And the kingfisher was a delight flying back and forth to different perches here and there on the lake. It was very obvious that this bird had laid claim to that lake.

We found a bench and decided to take a break and maybe sit quietly to see if the birds would come to us.  Not a chance.  But there were bugs and butterflies and wildflowers to look at and take pictures of so I wasn’t in the least bit put out by the lack of birds.  I hear again the distant call of the Eastern Wood- Pewee echoing through the area….Peeee-ooooo-weee.  Drat, I just cannot get a good fix on the sound so could not know exactly where to look.

We decided to go around the lower part of the lake and then cut back through the woods to the ponds and, ultimately, back to the parking area.  As we rounded the lake, I heard a tiny peep barely discernible over the din of the katydids. We stopped and were finally able to locate an Eastern Towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)  in a nearby tree.  We could see him clearly with the binocs but I could not get a photograph through the leaves.  Kind of made me long for winter and leafless trees.

MonarchI spotted a Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). We have noticed that there do not seem to be many Monarchs around this year.  Some of the folks from our local bird club have also remarked on this. So I was encouraged to see a Monarch here but discouraged that there was only one.

snowberry clearwingThere were other butterflies and, to my delight, we caught sight of a hummingbird moth. If you cannot see a hummingbird, then the next best thing in that size range is a hummingbird moth. Turned out to be a Snowberry Clearwing Moth (Hemaris diffinis).

BassWe found a picnic table and took another break – I am big on breaks – and watched a small Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) in the shallows near the shore. He was lying under a water plant and seemed to be watching the smaller minnows near the bank. We waited to see if he would pounce on one and catch his mid-morning snack but he never did so no show for us today.

There is only hot sunshine now. The gentle breeze has disappeared. We head back into the woods on a smaller trail leading down and between the wetland ponds looking for a little coolness.  We still were not having any luck with the birds.  Then, as we come to a smaller bridge between two ponds, we stop for a moment and suddenly there were birds everywhere.  A small flock of Carolina Chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) were flitting back and forth between the trees. Then there are Tufted Titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).  The birds are moving from tree to tree and I cannot get the binoculars and the camera operational at the same time. Can they ever stand still for just one minute? Nope.

Then we spot a pair of birds that are different.  We call out what we see – gray upper, rounded head, white wing bars, pale underparts – a little yellowish, white throat & breast.  What is this bird? I know it but just cannot put a name to it.  I know that I know it.  This is making me crazy.  But they fly away and we move on.

It’s very hot now and getting late so we head back to the car. We look for the vireo that has been reported near the Pokeberry (Phytolacca americana) bushes by the parking area. Nothing. We load up and head out.  We know that we will come back to this place in the future and this particular spot in the woods where the birds seem to be congregating. As we pull out of the preserve parking lot, I hear again the lonely distant call of the Pewee….peee-oooo-weee, peee-oooo-weee…just wish I had caught a glimpse…..and then it finally hits me. My mystery grey bird – of course, the Pewees that I had been looking for all morning but then didn’t recognize when I saw them.  Rats! They had been right there in front of me….okay, the tree had been out in front of me…the birds were way up high in the tree.

bluebirdAs we drive down Governor Bridge Road, we remember that we had spotted good birds along the perimeter of the back parking lot for the Baysox stadium. The gate is open so we swing in.  We see a small flock of mostly brown birds – maybe female grackles or cowbirds or starlings. They ducked low into the high grasses on the edge of the lot.  Then as we rounded the corner on the back side of the lot, we spot a bit of blue…. a strange looking bird catches my eye…partially blue but mostly a mottled brown-blue with a light chest.  I am a confused but take a couple photos in hopes that I will figure it out back home.  Then he flies and joins a flock of about 10 of them heading into the garden of a house just across the road.  And I realize these were fledgling Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) – just getting their blue feathers.  They will be lovely in no time but, right now, they are a splotchy bit of a mess making identifying them ever so difficult.

Back home, it is just about lunch-time so we take a break for a sandwich.  We watch a little TV while we eat and a History Channel show on the Protestant Reformation gets my attention.  So I started watching it and, forgetting my chores and all the things I meant to do today, fell asleep.  Always good to take a little nap after a long morning birding though, isn’t it?  I wake up about 3:00 PM and the Protestant Reformation is moving into the 19th century so I continue watching until it ends sometime in the 1960’s. Wow, who knew it lasted so long?  Somehow they had connected the dots from Martin Luther to Martin Luther King, Jr.  Wow again!

The local time at my house was just past 4:00 PM.  Now, I figure I really ought to get to those chores.  After all, my original plan had been to do a couple hours birding (which turned into about 5 hours altogether) and then come home and catch up on things.  But I procrastinate a little and pick up a magazine and figure I’ll spend a few minutes reading about the birds I didn’t see this morning.  Before I know it, it is 5:00 PM and it is time to get a little exercise in so I spend 30 minutes on my stationary bike.

And then I am exhausted and it’s time to get dinner started.  Well, I obviously cannot get to those chores now.

So, let me see – let’s recap:

  •       Went birding;
  •       Saw at least 5 birds I could positively identify – about 5 more I could not;
  •       Saw a Monarch Butterfly and some bugs and a fish;
  •       Took 25 or so blurry photos of something that might be a bird in a tree;
  •       Deleted most of them;
  •       Got lunch;
  •       Caught up on the Protestant Reformation;
  •       Did some exercise; and,
  •       Helped get supper.

An amazingly productive day altogether!  Then again….Guess not.  Good thing I will be able to start all over again tomorrow.  But maybe I’d better not go birding for a couple days – might be good to get some of those chores done before my next outing.

Google earth image framedFor more information about Governor Bridge Natural Area: