Friday, December 19, 2008

Traveling Naturalist

Ahh, the road home. There's nothing quite like it. Yesterday we piled one toddler, two dogs, and enough luggage for a small army into the Prius and hit the highway north to bring us back to Virginia for Christmas. Brian, my saint of a husband, drove every last mile and so, between activity changes and requests from the girl in the throne in the back seat, I got to do a lot of looking at the countryside. As usual, I find the view from the passenger seat (or really anywhere you've got a decent window on wildlife) truly excellent.

High(way) Fliers
Highways are a great place to see some of the larger hunting birds (call them raptors if you're talking to a boy between the ages of 5 and, well, 95). You'll find hawks perched high in trees, looking over fields or grassy roadside shoulders for a juicy mouse or grasshopper. Occasionally you may even catch them in mid-swoop. The largest of the raptors you're likely to spot this way in the southeast are the red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks. They are, in a word, impressive. If, however, you spot a large bird circling high in the air, you're probably seeing a vulture who's riding a "thermal" - using a rising air current to soar without using much energy - so that it can scan the ground for a tasty rotting carcass. (Nothing says "holidays" like tasty rotting carcass, eh?) Vultures are most easily told from hawks in flight by their wings, which very conveniently form the first letter of their name - a wide V shape. When hawks fly, they hold their wings more flat. There are two kinds in the southeast, the turkey vulture (so named for its red, turkey-like head and neck) and the black vulture (different from the turkey vulture in that its head and neck are. . .wait for it. . .black). If you've got a keen eye, you'll be able to tell the turkey vulture in flight because the back half of its underwings are white, like stripes, whereas the outer half of the black vultures wings are white, like white wrists and hands. Yes, I can hear you asking - why would I want to identify a vulture, of all nasty birds. Well, share a little holiday cheer with our poor, downtrodden vultures - if it weren't for those wonderful animals that enjoy the pungent bouquet and exotic flavors of rotting carcass, you'd be dodging a lot more road kill on your drive. Grandma done run over a dead reindeer? No, thank you. The carrion eaters are the garbage men of the natural world, and they don't even have a union. And they fly a helluva lot better than the average garbage truck. So, hawks may be awesome, but vultures are truly cool, too. Besides, they're a great segue to my next traveling nature topic.

Road Kill Cafe Menu Highlights
No, I'm not putting "Anything Dead, On Bread" on the holiday menu this year, but the nerdy naturalist in me was rather intrigued by the variety of animals who gave up their lives to higher transportation. These were not just your average opossums and armadillos - two species which seem to have an unnatural affinity for death-by-SUV - I actually saw a coyote! A coyote in Alabama! These are one of the few species in modern times that are actually expanding their range despite the encroachment of man and the sprawling of cities. Ironically, it's probably because they don't mind tucking in at the Roadkill Cafe. Which means that the one I saw sprawled on the shoulder was probably crossing the highway to get at a juicy carcass right before he became one. The circle of life isn't always pretty, but think of the cute vultures he'll feed. . .

Speeding Up Time
Even at the accelerated rate at which my husband prefers to travel (remember, he's a pilot, and would rather be going fast enough to actually lift off the ground, so a mere ten to fifteen above the speed limit is holding back for him), there was no way to miss the transition between ecosystems from the longleaf pine woods of the Florida Panhandle and the deciduous forests of the Virginia Appalachians. Tall brown trunks with green, truffula-tree tufts of evergreen needles are the hallmark of the "pineywoods" - beautiful in their way, survivors of fire and sources of everything the native Americans and colonists needed to survive, but still the longleaf and slash pine forests aren't the woods I love. I mean, I like them, but I don't "like them" like them. Other than the Birch I actually married, my heart is reserved for the maples and oaks that tower at the top of the Appalachian forests, for the dogwoods and mountain laurels that float in the understory like fairy lace. As the hills begin to rise up at the Tennessee border (right where the fire ant mounds also seem to disappear - a very nice transition), the trees stand above the ridgeline like hair on a wild boar's back, grey brown and seeming to shift in the evening sun. Then, as the roads wind deeper into higher mountains, the winter forest surrounds you on all sides and beckons your gaze deep into its heart, past the ghostly grey trunks of white oaks, as you try to decipher what magic might be going on in there, what secret beasts are running in the twilight, rustling the crackly brown leaves of the forest floor. Luckily for me at this point, the kind requests of my daughter turned to hungry/sleepy/whiney calls for food/comfort/attention, and this bond of love kept me from diving out the window and into the waiting arms of my forest home. I must have been a deer in a past life. Probably ended up as road kill (I never have been good at judging speed and distance and I do tend to fixate on pretty lights- this is why Brian drives). With any luck my departure from deerhood nourished a high flying vulture.

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