May 12 -- I took a buyout package from Cerner (most excellent of them -- thank you) and today is my last day as a software developer.  I attached the journal Introduction to the good-bye letter that I sent to my colleagues at work.   Here is what Heike Kegel responded:

    "All the best to you, Bill.  I love the Begonia blog, but why are dandelions considered a lower life form, a weed?  I always loved them best since I was a kid!  First they are wonderful golden symbols of a thousand suns lighting up the meadows and later they turn out a million little parachutes which carry your dreams with them on a light breeze.  The juice from the stems we used to tattoo our skin (at least temporarily) and the leaves make a great salad.  What can a Begonia do compared to that.  I definitely go with the dandelion..."

    So now I want to be a dandelion and this is a blog (not sure what are all the components of a blog, but eventually I will catch up).  Or maybe I want to be a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.  Look how happy this little guy is:

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Exton, PA


May 13 -Ta Da!  On my last day at my old job, I wore my Sponge Bob Squarepants Krusty Krab shirt, then slept in it, and still have it on.  I intend to shower in a little bit and put on a clean shirt, so nothing has changed.  Chris got up as usual at 5:00 AM;  between 5:30 and 6:00 AM the backyard birds sang really loudly;  also between 5:30 and 6:00 Beans jumped on my chest three times and thoroughly licked my face.  All routine.  Chris cooked Beans breakfast (sweet potatoes and an egg fried and mixed into dried dog food);  I cooked Chris' and my eggs and toast;  Chris left for work at 6:50;  Beans is sitting on a step, staring into the backyard, and daring a squirrel to come back into Beans' domain.  Again -- all routine.

    A few decades back, I wrote a paragraph about a Cardinal that had been singing every morning for years.  While I was writing, it dawned on me that based on the probable life span of this bird (3 years in the wild, much longer in captivity), the singing must have been from a progression of birds, not just a single individual.  That struck me as very strange that in a scene that seemed to be constant for many years, the principle actor was constantly changing.  Like a river flowing, everything exists only for the briefest of moments, but then everything seems to exist forever.  What struck me as strange today is that I'm sitting in the same house, listening to a Cardinal sing, and writing a paragraph about it.  Nothing has changed and everything has changed.


May 14 - An Admission:  I never wrote a journal or a blog or a diary before.  I'm not sure, but I think that every few days or so, I put in an entry like, "Cleaned the garage.  Too tired to write anything!!"   My garage is a mess and when I get around to cleaning it in June or July, I hope that I will be able to write something like this:  "Guess what I found inside an old box of record albums!  In one of my father-in-law's polka albums there was a piece of paper that he was using as a cover for the record.  It was a share of Microsoft stock that a family member had given him as a Christmas present.  Now it's worth one billion dollars!" 

    The hive:  Bees, like prairie dogs and humans, are very social organisms.  They organize themselves to build an efficient structure to house themselves, manufacture their food, procreate, and nurture the next generation.  At the end of each development cycle, they eject the used up males, called drones.  The drones, having served their biological imperatives, are free to just hang out and have fun -- at least until the first frost, which will kill them because they were kicked out of the hive, or unless they starve first.  A better naturalist would probably know what drones eat.  Since this is just my second day, I'm going to let myself slide for now and make myself look it up later in Wikipedia.

    Anyway, fresh out of the hive, I have a comment about the physical organization of my old workplace.  Originally we were stationed in offices and our teammates had offices in the same hallway.  That was nice.  We could play music without headphones and decorate it like our own room would look, if our spouses didn't own all the rooms.  That seemed to the managers too constrictive for modern team interactions, so we were moved to cubicles.  No one asked us if we liked it or if we were becoming better teammates, but like Dilbert and Asok (the intern), we moved some of our stuff to the new cubicle and took the rest of it home.  With the advent of Agile programming at our company, the managers decided that the cubicle walls were barriers to good team interaction, so they took some of them away and called the empty spaces in the middle of the remaining walls -- team rooms.  We still had phones and shelves at the edges of the room.  We never used these and instead sat at tables in the middle of the room.  Yep tables, like your kitchen table, just not as nice.  So now there were no barriers to interaction and you could even reach out and touch the person next to you on either side -- I didn't do that because I didn't want to and maybe would have been fired if I did do it.

    We adapted to this by wearing headphones a lot and by making a concerted attempt to get along with each other.  The interaction was better.  The behaviors in the team room were interesting, more hive-like.  The team functioned more like a single organism and an amazing amount of work got done.  I've thought about this for the last couple years and realize that the kind of behaviors and intellectual feats that I have been witnessing every day in the team room are new behaviors, requiring minds that function in a qualitatively different manner.  More on that later, but for now, let me say, I don't recommend going back to offices.  I do recommend spending the money to redo the floor plan to match the reality.  Following the plan already thoroughly tested in Nature, set it up more like a hive.  Tear out the old window offices and conference rooms on the edges and build interior rooms in the center for meetings.  These rooms should be adjacent to each other and have sliding walls on their adjoining sides to accommodate occasional larger meetings.  Also move the manager's offices to the interior.  They don't need window offices  -- these are supposed to be for private meetings, not as badges of prestige (yeah, right).  If the manager's balk at giving up their windows, point out to them that the queen bees always live in the center of the hive, so that all the worker bees can protect her.  Also let the managers out occasionally to party with the drones.

    That leaves the entire outer area of the floor as open space.  Buy standard-sized tables with clearly structured areas to hold the equipment for a developer/analyst/tester.  That will prevent crowding in more workers to a table as the time goes on.  Notice how the cells of a beehive are phenomenally, accurately uniform.  The only structure to the open area will be movable partitions that can be easily shifted around to create different sized team rooms for new projects.  If a team needs to expand or shrink, move the partitions and shift everybody else on the floor up or down a table.   That should take fifteen minutes (if the tables are truly uniform).   That will avoid the situation that we kept getting into, which was to crowd twenty people into a space originally intended for twelve.  This structure will help make the team room concept popular, especially if comfortably housed workers can look up to see the outside.  Oh, I almost forgot.  Ditch the personal office phones, we don't use them anymore.

    Keeping in mind that the purpose of building the hive is to foster team work, an interesting experiment is happening right now.  I just came out of a high performance team where every individual was selected not only by talent, but also by whether he or she fit into the team dynamics.  Just recently, our section of the company was sold and the new company's culture is to break away from the organization of work by sub-applications (modules) and rebuild teams each time a new function is developed by throwing together individuals whose expertise spans all the needed sub-applications for that particular function.  Our previous thought was that the hard part of the development process is putting a good team together.  So when you have built a high performing team, leave it alone and assign it work -- even if the new function is foreign to the team, they will quickly learn it.  The new approach being adopted assumes that members who perform well on one team know how to perform well on other teams.  The constantly changing teams should also be successful.   This might be a more advanced level of behavior.  It seems closer to the way bees work, so more natural in that sense.  I'm expecting it to be highly successful.   


 Exton Park bird walk:  We saw: 

    Willow Flycatcher, Goldfinch, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Yellowthroat, Downey Woodpecker, Robin, Brown Thrasher, Yellow Warbler, Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Great Blue Heron, Tree Swallow, Rough-winged Swallow, Barn Swallow, Chimney Swift, Baltimore Oriole, Spotted Sandpiper (one difference from Solitary is teetering way of walking), Bluebird, Grackle, Cardinal, Blue Jay, Wood Duck, Crow, Red-shouldered Hawk (not Red-tailed), Song Sparrow, Warbling Vireo.

Bluebird at Exton Park, May, 2015


It is with great honor...

    I was thinking this morning that I'd like to have an honorary degree and Chris suggested that I grant myself one.  She also pointed out that these usually require a substantial monetary gift from the recipient to the granter of the degree.  So I transferred a large sum of cash from one of our checking accounts to a different one of our checking accounts.  I'm granting myself the honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Natural Semantics.  Even though I am quite pleased with this honor, I don't want anyone to start calling me Dr. Gadbow.  Just call me Bill.   Thank you.


Friday, May 15 - Shenandoah National Park, aka Skyline Drive

    Rachel and I arrived in Front Royal, Virginia this afternoon to start a week in one of our most visited national parks.  This 100 mile long refuge was built along a stretch of the Appalachians within easy driving distance from Washington, D. C.   It was designed as a driving tour along the mountain tops to provide pre-skyscraper city dwellers an opportunity to enjoy unprecedented vistas.  In its first year, in the heart of the Great Depression, it drew 500,000 motorist visitors.  In the two years after, it drew 750,000 and one million visitors.  Currently it draws over a million visitors annually.  We arrived during the week before Memorial Day, so we enjoyed much more solitude than mid-summer visitors.

Overall Run Trail -  After checking into the hotel at the north edge of the park, we headed down Skyline Drive for our first hike.  This was a strenuous 5.4 mile hike ending in an impressive ninety foot waterfall.   The difficulty of the waterfall hikes is deceiving.   They all start high and go down to the base of the falls, so the first half of the walk might be long, but not that difficult.   Getting back along a very long uphill grade takes a lot more energy.  This particular walk took four hours, including our stop for pictures.  

    On our way into the park, there were a lot of beautiful overlooks.   At one we saw a car parked outside the overlook parking area, even though there were plenty of spots inside the designated parking lot.  I commented that perhaps that car had been banned for "car abuse", like a sex offender being banned from being near a school.  Rachel pointed out that if you got a laugh at every attempted joke, humor would be too easy.   Or, in other words, she didn't think my joke was that funny.

    On the walk, Rachel took some very nice photos of wild flowers.  These will be on Flickr soon and when she is finished creating her album, I'll add the link to the web-site home page.  One very showy bloom was a yellow Lady Slipper that looks just like its name.


Rachel at Overall Run Falls


Saturday, May 16 - three trails out of four

     Just after sunrise, eerie magical mists covered the bases of the mountains seen from Buck Hollow Overlook.  The mountain tops looked like they were floating in a sea of clouds.

View from Buck Hollow Overlook early Saturday morning


Story of the Forest Trail - behind Big Meadows - an easy two mile stroll through woods (looks to contain an abandoned orchard), stream, and lawn.  I photographed a gold-capped warbler, which was an impressively brilliant Chestnut-sided Warbler.  We also saw Warbling Vireos, a small brown unidentified wren or warbler, some entertaining catbirds, a pair of striking Brown-headed Cowbirds, and a reddish-brown Brown Thrasher with an enormous tail.  We heard lots and lots of warblers and orioles singing in the dense woods.   Here's a shot of the thrasher:

Brown Thrasher, Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, May, 2015


Dark Hollow Falls Trail - also at Big Meadows - billed as a moderate walk, this 1.5 mile hike is surprisingly taxing.  It is enormously popular and on Saturday, it was crowded with families and many only occasional hikers.   The walk is straight down to a very pretty seventy foot waterfall and that is easy.   The walk back is not easy and, although the kids had a great time, many of the parents had to struggle to get back to their cars.  At the bottom of the lower falls, there were very few people, since many stayed at the base of the upper falls.  We amused ourselves taking pictures of butterflies and I tried to get a few pics of Rachel with the turbulent water behind her.  Also we saw a nice Warbling Vireo on the walk out.

Dark Hollow Falls, Big Meadows, Shenandoah National Park, May, 2015

Butterfly at the falls



Milam Gap to Tanners Bridge Fire Road - south 1.4 miles from Big Meadows to the parking area on the right.  Much of the trail is through an abandoned orchard and it is full of - no big surprise here- Orchard Orioles.  Rachel took lots of wildflower pics and is winning a competition that she started to see who will have the best Flickr album from the trip.  There were lots of warblers and flycatchers.  Here's a sweet pic of an Eastern Wood Pewee who perched on a stump in a sylvan paradise in a sea of ferns.  Repeatedly, he flew off a few feet to catch a bug, then back to his stump to sing his name over and over. 


Eastern Wood Pewee, Shenandoah National Park, May, 2015


Rain delay -  there was a fourth hike that we wanted to do that was recommended by a ranger at Big Meadows as a good birding walk.  It is between milepost 60 and 61 on Skyline Drive, south of Lewis Mountain, on the left going south.  It might not be marked and we passed it going south and had to come back north to find it.  However, rain started up and didn't let up, so it was just as well that we didn't start this particular hike.  On the way out, Buck Hollow Overlook was spectacular again.  The rain cleared briefly and the hollow was filled with massive piles of clouds, fighting the mountains for supremacy.

View from Buck Hollow Overlook on late Saturday afternoon


May 17 - Big Rag Mountain climb

Jokes:  On the way up, Rachel said, "The mist makes these woods look like something out of the Lord of the Rings."

    So I said, "I want to hear about Samwise Gamgee, Dad.  He was really brave.  Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without him."  When Rachel gave me the silent treatment, I continued, "Your line is 'Come on, Mr. Frodo, I was being serious.'" 

    Rachel shot back, "I like how you made yourself Frodo."

    "Of course."

    "I'm not going to be Sam."

    Then on the way down, Rachel said about one of my jokes, "There's a difference between being witty and just being stupid."

    I shot back, "I shouldn't have made you Samwise.  I should have made you Sam the Stupid."

    She said, "See, that's a perfect example of the kind of remark that I was talking about."

Level of conditioning - Rachel is not only kicking my butt on witty repartee, but she is dominating me on photography, including wild flowers, landscapes, waterfalls, and (most painfully) birds.  She is also literally walking me into the ground on our hikes.  My toes hurt; the bottoms and tops of my feet hurt; every muscle between my ankles and knees went numb to burning pain to a throbbing pain to a dull, but severe, ache.  She admits that she is also a little tired.

More jokes:  Two people coming down the mountain pulled off the trail at a difficult spot to let us go up.  I dragged out the troll remark.  "Are you guys being trolls?  Do we have to give you something?"

    One troll answered, "Only a nickel."

    I told Rachel that trolls are not too bright, so she could give them a stick and tell them that it is a nickel.  Believe it or not, that actually got a laugh.  Encouraged by that response, I chatted with a young woman who was passing us while I was taking one of my many breaks.

    "Do you know how far to the top?" I asked her.


    "Finally an honest person.  Everyone else told me that I'm almost there.  Everyone on this mountain is lying to me."

    We chatted a little, then she went on.  "See you at the top," she said,

    "Only if you wait for me a really long time."

    She called back over her shoulder, "I will be there.  When I get to the top, I'm going to stay and live there."

    I called back, "Everybody on this mountain is lying to me."

    Here's an attempted joke that back-fired on me so badly that Rachel loved it.  I had talked with a very large group of hikers of Asian descent, some of whom were local to Virginia and knew the mountain really well.  They got ahead of us, but later we caught up to them at a point that I thought was the summit.  "I made it!" I shouted.

    "Not quite," one of them called down.

    "Assuming that he was joking about my need to get up over the last rock, I exclaimed after joining him, "Now I've made it."

    "No the top is over there," he said, pointing to a high and sickeningly steep peak that hovered above our much lower overlook.  Horrified, I considered going back down, but that was also scary.  They went ahead and much later, we caught up to them again at what appeared to be the summit.  Relieved to be at the top, I got a burst of energy and decided to joke with them.  "How far to the top now?"

    "About a half hour."

    Obviously he was pulling my leg, so I continued the joke.  "So I bet it's a really hard climb from here."

    "Parts are pretty rough, but some is not too bad."

    I started to say something back again, but stopped when Rachel poked me in the back.  It dawned on me that he was serious.  After four hours of climbing and scrambling over rocks and through narrow wedges, I still wasn't near the top!  More than half an hour later, we met again at the real summit and they were happy to see that I had made it.  I'm not sure what other choice I had.  Rachel had a key to the car and I suspect that, if I gave up, she might have left me there.

This mountain is no joke - This is the highest mountain in the park and the most rigorous climb/hike.  From the parking lot, you walk a mile to the trail head and then do two miles of steady ascent, a lot of which is real climbing.  There was one scramble across a rock on the edge of a cliff with no handholds.  Rachel did it sitting.  I slithered across it face down, backwards.  I looked pathetic, but got across.  She said that for part of my slither my legs were hanging out in space over the cliff.  That was the worst part for me, although people with no fear of heights probably would not have considered it difficult at all.  There were also three times where my legs were not nimble enough to get up over some wide reaches between boulders and Rachel needed to reach back and help me up.  The first time, I said, "You aren't going to tell anybody about this, are you?"

    She wisecracked, "No. Not much," which meant that she planned to tell Mike and also anyone else who would listen.  So my plan is to get my version out first, so that her story, which will probably make me look puny and weak, will be discounted.  My version is that I didn't look particularly puny, just weak.  The second time that she gave me a hand up, I had to leap up from one boulder to another.  For a moment I was hanginging completely free until she pulled me over to her rock.  My immediate thought was, "Thank god for those hours of weight training during her softball career!"  Rachel is average height, petite and feminine - and also strong enough to keep her father from falling off a mountain. 

Wildlife - Rachel took dozens of outstanding wildflower pictures while I stopped to catch my breath.  Some of them she has already identified, but most are still unknown to us.  There are vivid pinks, bright yellows, soft blues.  There are intricate patterns, beautiful shapes - some tiny, others quite large.  Birds identified on this hike:  Warbling Vireo (great pic by Rachel), American Red Start (pic by Rachel), Prothonotary Warbler (also Rachel got a pic), Hooded Warbler (who perched on a branch in the open very near us for a minute or me, but we still couldn't get it in focus), Indigo Bunting (again Rachel got a pic), Eastern Wood Pewee, Orchard Oriole.

Miniaturization - some of the prettiest flowers that Rachel photographed were really tiny.  They obviously have all the parts of their larger relatives and the flower must have the same purpose - to attract pollinators - but these must be really tiny pollinators.  Those tiny insects have all the parts of their larger relatives.  Big creatures, like us, assume that bigness is an advance.  Former computer guys, like me, are mindful that miniaturization is really, really hard for computers.  It is probably also extremely hard for living things.  So is being tiny and complex an evolutionary advance? 

    Judging by biomass, it must be.  Think about the sequence that occurs every spring.  Flocks of mostly small birds arrive to eat the just hatching hordes of insects, which are eating the emerging plants.  Although there are lots of big plants and birds and bugs, most are small.  Look at a little plot of land in a forest, field, or marsh - actually anywhere except a chemically treated lawn or modern farm.  Wherever there is wetness, their will be hundred or thousands of tiny different species.  You can't count all of them and only the best naturalists have any idea what most of them are.  Did you ever wonder what mosquitoes eat when they aren't biting mammals?  I never did either, but I just looked it up and they eat lots of things, including nectar from flowers.  So they are among the tiny pollinators. 

    We might think that it is obvious that we are dominating the planet.  We see our seven billion individuals and large constructions as evidence of this.  I'll bet that seven billion is a really low number for the count of living things in just the Shenandoah National Park.  In numbers or biomass, we aren't even the dominant mammal.  That honor would most likely go to the mouse, who is the foundation species for many ecosystems and one of the most successful creatures to ever exist.  The most dominant builder is not the human.  That would be the termite, whose giant mounds exist in far greater numbers and total volumes than our buildings.  I'm not even going to give us credit for being the best farmers and food producers.  Our monoculture will eventually implode as other organisms adapt to eat it faster than we can grow it.  The best food producer might be the bee whose honey is a perfectly adapted food that is resistant to spoilage.

At the top of the mountain -- While we were sitting in silence for a bit, following a busy time of scenic picture taking and warbler identification (mostly warblers and vireos at the summit and a fair number of them), I kind of broke the meditative spell by making the "Om" sound.  "Sorry," I said.  " I couldn't resist."

    Rachel said, "That's okay.  I was thinking that too.  So old man on a mountain top, what is the meaning of life?"

    "I don't know,  Which might actually be a valid answer.  Not thinking that you know puts you into the state of searching to know. Searching might be the unique thing that living things do.  Searching for sun;  searching for water;  searching for company.  Life probably doesn't have a purpose.  It just is.  Humans attach meanings to things.  The important activity may be the quest to understand."

    But since Rachel had been thinking that I might say something useful, I continued, "My motto is that it's okay to enjoy a song even though you don't know what all the words mean."

    She nodded and then it started to rain.  We began the long back way down off the mountain.  As we left, I pointed out that young people have a wonderful experience and part of the joy is the anticipation of doing it again.  For example, climbing Rag Top was fun and this friend would love it or a sister or brother would love it.  On the other hand, I was thinking that as I left this spot that I would never be here again.  I had barely made the climb today and most likely will never attempt it again.  Rachel, being twenty, pointed out that I could climb a different mountain or, if I really wanted to do Rag Top again, I could go up the very long but easy back route.


Approach to problem solving:

    Young guy - dominating a difficult challenge is worthwhile.  The fun of going up Rag Top is to do the difficult climb.  Going up the back way is boring.

    Old guy - getting the desired result with less effort is worthwhile.  Going up the front way is an option.  If the choices are going up the back way or to stay home, let's go up the back way.

    Team builder - if you can get them to work together, have some of each on your team and let them choose their own tasks.


 Rag Top, the hike - almost a mile from the parking lot (a really big field) to the trail head.  Two miles up a very steep trail to the summit.  There are a lot of rock scrambles that require actual climbing, many narrow crevices to squeeze through, and a few rock surfaces to crawl across that have no hand holds.  Tall and very fit people can spring from boulder top to boulder top in seconds (I saw this) in places where others may need to crawl from rock to rock (I did this) taking five or ten minutes and a lot of energy.  The descent is down other trails that are 5.5 miles of easy descent, much longer, but no climbing required.  The whole hike is supposed to take four hours, which might not count the distance from the parking lot to the trail head.  It took us almost eight hours.  Even if you took out the half hour walking between car and trailhead and also took out the half hour nap that I took in a sunny overlook on the way down, our time was still pretty slow.  No problem.  I made it and while I took frequent rest stops, Rachel took excellent photos.

    Measuring how fast you do the climb is part of the experience for repeat climbers;  I respect that and enjoy the physical challenge.  Another aspect is just being on the mountain, possibly even feeling part of the mountain, getting beyond tourism.  There were a lot of warblers at the summit and quite a few people too.  The warblers are passing through and staying for a few days or maybe for a few months.  Either way, they are transient, like the people.  But they aren't visitors.  They are living there.  Most of us were being tourists -- seeing, not being.  Except for maybe the one lady who I talked to on the way up who claimed that she was going to live there.  At the top, she repeated the claim.  Until this moment, I assumed that she was just joking.  Now I'm not 100 percent sure.  She might be one of those really special people who can really BE where they are.  Or she could have been joking.


5/18A miracle!  - My legs don't hurt.  I do not understand it.  Who cares!  I'm pleased to be functional.  We planned to take most of the day off so that I can recuperate and we are doing that.  Right now, Rachel and I are at a pretty stream winding through a park in Front Royal.  She is sunning herself, sitting on a rock, streamside, feet actually in the stream, while reading a book about the brain.  I'm in the shade at a picnic table, but close enough to the stream to feel part of its action;  its sounds - bubbling water, chirping grackles, singing robins and cardinals; its sights - sun spilling across the rills in the stream;  its smells - flowers and water.  I can even feel the stream, as a soft breeze is wafting across it and carrying a tiny spider and a red mite onto my arm.  If I could manage to shut off the stream of words in my head, I might actually start to be in the real stream around me.  It's very close.

    Rachel quoted from her book.  It seems about a third of our brain is dedicated to sight.  A reasonable definition of seeing is the sensing of a selected spectrum of electromagnetic rays and the filtering out of those rays to discern patterns and differences.  From this definition it is evident that the sensing of light is important, but that is only the first step.  A great deal of seeing is related to the filtering of the massive amounts of sensory input to enable the seer to focus on small bits of the total input.  After that, a large part of the brain activity has to be in sorting the input into patterns, recognizing familiar patterns, identifying new patterns, and storing relevant pieces of input for reuse.  What to do with the input and how to react to it is an entirely different activity and handled by a different part of the brain.  So given this definition of seeing, even when looking at identical scenes, everyone is seeing different things.  Seeing includes filtering, focusing, sorting, and interpretation.  Even though seeing is a major way in which we experience the world, it is not the actual experience of life.  In fact, seeing is so wonderful that it can become the complete focus of our experience and can become a distraction to the business of living.  We can become tourists, only seeing what is around us.  It's not about seeing.  It's about being.  And, of course, I really do not know what that means.

Fight to the death - Later on Monday, while horseback riding outside of Front Royal, we saw a natural drama being played out.  Four crows had a snake surrounded in a pasture.   To add to the weirdness, a llama was standing nearby, calmly grazing.  The snake was alive and fighting to stay that way.  The crows would hover around the snake and flap back as soon as it lunged toward them.  Still, with four on one odds, the snake looked like a goner.  Then three of the crows gave up and flew away, leaving only one to continue to harass the snake.  The snake coiled and when the crow approached to within a foot, the snake lunged.  Just in time, the crow flapped out of reach.  The behavior of the snake makes me think it was a rattlesnake.  The reactions of the crow support that.   After the close call, the remaining crow seemed to lose his aggressiveness and harassed the snake from a distance.  It looked like the crow was now concentrating on just being annoying.  That went on for fifteen more minutes and was still going on when we rode away.


5/19, TuesdayThe Shenandoah River - Kayaking on the Shenandoah River, we saw a lot of wildlife.  The best sighting was a River Otter.  We were floating silently with the current, hoping to get close to a Great Blue Heron that we could see downstream, when Rachel spotted the head on a medium-sized mammal swimming across the river in front of us.  We thought it was a beaver because we had spotted a brown animal on the bank that was larger than a woodchuck and had a tail, and we thought that animal was a beaver.  We watched this animal swim all the way to the bank and got a clear view of its entire profile as it climbed up the bank.  It had the obvious long shape, long tail, round head, long neck and size of a River Otter.  So probably the first animal was also an otter.

    We did well spotting birds too.  An Osprey flew over us, wheeled in front of us, and flashed his white underside with black etching.  We saw at least five Green Heron and watched one of them catch minnows in a pool along the bank that might have been a beaver construction.  We saw a single Solitary Sandpiper, which seemed appropriate.  In the afternoon we saw a bird fly over the river that was black and crow-sized, but had very pronounced white bars a few inches back from each wing tip.   This was a new bird for me.  It was a Common Nighthawk, which can be seen in daylight flying over countryside, catching insects.  When we stopped to swim in the area where the George Washington National Forest begins, we spotted a bald eagle with his huge black body and white head.

    It was interesting that the woodland birds along the river banks seemed to be in flocks that didn't mix.  First we saw and heard a lot of orioles, then warblers, after that grackles, and later still Red-winged Blackbirds.  Rachel suggested that maybe the food is different at different spots along the bank.  

5/20 - We camped along the river at a boat launch where we had left our car, so we didn't need to carry anything and the spot was nice.  At night, I heard lots of squawks, screeches, and hoots.  I would love to know what they were and hope to acquire those skills.  At 5:30, the birdsong started loud.  At 6:00, it was bright enough to go for a walk around the boat launch and surrounding area.  An Indigo Bunting treated me to a long song, hopped in front of me, and sang some more.  A little grey and white guy was making a "skrich" noise way up at the top of a Sycamore.  At 6:15, the decibel level dropped back from a 7 out of 10 to a 2 out of 10.

 Wildlife sightings for second day on the river:  Bald Eagle, Great Blue Heron (several), Green Heron (many), Woodchuck, Tree Swallows, Orioles, Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Grackles, Yellow Warbler, Kingbirds, Common Mergansers (should have migrated north already, but saw two of them flying up river with their unmistakable red heads, white bodies, and clean dark markings), Mallards, a mother Bufflehead and babies (again this is unlikely because of the time of year, but the oval white patch behind her eye was obvious),  and eight cormorants on a big rock.   There were loads of beautiful butterflies, including an especially beautiful green and black species with red dots near the base of the wings.  Rachel has pictures of most of them, so eventually we'll get her photo album up and start identifying what we saw.   

Not the same individual that landed in my kayak, unless he followed me up to the mountains - but the same species.  


    Ended the kayaking with a short and exciting run of a class two rapids.   This rapids had way more water rushing through it than the other rapids that we went through, but wasn't as difficult as some of the other rocky spots.   At one point we missed the landmarks and went over a small waterfall.  That was actually dangerous, but we got through it okay.   At another point, I hit a rock head on which spun me around and caused me to shoot the rest of the rapid backwards.  After getting off the river, we got a great dinner in a Mexican restaurant in Luray recommended by Jaime, an intern for the Shenandoah River Outfitters, the company from whom we rented the kayaks.   Then we drove back into the park at the Thornton Gap entrance and camped overnight there.


 5/21, Thursday - Heavy Rain - We were lucky that it didn't rain while we were on the river, because we would have been pretty cold and miserable.  The temperature dropped into the 40's overnight and stayed in the 50s well into Thursday afternoon.  We stayed dry and warm overnight, but had to take down the tent in a steady rain and stow it away wet.   This was the only day of our week that got washed out by the weather and it came at a good time to get a rest.  On the way back to Front Royal, the rain let up and we spotted a sign that pointed out part of the Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trail, so we followed it.  Basically we turned off 340 near Bentonville and drove a big U on Acorn Drive, until we got back to 340.  It was productive.  We saw a Red-headed Woodpecker, Barn Swallows, Robins, a Mockingbird, a Thrasher, Catbirds, Chipping Sparrows, and a Meadowlark.


5/22 - Last day of the trip - we got up early to get in a full day before driving back home in the evening.  I will be able to bring my camera out for all the hikes we have planned for Friday.  I had to leave it behind on the Big Rag climb, on the two river days, and the day it rained.  Rachel brought the Olympus SZ31 that I used for my 2013 pictures.   It is a pretty good camera for its price.  Also very small with a decent zoom.

Shenandoah River State Park, aka Raymond R. "Andy" Guest, Jr. State Park - Bentonville, Virginia - between Front Royal and Luray along 340.  This is a really good birding spot and I intend to camp here for a few days, next time I come back to the area.  We saw Baltimore Orioles, Tree Swallows, Carolina Wrens, Mourning Doves, Grackle, Blue-grey Gnatcatchers, and many unidentified warblers.  I started using manual focus for the first time and got a shot of the Carolina Wren that I would have missed on Autofocus.  I'm finding that Autofocus does a perfect job when the subject is isolated.  So the best strategy for me may be to us AF, unless it doesn't work, then switch quickly to Manual.  I could really kick myself for not learning Manual sooner, like every single real photographer recommended.  It's not hard at all.  I missed a lot of shots in the last year because I was being chicken, or maybe being intellectually lazy.

Stony Man Mountain Summit Trail - very easy.  Disappointingly routine view of the countryside.  Maybe I'm getting jaded to beautiful vistas.  Up and back the same way in an hour.   We saw a Baltimore Oriole, a Scarlet Tanager, Aa Warbling Vireo, and several Eastern Wood Pewees.

Scarlet Tanager using Manual Focus (finally), Stony Man Mountain, May, 2015


White Oak Canyon Waterfall - five mile round trip, 1000 foot drop to base of falls, then return is all uphill.  Took three hours.  Great walk, but although the trail itself is level and easy. the length and elevation change makes this too hard for some people.  We saw two elderly couples struggling on the return.  It is a beautiful waterfall and worth the hike out to see it.


Rachel in charge at the falls


    Rachel got a picture of a Common Yellowthroat, while I was stalking and failing to get a photo of what was either a Blackpoll or a Chickadee.  We both got great pictures of a Junco, which I insisted must be something else, because all of these should have migrated well-out of Virginia/ Maryland/ eastern PA by now.   I was mostly correct and found in Sibley's Guide that the Juncos are year-round residents in the narrow mountain strip along Skyline Drive.

The ride out - We finished our week in style at the Brookside Diner on Route 211 outside of Luray.  I can confidently recommend the Bobwood Sandwich.  It is turkey pastrami, fried egg, Cole slaw, potato salad, and fries all inside a Kaiser bun.  Yowser!

    Rachel drove the whole way back and threw back to me some points on leadership that we had been chatting up during the week.  On the mountain climb, I had retold her a story that I read about a famous mountain climber who lost his brother on a Himalayan climb. On the last summit push, the leader left his younger brother behind because that brother was not in peak shape to try the final assault.  The brother stupidly set off on his own and was killed.   My points included that a leader needs to know how his teammates will react (as opposed to how they should react), that the team needs to win or lose as a team, and that a leader needs to keep perspective -- never risking what he cannot afford to lose, just to win.  Also a leader makes the decision assigned to him and takes responsibility for the decisions.   From that point on she had been threatening to leave me behind on every hike.   On the drive back I was paying more attention to the song selections on my cell phone than to the directions and let Rachel drive past the turnoff for the PA Turnpike.   I then gave Rachel obviously wrong instructions on which ramp to take to get to the next turnoff for the Turnpike.   She took the ramp that she knew was correct and explained that she was in the leadership position and taking responsibility for the final decision.  Touché! 


5/23, Saturday - at home.   The tent was still wet.  I set it up to dry, then later put it away.

    The grass was long.  I cut it and raked up the clippings.

    Beans was happy to see me.  I gave her lots of pets and tossed her ball for her a bunch of times.

    Chris and Kathryn welcomed us back.  There was a woodpecker at the suet feeder and a wren in the front yard.  The red maple that I transplanted two weeks ago is still alive.  It's very nice to live in southeast PA.


5/24 - Bungee Cord Bill

    Last week, we left for a hike and I was wearing some Gore-Tex pants that are excellent for keeping off the bugs and the sun, but still extremely lightweight.   Since the last time that I wore them, I have lost a few inches off my middle, and the pants were falling off.  I didn't have a belt, so I used a piece of bungee cord instead.  I kind of liked the look and feel.  From that point on I've ditched belts and have been wearing a bungee cord.  After two days at home, no one that I know thinks that this is particularly odd.  That worries me.  Am I really that weird?

     "Deep in the jungle where the mighty tiger lies,

      Bill and his elephant were taken by surprise.

      Mean Captain Marvel zapped him right between the eyes.

      Zap!!!"  -- from The Beatles White Cover album


 5/25 - Stone Wall.  I started repairing a two foot high, hundred foot long stone wall that I made along my driveway about a quarter century ago.   I got tired and stopped to write a poem about it.  It's called "Shifting Rocks".


"Something there is that doesn't love a wall",

The poet shared this as a basic fact.

He says that when Nature makes something fall

It takes a Man to put the something back.


The Science of his time gave postulate:

All things behave like atoms in a gas;

In nature things pursue a random state;

To bounce against each other is our task.


Today I fixed the wall along my drive

Piled stone on stone to edge a flower bed

And I as part of nature did contrive

To make a pretty thing to please my head.


As I piled stones and hummed a happy song,

It seemed to me that Robert Frost was wrong.


5/26Current state of the wall.



5/27 - Played golf and wrote another poem.  This one is called "Robert Frost, the Duffer".


It's bad to pick on poet laureates

And worse to kick a man when he is down,

But I don't think to ask is circumspect

Who was the better golfer in his town?


Could Frost hit chips and putts just like a pro?

Or loft his six above a massive tree?

Had he a notion where his drive would go?

Or was he in the pond on the par three?


"Do you think that he did play golf?", you ask.

Well -- not at least as far as what I've read.

But wait.  There's more to this than just the facts

And this is what my golfing buddy said,


"NOW you're the better poet, it appears.

He hasn't written anything for years!"


5/28 - Good-bye to a friend.   I said good-bye to Ann Grove today.   She was a wonderful person.


5/31 - Not a Meadowlark.  I thought that I had taken an adequate picture of a Meadowlark in the new Meadow at Longwood Gardens, but when I looked at the picture in my Sibley's Guide, I found that I had missed the id.   An additional half-hour of puzzling over it and I got the Id correct.  It was a first year Orchard Oriole, who is mostly yellow with greyish wings, and a black patch over his entire throat.   The mature Orchard Oriole will be a very deep orange color with black markings, including an all black head.  The Baltimore is much lighter and brighter, more yellow than orange  I'll show the male Baltimore Oriole and the first year Orchard Oriole.   Now that I rechecked my picture of a mature Orchard Oriole from the Miriam Gap Trail, I see that it is actually an American Redstart, which is cool, but not very helpful.   When I take a good picture of a mature Orchard Oriole, maybe I'll come back and add it here.


Baltimore Oriole, Exton Park, May 14, 2015



first year male Orchard Oriole (the one in the lower right), Longwood Gardens, PA, May, 2015.   Upper left is either first year or female.