A Moment for Millipedes

Just a quick post today – the sun is out and the pools are open!  I did want to take a moment, though, and write about millipedes.

Now, before you go “Ewwww, gross!”  You need to know the following things about millipedes:

  1. Millipedes are vegetarians, not hunters and, as such, they do not bite.  (Centipedes are the ones that bite.  They are not to be messed with.)  They will curl up in your palm as a defense mechanism – tough exoskeleton side out, soft underbelly in and protected.
  2. When you hold a millipede, after it uncoils, you’ll feel one of two things:  nothing, or tickling.  They do not have a thousand legs, as the prefix “milli” implies, but do have two sets of legs per body segment and that can add up to several hundred!
  3. Millipedes are incredibly important because they eat dead leaves and decaying wood and other dead plant matter.  Without them, we’d be up to our ears in fallen leaves from the past gagillion years.  Check out this quote:

“Since the [cyanide-producing] millipede crushes, filters and then recrushes its dead leaf diet, it increases the availability of nutrients 40,000-fold….The cyanide-producing millipede alone eats 33 to 50 percent of all the dead coniferous and deciduous leaves that come to rest on the forest floor. It is one of the most critical links in the entire soil foodweb.”

— From the article Small in Size, but Great in Importance by Dr. Andrew Moldenke

I lead a family nature walk at Falls Ridge Nature Preserve this last Wednesday, and though turnout was low – only one family – it happened to be the family of one of my favorite kids from the SEEDS – Blacksburg Nature Center.  We’ll call him Diego, not his real name, to protect his very important three-year-old privacy.

Diego is awesome.  He loves to be outside and is not afraid of anything.  He will hold any bug you give him and find it cool and/or cute.  Once he knows a bug is safe to hold, he will also go find them and pick them up himself.  This kid is an excellent log roller (one of our favorite activities at the nature center is rolling over rotting logs and checking out all of the tiny animals that live beneath them).

So, on our hike, though most of the spring flowers at Falls Ridge had past bloom and the butterflies were too fast to catch (or get decent pictures of), the universe rewarded Diego and me with millipedes.  Lots of them, and big ones!  (The ones we usually find under logs at the nature center are only about an inch long and skinnier than a piece of yarn.)

Here are the two coolest millipedes we found:

Bright colors, such as yellow and red, warn that an animal is likely poisonous, and this one is - it can secrete cyanide compounds.

Bright colors, such as yellow and red, warn that an animal is likely poisonous, and this one is – it can secrete cyanide compounds.

Apheloria virginiensis

This impressive little fellow has no common name, but is fairly common in southwest Virginia.  Though, again, not dangerous to humans, it is poisonous.  (Quick review:  “poisonous” = makes you ill if you eat it; “venomous” = can inject toxins into you that will make you ill.)  It can secrete enough cyanide compound to kill a small bird or mouse that tries to eat it.  It’s recommended that people wash their hands after handling this millipede so as not to rub any cyanide in their eyes accidentally.  The cyanide compounds it makes are what give this millipede its characteristic almond/cherry smell when it’s handled.  This particular little fellow, however, seemed to use speed in its defense – it crawled over our hands too quickly for me even to snap a picture; I had to photograph it back on the ground.

One more super cool thing about this millipede?  It glows in the dark.  The researchers at Marietta College in Ohio have documented this species as glowing blue under UV light (blacklight).

North American millipedes were all over the forest floor at Falls Ridge.  Several had been crushed by inattentive hikers' feet.  This one, though, was safe at the edge of a trail bridge.

North American millipedes (Narceus americanus) were all over the forest floor at Falls Ridge. Several had been crushed by inattentive hikers’ feet. This one, though, was safe at the edge of a trail bridge.

North American Millipede (Narceus americanus)

If we’re going to select one millipede for the whole continent, this one might as well be it, since it grows to twice the size of any other millipede living in North America.  They mate in spring and females will coil themselves around the one egg they lay in order to protect it; a lot more than other arthropod moms do for their broods!  These millipedes survive the winter inside rotting logs and can live up to 11 years.  When they’re born, they’re only three tiny body segments long, but each time they molt (shed their exoskeleton) they add new segments.

Once our eyes grew accustomed to seeing millipedes, we found them all over the trails and forest floor.  They must be out looking for love in the beautiful spring weather!

The North American millipede all curled up in Diego's little hand.

The North American millipede all curled up in Diego’s little hand.

The North American Millipede crawling on my hand.

The North American Millipede crawling on my hand.

Pandapas Pond – Part Two

Wednesday.  I’m in my house and should be sorting laundry or cleaning the kitchen or writing the grocery list.

But I promised a second part to our little trip to Pandapas Pond, and I’m a woman of honor, so I’m going to skip those other things and write about nature instead.

For you.  Because I’m selfless and committed like that.

Now let’s see. . .where were we at the end of part one?  Oh, yes, 2,196 feet high in the Jefferson National Forest, one quarter of the way around man-and-beaver-made Pandapas Pond with the golden evening sun pouring through the trees on the mountainside.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.  I captured this shot in 2013.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.

Five petals and plenty of thorns - you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.  I took this photo in Louisiana in March of 2012; they bloom two months earlier that far south.

Five petals and plenty of thorns – you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.

We walked past blackberry vines in bloom (Rubus allegheniensis, another member of the rose family of plants – five petaled flowers and fruit that follows, just like cherry and crabapple trees and cockspur hawthorn we talked about) and oxeye daisies (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) showing their friendly faces.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas.  This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas. This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

We were drawn across the first bridge of this figure eight shaped pond by something that seemed to have been set aflame by slanted rays of the setting sun, but was, in fact, a flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea or Rhododendron calendulaceum depending on which book you reference) in full bloom, pictured at left.

Though the flowers have little smell and the blossom color can vary from soft yellow to muted red, hummingbirds and other pollinators have no trouble finding this native nectar source.

I’m growing a flame azalea in my back yard next to the deck stairs; I bought it at a local nursery that specializes in native plants.  It’s only about two feet tall right now, but someday it will reach 12 feet, and the bright orange, trumpet shaped flowers will be at eye level as I stand on the deck, which means that the hummingbirds visiting it will be at eye level, too!

More great information and excellent pictures of the flame azalea is available at another excellent blog, Virginia Wildflowers.

I’ve just realized that I’m straying from my usual bold title and underlying description format.  I’ll get back on track for the rest of the post.

Our next stop was the wetland boardwalk (the top of the figure eight, looking back into the wetlands that stretch into woods) where we sat, looked, and listened for almost an hour with birds overhead and fish beneath our feet.  Here are the rest of the highlights from our Sunday nature walk at Pandapas:

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer.  Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer. Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-winged Blackbird

“Conk-ka-reeeee” sang a male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the top of a nearby snag.  There are several dead trees (called “snags”) in the wetland area at the back of Pandapas, and the male was using the closest one as a stage, flashing his scarlet and gold epaulets.  He must have been singing for an all female audience in the nearby woods, because we didn’t see a single female respond.  That didn’t stop the gallant soloist, though, and my dear husband swears he heard a few new trills previously undocumented for the red-winged blackbird.  I doubt that in our family hour we made a minor discovery in wildlife biology, but I heard the different trill, too – a long trill that went up and back down like a shallow bowl turned over – and my interest is piqued!

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo.  This excellent shot was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo. This excellent shot of an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Phoebe

“Oooh, look over there, what’s that little bird?” my daughter asked.  My first answer?  It’s an LBB.

Ahh, the LBBs (Little Black Birds and Little Brown Birds) – they’re hard to distinguish from one another!  I never got close enough to be 100% certain that this was an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) and not an Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens), and heaven knows the zoom on my phone was no help (not that I’m bitter), but I got close enough to see the shape, size (about as long as my hand from base of palm to tip of middle finger), and behavior of the bird, so I’m fairly certain I’ve got it right.  The first thing you notice about a phoebe is that it’s a tail wagger, constantly pumping its tail up and down, and this little fellow was definitely wagging.  It was also perched on a low branch near the wetland boardwalk bridge, and phoebes nest under bridges and other overhangs.  The birdy never sang, but it did fly out and fly back to its perch on several insect-snatching sorties.  What this LBB lacks in size it makes up for in speed and maneuverability, which is too bad for the insects, who make up its meals.

This mallard mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas.  I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas. I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery Mallards

As we sat and watched Abbey sally forth up and down the boardwalk, spotting perch and Eastern newts in the tea-brown water, we kept an eye and ear on the field of cattails in the marsh.  And then they moved.  Suddenly.  Not blown by the wind, but by some not-tiny animal moving within them.  We all got excited.  I don’t know about the other two, but as I held my breath I wished for beavers.  Lots and lots of people have seen the beavers at Pandapas, but I haven’t.  Their lodge and dam work is obvious to all, but I’ve yet to spot the furry brown builders themselves.

I didn’t this time, either.  What did come waddling into a clearing was a mama mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and her half dozen ducklings.  And it didn’t matter that they weren’t beavers or that I’ve seen hundreds of them before, my face split into an instinctive grin at the fussing mother and the wandering, wobbling, fuzzy little babies.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade.  This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade. This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m extra glad for the noisy mallards that kept my eyes focused on the cattails because that gave me another gift – the sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).  The ruby-throat, as they’re often known, is the only hummingbird that visits us here in the mid-Atlantic region of North America.  I have planted lots of native, hummingbird friendly plants (coral honeysuckle, liatris, wild columbine, bee balm/monarda, and more) and have even hung a hummingbird feeder, so I know they’re out there, but still a sighting is rare.  They’re little green birds – well, if phoebes are little, then these are actually tiny – that dart so quickly through the landscape it’s hard to catch them.  In fact, they’re the only birds that are so maneuverable that they can fly backwards!

I thank my lucky stars that I saw this one, a female, I think, because I didn’t see the ruby throat that indicates a male, because she was gathering cattail fluff to tuck into her nest!  I saw her pluck fluffy seeds from the spent cattail flower stalk, fly to a second stalk, grab even more, and then carry it off in her beak as she flew away to the woods’ edge.  That kind of sighting, well, for a nature nerd like me, it’s enough to make your whole week!

And it did:  I’m still grinning.  But, on the other hand, it’s not going to get the laundry done, so off I go!

Pandapas Pond – Part One

Eight minutes.

I timed it.  In just eight minutes I can drive from my house to Pandapas Pond, one of the best family nature spots I’ve ever visited – living in Blacksburg is the best!

We go there fairly often, but not often enough.  I say this because the trails around Pandapas (called the Poverty Creek trail system – over 17 miles of hiking) are full of rhododendrons and I have still not been up there when they’re all in bloom.  Four years as an undergrad at Virginia Tech, one as a young newlywed, and now three years as a townie, and I haven’t seen the rhodies in bloom.  Unacceptable.  And now, with our move date only a year away, I’m down to my last two springs, my last two chances.

Here in town, the rhododendrons are just finishing bloom.  So, doing my handy-dandy elevation math, with Pandapas at 2,196 feet and Blacksburg at 2,080 feet, and spring climbing the mountain at 100 feet per day (heaven help me, I’m writing a word problem – and I so hated math class) I was about to miss them again!

So yesterday evening we hopped in the car and went.  No plans, no packs, just decent walking shoes and the golden sunlight of evening.  Perfect.

Except the rhodies weren’t blooming.  Actually, we did see one, on the way out, in deep shade and in full, glorious bloom.  But it turned out to be the cherry on the sundae, because everything else going on at the pond pushed the rhododendrons right out of my mind within five minutes of being there.

My daughter, Abbey, recorded over 30 different plants and animals in her nature notebook.  (FYI, if you want to slow an eight-year-old kid down so you can have a leisurely nature walk, give her a waterproof camera and a nature notebook.  Works like a charm.)  I’m not going to review all 30 here because it’s a beautiful day and I want to get outside, but here are the highlights:

Mountain Laurel

This mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is just beginning to bloom.  It is a cousin to the rhododendron; both are in the Heath family of plants.

This mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is just beginning to bloom. It is a cousin to the rhododendron; both are in the Heath family of plants.  I snapped this picture of a plant 10 feet from the parking lot.

These are what made me temporarily forget the rhododendrons.  The mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) were blooming everywhere in shades of delicate pink pretty enough to make just about anything slip your mind.  This is one of my favorite parts of nature – that it can so occupy the senses that the mind has no room left to process worries.

Mountain laurel also goes by the names “spoonwood”, because early Americans made spoons from its wood (again, nature names are often utilitarian or descriptive) or “lambkill”.  Want to guess at the origin of that second one?  Yep, lambs that ate mountain laurel could end up dead.  Mountain laurel is toxic to livestock and to humans, so much so that even eating honey made from the nectar of its flowers could give you a bad case of stomach upset.  Not that you would, thankfully, because the honey is very bitter.

The poison within the plant is called grayanotoxin.  Various Native American tribes made use of the plant externally as an analgesic or anti-inflammatory, and I hope that somewhere in a lab they’ve got this stuff stocked away for further study as to its medical uses.  After they get rid of the hideous diarrhea and vomiting side effects of course.

Not that that’s what I want you to remember about mountain laurel.  Remember this, please:  oooohhhhh, pretty, pretty, pretty – so pink and pretty!

Canada Geese & Goslings

Only one adult is pictured here, but there were several browsing with the goslings and herding them, slowly, away from us.  They were not worried about us - or the cameras we were pointing at them - in the slightest.

Only one adult is pictured here, but there were several browsing with the goslings and herding them, slowly, away from us. They were not worried about us – or the cameras we were pointing at them – in the slightest.

Pandapas is a year-round haunt for Canada geese (Branta canadensis).  They’re rather tame, too, and will even follow you at a safe distance on the off chance that you’ll drop a crumb of bread or toddler’s Cheerio.  We didn’t feed them (not that I’m morally opposed to it; I’d just use birdseed rather than bread) but they let us get close enough to take good photographs of the goslings still in their fluffy baby feathers.

The only notice they took of us was a little perfunctory head bobbing and hissing performed by one of the adult geese in the group when we got within three feet.  Did I say rather tame?  I meant very tame.  A wilder goose would likely have spread his wings to look bigger and chased us off, snapping its bill.  They’ve even been known to bite (though they don’t have real teeth, so it’s more like a vicious pinch).  Not these geese, though; they treated us like the possibly-profitable/possibly-annoying tourists that we were.

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) posing prettily in the evening sun at Pandapas Pond.

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) posing prettily in the evening sun at Pandapas Pond.

Black Locust Blossoms

Photo courtesy of the esteemed Abigail Birch, budding photographer and excellent nature buddy.

Photo courtesy of the esteemed Abigail Birch, budding photographer and excellent nature buddy.

Moving on around the pond’s flat, graveled, one mile loop trail, we ran right into some low hanging black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) blossoms.  They look like lacy frills from far away, but up close they’re velvety and sumptuous, the color of cream sauce with tiny floating pools of butter.  (Yes, I’m writing at lunch time again.)  I photographed the blossoms on the left a little further around the trail in a sunny spot.  The first ones we saw were in shade and a bit to high to get a really good picture.  (I’m still bitter about the poor quality of zoomed photos from my phone.)  Abbey took a fairly good shot of these, though, with the “real” camera, which I’m using with her permission here on the right.

Abbey let me borrow the "real" camera to get this shot of the cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli) blossoms.

Abbey let me borrow the “real” camera to get this shot of the cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli) blossoms.

Cockspur Hawthorn Blossoms

Not to be outdone by the locust trees, just across the path we were stunned by some small (20′) trees absolutely covered with tiny white flowers.  The five-petaled blooms gave me the hint that this tree is in the rose family, just like so many other wild fruit trees, such as black cherry, crabapple, and beach plum, but it just didn’t “look right” to be any of those.  Closer examination of the photos we took, showing large thorns among the blooms, and a bit of research in my identification books makes me believe it’s cockspur hawthorn (Cragaegus crus-galli).  If you know better, please post in the comment section!

This no-longer hungry caterpillar had finished its spring feast of cherry or apple tree leaves and was headed for a safe spot to create a chrysalis.

This no-longer hungry caterpillar had finished its spring feast of cherry or apple tree leaves and was headed for a safe spot to create a chrysalis.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

The tents in the trees are looking brown and tattered, so it’s no surprise that we found a fully-grown Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) out of its webby nest and crawling across the path in search of a place to pupate.  The caterpillar is much more colorful than the beige moth it will become, with a bright white stripe down its back flanked by alternating yellow, black, and periwinkle blue stripes on its sides.  It even has a row of half-moon eyespots running the length of each side of its body, and the whole caterpillar is covered with fine, yellow hairs.

In general, hairy or “tufted” caterpillars are best left untouched, as their hairs or bristles can give a nasty sting, but there are no warnings on this one in my caterpillars guide book.  Still, my husband gently lifted the caterpillar with a stick (let it crawl on, don’t scrape it up!) so we could examine it more closely.  Gorgeous.  Made me dislike the trashy looking tents much less!

Okay, we’ve barely rounded the first corner of the loop trail and look how much we’ve seen!  I’m starving though, so stand by for part two, which I hope to publish later this evening, or at least after some lunch!

Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part Two

A whole week has passed?  Good grief.

Well, that’s about right for a mother, actually – we have one glorious, relaxing day in the sun every year . . . but then all of the other days gang up and come at us all at once.

No complaints here, though.  All the time I’ve spent not writing this week was spent outside enjoying amazing weather – blue skies, mountainsides deepening from spring green to emerald green, wild phlox blooming everywhere.

I spent most of the week in the garden, planting native plants and weeding non-native weeds.  (I got an excellent new weeding tool from my folks.  Have I mentioned it yet?  It is awesome!)  By the way, “I only weed the non-natives” is an outstanding excuse for only doing half the weeding a perfectionist gardener might do.  Totally believable.

But I digress.  So now I shall progress by regressing to last Sunday.

I ended my last post as afternoon turned slowly to evening, sitting on the deck with my mother- and father-in-law, our bellies full (the men cooked!) and glasses of cold white wine in hand.  The birds were singing, the light was golden, and all was well with the whole world.  Until, that is, I opened my big, fat mouth about the nearby Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythphthalmus) not singing its song properly.

My in-laws have a great look that crosses their faces (briefly, bless them) when I say things like this; it’s somewhere between “Wow, what amazing knowledge you have!” and “Good lord, what is the crazy nature lady talking about now?!”

The best time to see rufous-sided towhees is in the spring; they live and hide in the underbrush of the forest, but in spring they hop up to higher branches to better broadcast their mating song.  Photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

The best time to see Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythryphthalmus) is in the spring; they live and hide in the underbrush of the forest, but in spring they hop up to higher branches to better broadcast their mating song. Photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

So I explained, thoroughly sanely, I might add, that the song of the Eastern towhee is “Drink your te-e-e-e-a, sweeeet!” but that the towhees around south Main Street in Blacksburg and, apparently, at this end of Claytor Lake, refuse to sing the  “sweeeet” part.  (Are they on diets?  Are they from the north?  What’s wrong with sweet tea, you stubborn birds?!)

Again, showing only momentarily the “Nope, she’s gone thoroughly nuts” face, my in-laws inquired about what other bird calls I might know.

Here’s the part where I confess that I am only a novice bird watcher and a thoroughly amateur bird listener, but I am learning – thanks mostly to a wonderful book that my own folks bought for my daughter when she was young, Bird Calls by Frank Gallo and Lori Lohstoeter, that I now use often with other kiddos when I teach at the nature center.  It’s an incredibly well done picture and information book, but the best parts are the buttons you can push to hear the songs of each bird that’s been illustrated plus mnemonic phrases to help you remember them.

Here are the bird calls I can say that, thanks to that book and a lot of other research, I feel I know, along with links to the Cornell Ornithology All About Birds website pages where you can actually listen to the calls described.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) by Dan Pacamo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) by Dan Pacamo via Wikimedia Commons.

Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

Why not start with my favorite, right?  When I was born my mother nicknamed me “Dee” and so this bird has been calling my name all my life.  It’s standard call sounds to me like “Chick-a-da deedeedeedee”  See what you think by scrolling down to “Calls” on this webpage:  Carolina chickadee sounds.  Did you remember to scroll down?  I hope so, because the mating song of the chickadee (the first sound file on the page) reveals my heartbreak:  although I’ve loved the chickadee best for decades now, in the spring he stops calling for me.  The chickadee gets a seasonal madness and suddenly falls in love and calls for some woman named Phoebe:  “Fee-beee Fee-bay.”  Homewrecker.

Note the variety of beautiful grays on this bird:  from warm, brownish grays to cool, almost blue grays.  Looking at these doves really expands the meaning of the term "dove gray".  Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Note the variety of beautiful grays on this mourning dove (Zenaida macroura): from warm, brownish grays to cool, almost blue grays. Looking at these doves really expands the meaning of the term “dove gray”. Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning Dove

Nope, it’s not an owl singing during the day, but the gentle coo of the ubiquitous mourning dove (Zenaida macroura).  The mnemonic I use for this one is really just the sound of the call itself “Ooo, OO OO, ooo ooo ooo,” one rising coo at the start, then two loud coos followed by three softer coos.  It sounds like someone crying from deep emotional or physical pain but, rest assured, these birds are healthy and doing just fine.  I guess their females are just attracted to males that need healing?  I know women like that.  In my opinion, though, the far cooler sound made by morning doves is the loud flappy/whistley noise their wings make when they take off in a hurry (like every time I walk past my bird bath).  It’s on that same web page, have a listen.  The experts think it helps to warn other members of their flock and/or startle predators.  I want to know what it is about the wing that allows it to make that sound, but that’s research for another day.

Cardinal

Here we see a mated pair of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), female on the left and male on the right, at a feeder.  Another great photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Here we see a mated pair of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), female on the left and male on the right, at a feeder. Another great photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are the poster-bird for spring singing.  The impossibly red males flaunt their feathers and their voices, perching high in trees and singing loudly either “Cheer cheer cheer cheer” or “bir-Dee, bir-Dee, bir-Dee.”  (Whoa, maybe I should give them a little love for calling my name, too.)  In the first, the cheer starts on a high note and slurs down to a lower note.  In the latter, the “bir” note is a bit lower and the “Dee” note is higher and louder.  Listen to both songs here.  However, as I am learning, it’s important to get to know the voice of a particular species of bird, rather than just one song.  Ornithologists have recorded over 16 different songs and calls for the cardinal alone and, unlike most species, the female cardinal sings, too.  She may be plain compared to the male (her colors blend in to camouflage the nest she sits on, whereas the male’s plumage is meant to show off to win her heart) but she sings just as sweetly!

It still baffles me that these are so often called "robin redbreast" when their chests and bellies are so obviously orange, not red.  This photograph is mine, I took it last spring in Heritage Park.

It still baffles me that these are so often called “robin redbreast” when their chests and bellies are so obviously orange, not red. This photograph is mine, I took it last spring in Heritage Park.

Robin

The American Robin’s (Turdus migratorius) song is as clear and ringing as the cardinal’s, but is even more musical, with many different notes and trills.  The mnemonic for the robin’s song are the words “cheerily” and “cheer up” repeated and interspersed with one another.  For my money, the cheerilies are a little tough to tell from the cheer ups, so I say remember it in any order you like.  Besides, Mother Nature likes to mess with us, so whatever pattern you remember your cheerily cheer ups, just when you think you’ve finally got it down, She’ll throw a robin with a whole different pattern at you.  Listen to the robins here and tell me which order you think they’re putting their words in.  Ha!

PS – What’s up with that scientific name?  If any bird is going to get tagged with “migrating turd” it should be Canada Geese, judging by the guano bombs each flock drops on our cars in spring and fall!

White-throated Sparrow

Check out the super white throat on this white-throated sparrow.  The names we give animals are more often descriptive than creative, but if you get bored there's nothing wrong with calling them Bob or Sally for short.  The photograph is another great one from Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out the super white throat on this white-throated sparrow. The names we give animals are more often descriptive than creative, but if you get bored there’s nothing wrong with calling them Bob or Sally for short. The photograph is another great one from Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

My mother taught me this one, and well she should, her maiden name is Peabody and that’s just what the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) whistles in his highest pitch: “Ooold man  Peab’dy Peab’dy Peab’dy” with the last Peab’dy getting louder and rising up like a sentence that ends with a question mark paired with an exclamation point.  (FYI, that punctuation is called an interrobang – one of my favorite words ever.)  As if the bird is shocked at whatever Old Man Peabody has done.  Perhaps the female birds fly in to get the gossip on whatever that is, then just decide to stay and make a nest and raise a few babies.  For the record, as far as I can tell, my grandfather Peabody was a law abiding man and far too respectable to be the subject of gossip but, then again, I don’t speak bird, so I don’t really know.  Listen to their song here, but be aware that these birds don’t stick to the mnemonic script as well as the ones in Blacksburg do.

Carolina Wren

"Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger" sings this spunky little Carolina wren (Thyrothorus ludovicianus), captured and shared by Cheep Shot via Wikimedia Commons.

“Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sings this spunky little Carolina wren (Thyrothorus ludovicianus), captured and shared by Cheep Shot via Wikimedia Commons.

When we were younger, my older brother asked my mother about the cheeseburger bird in our back yard.  My mother, momentarily perplexed (she had no facial expression for “Is he crazy?” like my in-laws do; she already knew her children were certifiable), asked “Cheeseburger bird?”  My brother replied, yeah, the bird that sings “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger cheeseburger.”  And because of that, in my mind, the Carolina wren’s (Thyrothorus ludovicianus) song mnemonic will always and forever be a thrice-repeated “cheeseburger”, despite the fact that ornithologists usually describe it as “teakettle” or “Germany.”  Bah!  My brother’s is more American anyway.  Listen for yourself and decide if they’re singing for a classic American meal, a British standard, or the 2014 FIFA World Cup champions.

Tufted Titmouse

Perhaps he's pausing to look for Peter?  I know this much:  if I'm looking for a great bird photo, I'll probably find it the way I got this one, by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps he’s pausing to look for Peter?
I know this much: if I’m looking for a great bird photo, I’ll probably find it the way I got this one, by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

For a little bird, the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) has a big voice.  He uses it to call for Peter.  The titmouse’s song is a phrase made up of repeated “PE-ter”s, sometimes as few as three, sometimes many more; listen here.  I don’t know who this Peter is, but I hope he’s flattered by the attention of this handsome little bird.

Oh!  Big idea!  Maybe I can find Peter and hook him up with Phoebe . . .

Maybe my in-laws are right about the crazy creeping in.

Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part One

Water makes us happy.

It’s something about the sweet smell of freshwater or the negative ions in the air or the saltwater-filled cells in our body having an ancient longing for their ocean home.  Something.

I don’t really care what, actually, I’m just so grateful that in my beloved mountain home, I have family with a cabin on Claytor Lake who let us come out to visit.  It’s because of this tremendous stroke of luck that I got to spend Mother’s Day with my husband and daughter and in-laws looking out over deep blue waters and nearly summer-green mountains.

But the awesomeness doesn’t start at the lake.  It starts on the drive down where, from my Mother’s Day Throne (AKA the passenger seat) I was able to look out at my kingdom and observe long and well as my dear husband kept the car on the road.

The drive from Blacksburg to Claytor Lake is a lovely one when you’ve got the time to look around.  Just on the big roads I saw:

Black locust trees in bloom along Route 460 looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace. Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)trees in bloom along Route 460
looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace.
Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.   Photo courtesy of "Podophyllum peltatum Shenks Ferry 1" by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA - Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve (10). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg#/media/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons.

Mayapples are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers. Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons -

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers.
Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons –

After steering off the highway at exit 109, the drive gets even better; winding through curving mountain roads, past cabins and farms, climbing hills and turning blind corners, observing “country” driving manners with a nod or smile or fingers lifted off the steering wheel in friendly acknowledgement of strangers who might as well be friends.

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun.  In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper. Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun. In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper.
Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

Wild phlox (Phlox paniculata) and its garden siblings were blooming all along the roadside gardens and forest edges.  The purple of phlox is neither dark nor light, but a deep medium purple.  Ugh.  “Deep medium purple” sounds oxymoronic and way too pedestrian for this gorgeous color.  Let’s call it “phlox purple” and set a trend – it’s nothing like lilac or lavender or royal purple or orchid, and it deserves its own shade name.  (Why doesn’t purple have more shade names?  Blue has hundreds.)

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) - via Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) – via Wikimedia Commons

Flitting through that phlox was a season first for me (perhaps that’s why spring is my favorite season – so many “firsts” for the year, each one reassuring and joyful):  an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)!  They’re common enough to be both Virginia’s State Butterfly and its State Insect, but they knock me out every time.  These bright yellow, black-striped and blue edged beauties are nearly 4.5 inches across; giant, yellow flower petals just floating and fluttering through the sky.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.   Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.
Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

The “swallowtail” part of this butterfly’s name means that it is grouped with other butterflies (they make up the swallowtail family) that have two “tails” on their hind wings that reminded early naturalists of the points at either end of a swallow’s tail.  (Swallowing these butterflies tail’s is not recommended.)  We’ll have to come back to swallows themselves the next time I come back from Claytor; several members of the swallow family are native here and spend their summers feasting on the various insects that hatch by the millions from the surface of the lake.

I don’t actually associate spring with seeing butterflies, though they seem to be a centerpiece of every mass produced spring-themed card and product.  The truth about butterflies is that their caterpillars and/or eggs have survived a long winter and need their food sources to leaf out before they can fill their hungry selves up with enough energy to form a chrysalis and become adult butterflies.  The real butterfly bonanza comes from mid-summer through fall, when two or three generations have matured and laid eggs and little wings are fluttering everywhere.

The first butterflies to arrive in spring are those whose caterpillars feast on trees that leaf out early.  The host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails’ eggs and caterpillars include

  • Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina),
  • Common Lilac (Syinga vulgaris),
  • Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana),
  • Tulip poplar/tulip tree (Liriodedron tulipifera), and
  • Willow (Salix spp.),

all of which have bloomed or are blooming (the lilacs smell unbelievably good right now) and are nicely leafy caterpillar buffets.

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia.  A widespread species, this butterfly is called a "Camberwell beauty" in England.  However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.   Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia. A widespread species, this butterfly is called a “Camberwell beauty” in England. However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.
Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

I was gifted with another butterfly sighting once we’d arrived and were seated happily on the dock – a Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) was flying over the water toward us, probably heading for the giant weeping willow on the property to lay its eggs.  Mourning Cloak caterpillars also enjoy a nice meal of willow or poplar (or elm or hackberry).

And then I was lost in conversation and good food and laughter, with only the occasional whip of the head to try to identify a bird streaking by.

As afternoon softened into the golden light of evening, conversation turned again to nature (it seems to do that around me quite a bit) and my in-laws and I got to listening to and talking about bird calls.

But that’s going to have to wait for Part Two of this post, because there’s much more to tell and I’m a nearly an hour past lunch.  I’m so hungry I could practically eat willow leaves.  Or tulip poplar.

A Lap Around the Pond

The only time I’ve spent outside in the last two days has been weeding.  Unacceptable.

So, this morning I put off my chores (they’re eternal anyway, so what’s another half hour) and strode out of my doorway and down to the Hethwood Pond.

It’s a small, neighborhood pond; a full lap around the paved path is only about one fifth of a mile, but it sure packs a lot of wildlife punch!

I made just one lap around the pond and saw species from five of the seven classes of animals:  birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and insects. (I stayed on my feet and off my belly, so I missed the amphibians and arthropods this time.)

I photographed and took videos with my iPhone all the way around the pond, but only a few turned out.  Wild animals do not like anything that looks like an eye – either my large sunglasses or the small circle of the iPhone camera lens – pointed at them and they run/fly/dive for cover pretty quickly.

I’ll include the ones that pass the quasi-visible bar with my descriptions below, and rely on wonderful Wikimedia Commons for the rest.

This beautiful photograph of a green heron was provided by By CheepShot (Green Heron) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This beautiful photograph of a green heron was provided by By CheepShot (Green Heron) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The first fellow I saw was a green heron (Butorides virescens) stalking the large rocks that line the pond’s edge, focused on tiny fish beneath the water’s surface, ready to spear his next meal.  Though I knew we had a resident green heron at the pond, actually seeing him still makes me suck air with surprise and delight.  I should have held still and just watched, but I wanted his portrait badly, and my approach scared him up into the overhanging willow nearby.  When I finished my lap, he was hunting from a muddy bank in the shade under that same willow.  Unfortunately, his feathers, which are bright teal green and blue in the sunlight, blended in perfectly with the gray-brown mud.  This isn’t because the mud was covered with green algae, but because blues and greens seen in bird and butterfly wings in nature don’t come from pigment, but from the way light is refracted through specialized color cells.  No light, no green.

My next close encounter came maybe 25 yards later when I came upon the resident Canada goose (Branta canadensis) pair and this season’s clutch of goslings picking through the grass around one of the pond’s picnic tables.  The goslings are still in their fluffy feathers.  They’ll be fully fledged in a couple of weeks, though, and by mid-summer they’ll be so big that you can’t tell them apart from their parents.

There are five goslings - can you find them all?  It shocks me how well animals can hide even in "plain sight".

There are five goslings – can you find them all? It shocks me how well animals can hide even in “plain sight”.

Canada geese are considered by many to be an invader and a nuisance, but they’ve been a regular sight at every pond I’ve visited since I was little, so I’d say they’re here to stay.  You’ve got to admire their reproduction skills, anyway – handling five wandering kids is no small feat – that’s one strong parenting team!  Geese often, however, become accustomed to humans with bread in hand, and that’s not a great thing – geese can be aggressive at times (like when they have goslings) and will most certainly bite the hand that feeds them.  If you’re with kiddos, let them know that these are a watch-but-don’t-touch animal.

Rounding the back side of the pond I very nearly managed to photograph a chipmunk.  Or, rather, she fooled me into thinking I was quicker than I am by freezing for just long enough in her perch upon a large rock that I actually looked down at my phone to open the camera app.  When I looked back up she was, of course, gone.

An eastern chipmunk caught in action by "Tamias striatus2" by Gilles Gonthier - http://www.flickr.com/photos/gillesgonthier/291562671/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamias_striatus2.jpg#/media/File:Tamias_striatus2.jpg

An eastern chipmunk caught in action by Gilles Gonthier – http://www.flickr.com/photos/gillesgonthier/291562671/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamias_striatus2.jpg#/media/File:Tamias_striatus2.jpg

There are several Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) living around the pond in tiny burrows under the mid-sized rocks at pond’s edge.  They scavenge in and around the waterline for fallen nuts and seeds and other bits of plant to eat.  They’re not strictly vegetarians, though, and will also stuff their cheeks with insects, mushrooms, and worms.  The three or four I encountered this morning were none too pleased at having their foraging interrupted, though, and sounded the alarm call to all of their neighbors with regular, high-pitched squeaks from the safety of their burrows.

After conceding the race to those cute little rodents, I focused my attention on the shallow corner of the pond where I thought there might be a turtle or two.  And, lucky me, there was a nice, big snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) just waiting for me there.

This is my (sad) shot of the snapping turtle at the corner of the pond.  Even after considerable digital editing, you can't see as much of the turtle as I'd like.  Not only does surface reflection interfere, but the turtle's back is covered with muddy algae that helps it blend in with the bottom of the pond.

This is my (sad) shot of the snapping turtle at the corner of the pond. Even after considerable digital editing, you can’t see as much of the turtle as I’d like. Not only does surface reflection interfere, but the turtle’s back is covered with muddy algae that helps it blend in with the bottom of the pond.

This particular corner of the pond seems to be prime territory for spring breeding.  I’ve seen snappers in past springs fighting in this corner.  Or maybe they weren’t fighting. . .  Anyhow, the fastest way to identify a snapping turtle is by noting its comparatively huge tail; it looks like somebody

sewed the tip of an alligator’s tail onto these guys in place of a regular, diminutive turtle tail.  These, too, are a watch-but-don’t-touch animal.  Their snapping mouths are powerful enough to break an adult finger easily, and they know it.

A great shot of the common snapping turtle by By Brian Gratwicke [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.  Kudos to Mr. Gratwicke for the great shot, and to the heavy turtle for hauling himself all the way up onto that branch!

A great shot of the common snapping turtle by By Brian Gratwicke [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. Kudos to Mr. Gratwicke for the great shot, and to the heavy turtle for hauling himself all the way up onto that branch!

I have friends who have successfully caught them, but please bear in mind that a) these friends know what they’re doing and b) not all of my friends are rocket scientists.  Even I can claim to have held a snapping turtle, but only because last spring a hatchling no bigger than the palm of my hand was crossing the paved path to get back to that same corner of the pond and I carried it down to the water so that it wouldn’t get squished by big, fat foot or big, black bike tire.  Still, I picked it up carefully with one finger on either side of its shell, far enough back that the mouth couldn’t reach!

And, just 10 or so yards after the snapping turtle, I met a smaller, friendlier turtle who was kind enough to swim toward shore to see me.  I still didn’t get a good photograph, but based on its few, bright markings, it’s slightly domed and smooth-edged carapace (shell), I think it must have been an Eastern red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys rebiventris)

Before I reach the end of my lap and my last picture, I should cover two of the classes I promised:  insects and fish.  First (and least, unfortunately) come the fish – the neighborhood has stocked this pond with large, bright orange goldfish.  They are beautiful and, based on my childhood adventures in fish keeping, will survive just about any water conditions.  Still, I wish I saw more sunfish and other natives in the pond.  Goldfish are a small type of carp (Carassius auratus) that are native to Asia.  There are also lots of tiny minnows in this pond that will churn the water up anytime a crumb of bread or toddler’s enthusiastically tossed Cheerio hits the surface.  I haven’t identified which species they are, though.  I need a dip net with a long handle.  (Hmmm. . .Mother’s Day is coming up.)  Though the turtles will snatch those human-offered food chunks up, they’d much rather have the little minnows!

As for insects, the most prominent species around the pond and in my garden right now are the bumblebees.  Bumblebees are members of the bee genus Bombus, and we have at least 12 different species of bumblebee living in Virginia, according to bumblebee.org.

Three of the ten ducklings that this mallard mom and dad are raising are easily visible in this picture.  It was only later, when the family hurried past me, that I was able to count all ten.

Three of the ten ducklings that this mallard mom and dad are raising are easily visible in this picture. It was only later, when the family hurried past me, that I was able to count all ten.

To finish up this one wonderful lap, which took me no more than 15 minutes including stopping to take pictures, I observed our resident mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos).  Show-off dad with his bright green head and camouflaged mom with her pop of blue wing bar were herding no less than 10, yes 10, fuzzy yellow and black ducklings at the side of the pond.  Talk about parenting and survival skills – this pair of adults will have to try to help these chicks survive hawks and falcons that might attack from above and, when they’re ready to swim, snapping turtles that might attack from below.  Duck meat is high in fat and tasty to all sorts of animals, not just humans.  Note again in this picture, the emerald green of the male’s head plumage is much less bright when not in direct sunlight; just like the green heron’s feathers, no light, no green.  In species of birds where the male looks different from the female (called sexual dimorphism by scientists and nature nerds like me), the male is usually much flashier.  Wildlife scientists have it pretty well decided that it’s the job of the males to impress the ladies with feathers and nests and offerings and songs.  The ladies bring camouflage to the relationship so that when they sit on the nest, they are as invisible to predators as possible.

Luckily, though my camera wasn’t able to capture everything I saw and, more than that, heard (the birdsong is fantastic down there, too) these pond creatures weren’t invisible to me.  Next time I’ll make my one lap even slower to see what else I can see!

PS – Though the walk took only 15 minutes, the writing of this has taken 75!  Ha!  Chores, schmores.

Gooooooing Up – The Gateway Trail

“So, Mom, when are we leaving for our hike?”

This is an underrated advantage of having children:  they remind you that weekends aren’t just for house and garden chores, but for doing those things you want to do “if you have time”.

And we had time.  But just barely.  It was already 5:30 p.m. on Sunday and it’s getting dark around 8:00 p.m. now (Hallelujah!  I love long days!) and I knew the Gateway Trail was at least a mile long.  Well, I thought, even if we walk as slow as two miles per hour, a snail’s pace compared to our flatland clip of 3.5 to 4 mph, we’d be up and back in less than two hours.

Excitement and hope are often enablers of temporary amnesia and wishful thinking.

Still, we had to move quick if we were going to make it, so I (self-sacrificing mother that I am) skipped the shower that I badly needed and settled for an extra couple of swipes of deodorant.  Clinical strength deodorant.

We kissed the hubby/daddy goodbye, grabbed our shoes and my hiking pack and were out the door in under ten minutes.  We arrived at the trail head in another ten. (Or less – have I  mentioned that there are trails everywhere near Blacksburg and that it is the best place on Earth?)

The entrance to Gateway Park (before you reach through the actual trailhead) is a gentle stroll through an idyllic country scene.

The entrance to Gateway Park (before you reach through the actual trailhead) is a gentle stroll through an idyllic country scene.

The trail begins across Meadowbrook Road from the lower parking lot of Heritage Park.  On nice flat ground.  It rolls through a deep green field and past a bucolic old barn.  A tiny stream that burbles along to the right of the trail feeds buttercups and sweet-smelling grass.  In this place, with the golden light of afternoon sun warming your cheeks, there could be nothing wrong with the world.

And then you reach the trailhead, and realize that this hike is about to get real.

After all, this trail leads up the side of Brush Mountain.  Mountain.  And that’s what we wanted, right – to see spring in reverse, to see how it climbs the mountain slowly?  Right!

And so we, too, climbed the mountain.  Slowly.

My daughter is actually a great hiking partner.  She has no trouble keeping up with me, largely due to the fact that she is 60ish pounds and maybe 5% body fat and I am . . . not.  She also has the tremendous grace to be interested in nature and stop often to look at something or another.  Not only does this save my heart and lungs from explosion, but it gives me a chance to hear one of my favorite sentences:

“Mom, come look at what I found!”

Between her stops, my photo ops, and our mutual stops to drain the large canteen we had brought, we were hiking at nowhere near two miles an hour.  And the trail is 1.4 miles long, not one mile.  Our slow speed didn’t bother me, though, except maybe when trail runners both younger and older than I passed us like white-tailed dear loping by errant, distracted turtles.

But we turtles saw great stuff:

As the incline starts to get steeper we see a little waterfall in the brook next to the trail.

As the incline starts to get steeper we see a little waterfall in the brook next to the trail.

Wild geranium

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) blooms here and there on the forest floor.

IMG_3990

Had we hiked just a little faster I might have missed this wild iris, called “blue flag” (Iris virginica L.).

And just a few inches from  the blue flag posed this pretty little smooth Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

And just a few inches from the blue flag posed this pretty little smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

The mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) are already in bud!  I'm mentally planning future hikes to make sure I see the blossoms.

The mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) are already in bud! I’m mentally planning future hikes to make sure I see the blossoms.  As for the tiny, green beetle, I don’t know its name yet, but I’m working on it!

Abbey called my attention to this pine that looks a little bit like a friendly monster.  Beyond its dead branch "arms" I can see the tiny, lacy new leaves of a deciduous tree.  The leaves at ground level are already as big as my palm.

Abbey called my attention to this pine that looks a little bit like a friendly monster. Beyond its dead branch “arms” I can see the tiny, lacy new leaves of a deciduous tree. The leaves at ground level are already as big as my palm.

This view from not-quite-the-top of the mountain shows that we've hiked high enough to be nearly level with surrounding ridges.

This view from not-quite-the-top of the mountain shows that we’ve hiked high enough to be nearly level with surrounding ridges.

We didn’t make it to the end of the trail, of course.  Abbey tuckered out after an hour of hiking, and I was A-OK with that!  Just after we turned back, we ran into a fellow Master Naturalist friend of mine who commented “Isn’t this trail great?  You can burn over 600 calories in an hour and a half!”

From that I made two mental notes:

  1. The next time I hike this trail, I’ll allot two hours for the journey up to cover climb time plus photo and rest time, and
  2. When I get home, I’m having dessert!

The hike back down went much more quickly, of course, we were back to the trail head in under 45 minutes.  There we had just enough sunlight left to count the lines on the topographic trail map to find that we hiked about a mile of trail and gained over 700 vertical feet.  We were quite pleased with ourselves.

I did achieve my hope from my previous post; I saw a few maple trees still in blossom and I watched the leaf sizes shrink down and the canopy open up.  More than that, though, I just had a great hike with my daughter, my favorite hiking buddy.

Baby Names

I’m headed out into the yard in 20 minutes (when the sunblock I just put on kicks in), to hand-weed dandelions.  I thought about using a standard “weed and feed” chemical product, but I just can’t stand the idea of creating a monoculture of grass while at the same time depriving our yard bunny (AKA the wild Eastern cottontail that seems to have made its home amongst the three yards on our street corner) of delicious dandelion greens.

So, in honor of the yard bunny (whom my daughter has aptly named Fluff Tail) I’m going to write a little bit about a subject at which rabbits excel:  babies.

Not the making thereof – that talk is about birds and bees – but the naming.  Wild animals have funny and fantastic baby names!  We all know that birds have chicks, goats have kids and and horses have foals, but the list of popular animal baby names goes on and on.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Baby rabbits are called “levrets”.  The word levret comes to us from Anglo-Saxon, back through the French, and all the way to the Latin “lepus” for “hare”.  The constellation Lepus can be found just below Orion in the night sky.  Some say that Lepus is the quarry hunted by Orion’s dogs’ (Canis Major and Canis Minor – literally “big dog” and “little dog”).  If that’s true, then Lepus is one quick and crafty hare – those dogs are totally looking the other way.  (If you should look the right way and find a levret alone, read these tips from the Virginia Wildlife Center before interfering.)

There are lots of -ets in animal baby names:

  • Pig – piglet
  • Owl – owlet
  • Hen (chicken) – pullet
  • Eagle – eaglet
  • Frog – froglet (after the tadpole stage, of course)
  • Snake – snakelet
  • Swan – cygnet

It’s not just dogs that have pups – all of these animals’ babies are called pups, too:

  • Armadillo
  • Bat
  • Coyote
  • Mouse
  • Prairie dog
  • Seal
  • Shark
  • Squirrel
  • Wolf

Cubs are also pretty widespread.  They are the babies of:

  • Bears (all species)
  • Big cats (bobcats, cheetahs, lions, leopards, tigers, etc.)
  • Foxes
  • Hyenas
  • Raccoons

Then there are the kits, which are the babies of:

  • beaver
  • muskrat
  • skunk
  • weasel

And, rounding out the popular animal baby name categories, those animals that give birth to a calf or calves:

  • antelope
  • cattle
  • caribou (reindeer)
  • dolphin
  • elk
  • manatee
  • moose
  • whales

Last but not least, a few outstanding outlier names:

  • Ant – antling (keeping good company with spiderlings and ducklings, which would eat the two arthropods happily)
  • Hawk – eyas
  • Codfish – hake, sprag, or sprat
  • Eel – elver
  • Otter – whelp
  • Porcupine – porcupette

All right, out into the garden I go (and yes, it’s been significantly more than 20 minutes).  With any luck I’ll catch sight of Fluff Tail.  With a little more luck, Fluff Tail might meet a mister rabbit and bring some levrets to my garden, too!