My First Mountain Flood

The county’s public schools closed early yesterday due to safety concerns over widespread flooding.

After an incredibly dry August and September, nature is repaying her water debt with interest.

My rain gauge measured 3.5 inches of rain over the weekend.  On Monday and Tuesday we got another 4.5.

During a break in the rain my daughter and I walked down to see how high our closest creek’s waters were.

I suppose my preconceptions of the steepness of land and the lack of hurricane conditions (lived on the Gulf Coast for eight years) lead me to believe the flooding had been overstated in classic TV weather prediction (think “Snowmageddon”) fashion.

I was wrong.  Even as a seasoned nature lover and Master Naturalist, it seems I must continually re-learn Mother Nature’s most basic lesson:  do not underestimate her.

It does flood in the mountains, and I’ve never been more grateful to live at the top of a hill.

Here are some photographs from our walk:

This is an extremely high water level for Hethwood Pond. Normally there's several more feet of grass and then a few feet of large rock above the surface of the pond.

This is an extremely high water level for Hethwood Pond. Normally there’s several more feet of grass and then a few feet of large rock above the surface of the pond.

Our neighborhood pond may be small, but the number of creatures to be seen there certainly isn't!

This picture of the same pond (from a different angle) shows what the water level normally looks like.

This is the overflow from our neighborhood pond. It's usually dry as a bone, or maybe just a trickle. The rain made it a rushing waterfall.

This is the overflow from the pond. It’s usually dry as a bone, or maybe just a trickle. The rain made it a rushing waterfall.

Overflow from the Hethwood pond flows down toward Stroubles Creek by means of an overgrown ditch, so small a stream that, as far as I know, it doesn't even have a name. That stream got about 10x bigger today.

Overflow from the Hethwood Pond flows down toward Stroubles Creek by means of an overgrown ditch, so small a stream that, as far as I know, it doesn’t even have a name.

Here you can see that the little no-name drainage stream has risen to cover the walking path.

Here you can see that the little no-name drainage stream has risen to cover the walking path.

The tiny no-name stream has grown to flow over part of the path that is usually at least 4 feet above it.

The tiny no-name stream has grown to flow over part of the path that is usually at least 4 feet above it.  The water was ankle deep, enough for Abbey to pretend to surf.

This is that same path 35 minutes later and the water is still about three times its usual height.

This is that same spot 35 minutes later and the water is still about three times its usual height.

The walking and biking path takes a steep drop (really tough to get back up after a long ride) down to the bridge over Stroubles Creek. This is the view from the midpoint on that hill. Usually you can't even see the creek from here.

The walking and biking path takes a steep drop (really tough to get back up after a long ride) down to the bridge over Stroubles Creek. This is the view from the midpoint on that hill. Usually you can’t even see the creek from here.

This picture was taken earlier this summer, too.  It's from the "secret" spot on Stroubles Creek where my daughter and I go to explore and splash, about 100 yards upstream from the bridge.

This picture was taken earlier this summer, too. It’s from the “secret” spot on Stroubles Creek where my daughter and I go to explore and splash, about 100 yards upstream from the bridge.  For comparison, the floodwaters would be well over her head and into the pasture behind her.

Note the water level next to the high voltage box.

Here’s the water in the pasture.  Note the water level next to the high voltage box.  Compare it to the next picture.

This photo shows the same area earlier this summer.  The high voltage box in the lower left corner.

This photo shows the same area earlier this summer. The high voltage box in the lower left corner.

This bridge usually sits five to six feet above the surface of Stroubles Creek. The creek has risen to meet it.

This bridge usually sits five to six feet above the surface of Stroubles Creek. The creek has risen to meet it.

This field lies between the walking path and the drop off down to the creek. It's a great place where students living just up the hill in the town homes gather to barbecue and play frisbee. More importantly, it's a floodplain.

This field lies between the walking path and the drop off down to the creek. It’s a great place where students living just up the hill in the town homes gather to barbecue and play frisbee. More importantly, it’s a floodplain.

A Walk in the Ellett Valley Recreational Area

I needed a little exercise and couldn’t bring myself to walk the sunny trails of our neighborhood – it’s just too hot outside.  Nor could I bear to sweat in place for an hour in the black and grey, aggressively air conditioned neighborhood gym.

The answer presented itself in the Ellett Valley Recreational Area.  A shady, one mile loop trail only 10 minutes away from home?  Yes, please!

The rays of a hot September sun filter through a canopy of green and throw shifting spotlights on the forest floor.

The rays of a hot September sun filter through a canopy of green and throw shifting spotlights on the forest floor.

I figured I’d have time to do two laps.  Obviously I had momentarily forgotten that my hiking speed is permanently set to 30 seconds (maximum) of fast walking followed by complete stop for a minute (minimum) to take a picture/study a plant/listen to birds/try to find the animal that just scurried through my peripheral vision.

An hour later I had made one lap of the loop trail (plus two tenths for round-trip leg to the parking lot, of course, give me some credit).  Along the way, I stopped for . . .

Spiderweb Karma

I should have known when I wrote that snarky comment about spider web ninjas in my Weavers’ World post that it would come back to bite me in the butt.  Or, rather, to smack me in the face, as the many, many spiderwebs across this trail did.

Even my slow pace wasn’t enough to keep me looking ahead properly to avoid running into and destroying webs.  However, I did make two interesting observations:

  1. Almost all of the webs across this trail were inhabited by young micrathena spiders.  Perhaps the young haven’t yet learned that when you build your web across the trail, big, clumsy humans will just wreck it over and over again.  Live and learn, little spiders.
  2. Though I must have walked through at least a dozen webs, and micrathenas tend to sit in the middle of their webs (and once I walked through and could see that the micrathena was trapped on my face by her web)  the little spiders fled each and every time and I didn’t get bitten once.  To a spider the size of half your pinkie nail, you are basically a moving tree.  No point in biting a tree – it’s not a threat, it’s a force of nature.

Informational Signs

One of the things that really impressed me was that this is more than a trail – the interpretive signs alone make it a true learning experience.  The signs are really well done, too; easy enough for a grade-schooler to read, but with information interesting to all ages and graphics that make it easy to understand.

I tip my sun hat to the creator of this interpretive sign.  It's placed near some huge outcrops of stone that you can't help but examine more closely after you've read this sign.

I tip my hiking hat to the creator of this interpretive sign. It’s placed near some huge outcrops of stone that you can’t help but examine more closely after you’ve read this sign.

Virginia Creeper’s Red Leaves

Fall really is on its way.

Just two red leaves on the trail this day.  In a week or two the trail will be covered with colored leaf confetti.

Just two red leaves on the trail this day. In a week or two the trail will be covered with colored leaf confetti.

One of the first plants to turn is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which goes from green to stunning scarlet seemingly in the blink of an eye.  Suddenly, as you look up in the woods, you see trees festooned with red streamers that put party decorations to shame.  That’s Virginia creeper.

I caught this tiny Virginia creeper while it was changing.  I bet by the next day all five leaves were scarlet.

This little Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) got caught changing!  I bet by the next day all five leaves were scarlet.

Look before you touch, though; poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) also turns red, so remember “leaves of three, let it be”.  Virginia creeper’s leaves are in groups of five.  (It also has blue/black berries where poison ivy’s tiny berries are white.

Holy Mackerel, a Salamander!

My daughter is the Queen of Salamanders.  She can find them anywhere.  I’m merely the fool in her court . . . but even a fool can get lucky!  An ephemeral mountain stream crosses the trail and it was mostly dry when I visited – down to wet soil without any mud puddles even.  There was one rock that looked easy to turn over, and it was just barely off the trail, and salamanders need somewhere cool and wet to hide (they breathe through their wet skin), so I decided to give it a shot.  Success!!

I was so overjoyed to find an actual salamander under the one stone I turned over that I think I held my breath the whole time.  This northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) runs well, but held perfectly still for the half-minute I had the rock lifted.  Nowhere wet to run to, I suppose.

I was so overjoyed to find an actual salamander under the one stone I turned over that I think I held my breath the whole time. This northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) runs well, but held perfectly still for the half-minute I had the rock lifted. Nowhere wet to run to, perhaps.

I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a bright yellow northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) curled up under that rock!  He held very still, which could have been a technique to avoid the giant predator who just lifted his precious rock, or it could have been because they’re only active on nights and wet days.  I held the rock up just long enough to get a picture of my little citrine treasure and then put it ever so gingerly back down.  Good luck till it rains again, little guy.

Holey Trees

A hole in a tree is habitat for some little body, guaranteed.

Woodpeckers have made good work of this tree!  Dead and dying trees, called snags, provide a lot of habitat for woodland creatures and are very important to the forest ecosystem.

Woodpeckers have made good work of this tree! Dead and dying trees, called snags, provide a lot of habitat for woodland creatures and are very important to the forest ecosystem.

Some holes are relatively dry, made high on the trunk by woodpeckers drilling through bark to get at bugs.

I used a flash to get a better image of the inside of the rotted-out knot at the base of this tree.  I didn't see anything moving inside, but I suspect that's because fairies become invisible when humans are around.

I used a flash to get a better image of the inside of the rotted-out knot at the base of this tree. I didn’t see anything moving inside, but I suspect that’s because fairies become invisible when humans are around.

Others are low, a rotted out spot where a diseased branch or trunk used to be.  Either way, check them out and you’ll be happily surprised at all of the life inside.

Where two strong trunks diverged at the base of a tree, time, water, fungus and bacteria made a week spot home.  It's now a hole big enough to fit an adult hand.  It's half full of water, and several invertebrates were taking advantage of the moisture.  At the upper left corner of the hole, you can see the large millipede that was running for cover when my flash lit.

Where two strong trunks diverged at the base of a tree, time, water, fungus and bacteria made a week spot home. It’s now a hole big enough to fit an adult hand. It’s half full of water, and several invertebrates were taking advantage of the moisture. At the upper left corner of the hole, you can just barely see the large millipede that was running for cover when my flash lit.

Additional Awesomeness

There are a thousand treasures, small and large, to be found on any trail.  That’s why it takes me so long to walk them – it’s hard to be a treasure hunter disguised as an exerciser.   (Exercist?)

The spicebush trees (Lindera benzoin) that bring us the first (tiny, lemon yellow ) blossoms of spring now sport crimson berries.  Some people eat the berries, but I leave them as good wild food for songbirds.  All parts of this bush smell deliciously spicy.

The spicebush trees (Lindera benzoin) that bring us the first (tiny, lemon yellow ) blossoms of spring now sport crimson berries. Some people eat the berries, but I leave them as good wild food for songbirds. All parts of this bush smell deliciously spicy.

This small sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of my favorite trees because of its varied leaf shapes.  While identification books say only that the leaves have one to three lobes, I prefer to remember them as "simple leaf", "mitten", and "trident" shaped.  You can see all three on this one specimen!

This small sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of my favorite trees because of its varied leaf shapes. While identification books (boringly) describe the leaves as having one to three lobes, I prefer to remember them as “simple leaf”, “mitten”, and “trident” shaped. You can see all three on this one specimen!

Moss identification is no joke.  Mosses make up an entire class of life on earth.  This one might be haircap moss (Polytrichum juniperum), but I need to study moss much, much more to know for sure.  In the meantime, it reminds me of a friendly, Muppet monster.  Muppet moss.

Moss identification is no joke. Mosses make up an entire class of life on earth. This one might be haircap moss (Polytrichum juniperum), but I need to study moss much, much more to know for sure. In the meantime, it reminds me of a friendly, Muppet monster. Therefore, I’ll call it Muppet moss.

One last shot:  I had to stop the car on the short gravel drive to the main road.  This cluster of wildflowers was I wild bouquet waiting to be captured.  The yellow is goldenrod (Solidago spp.), the orange is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), the dark blue is great lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), the white is boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), and the little periwinkle star at the bottom center is  one lone blossom of chicory (Chicorium intybus).  All are in the aster family except the jewelweed.  It's aster time!

One last shot: I had to stop the car on the short gravel drive to the main road. This cluster of wildflowers was I wild bouquet waiting to be captured. The yellow is goldenrod (Solidago spp.), the orange is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), the dark blue at the base of the goldenrod is great lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), the white is boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), and the little periwinkle star at the bottom center is one lone blossom of chicory (Chicorium intybus). All are in the aster family except the jewelweed.

Couldn't resist a close up on the chicory.

Couldn’t resist a close up on the chicory.

Monarch Mystery: The Case of the Disappearing Chrysalids

This is a close up of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) blooming in my garden in June.

This is a close up of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) blooming in my garden in June.

I have many, many milkweed plants.

(I’m not bragging, just stating facts.  And, the fact is, I’d be happy to send you ripe seeds in a few weeks.)

Here is the classic butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooming in its bright-as-the-summer-sun orange.  This also bloomed in June in my garden, but is still blooming today.  Butterfly weed is now carried in a variety of gorgeous colors by most native plant nurseries.

Here is the classic butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooming in its bright-as-the-summer-sun orange. This also bloomed in June in my garden, but is still blooming today.

I let them grow all over my garden, often as volunteer plants in truly odd spots, because I love monarch butterflies.  I’ve planted milkweed of one type or another (both common milkweed and its cousin butterfly weed) in every garden I’ve had for the last 14 years, so that every year I can cross my fingers and hope to spot those cute, clown-colored caterpillars munching happily in my very own yard.

A few weeks ago we saw our first monarchs of the season fly through the yard, sipping on the zinnias I grow to attract butterflies of all kinds.  Occasionally we’d see one flitting around the leaves of a common milkweed plant; skittish and picky about where to land and easily disturbed.

Brightly colored zinnias are butterfly magnets!  Here we see a monarch sipping nectar from a bright pink "Monster" zinnia.

Brightly colored zinnias are butterfly magnets!  Here we see a monarch sipping nectar from a bright pink “Monster” zinnia.  Adult monarchs will drink nectar from many species of flowers, but when it comes to laying eggs, only milkweed will do!

Then, about a week ago – Eureka! – my daughter called me out to the front yard; she had found five monarch caterpillars one one of the milkweed plants.  Our joy was palpable.  We both went out several times that day and over the next six days to “check on the kids”.

Hello, little fellow!  Monarch caterpillars don't mind the toxins in the milkweed leaves they eat; that's what makes them poisonous to would-be predators!

Hello, little fellow! Monarch caterpillars don’t mind the toxins in the milkweed leaves they eat; that’s what makes them poisonous to would-be predators!

We watched them paring down leaves in neat little arcs, growing fatter by the day.  Then, just as I began to wonder how much bigger those hungry caterpillars could get, they all disappeared.

“Yay!”  I thought.  They’ve all gone to pupate.  We’ll look for the chrysalids (my preferred plural for chrysalis because “chrysalises” just sounds silly) and keep an eye on those and maybe, just maybe, we’ll catch a brand new monarch emerging.

Delight and anticipation immediately poured from my heart into every corner of my body and began fizzing like champagne.

Evidence of caterpillars well fed.  This is monarch caterpillar poop.  It's scientific name is "frass", which is one of my new favorite words.

Evidence of caterpillars well fed. This is monarch caterpillar poop. Its scientific name is “frass”, which is one of my new favorite words.

Until yesterday.  I went out to look for those chrysalids and found:  none.  Seriously!  I couldn’t find them anywhere!  I looked closely enough to see two new caterpillars, each less than a centimeter in length, recently hatched on the underside of a milkweed leaf, but no pupae!

So cute when they're young, but soon it will grow up and abandon me, just like its sneaky older siblings did.

So cute when they’re young, but soon it will grow up and abandon me, just like its sneaky older siblings did.

I looked on the milkweed, on the plants surrounding it, underneath all of the leaves.  I sat and sprawled and bent and, no doubt, entertained the passing neighbors with my comical yogic poses – but I found nothing.

Where are they???  How far away from their host plant can these chubby little caterpillars crawl?

Moving my search area to the internet, I found an article titled “Where to Look for a Monarch Chrysalis in the Garden“, but didn’t care for the bleak numbers about depredation it gave at the beginning.  My caterpillars did not bite the dust!  (It’s my garden, I can be in denial if I want to.)

Can anyone out there help me solve my monarch mystery?