Deerfield Trail – Early Autumn.

The Deerfield Trail is a small wonder of the New River Valley nature scene.

A good friend of mine tipped me off to its existence early this spring, when she and her family walked the trail at dusk in order to hear the woodcocks “peenting” their mating song.

I didn’t get out there fast enough (or at the right time of evening) to catch the woodcocks’ serenade, but I have walked the trail several times this spring and summer and, most recently, last week, so it’s one I can highly recommend, particularly for families with young children.

This was the scene from the trailhead.  Note the large pine tree on the left; it's gorgeous but it's a mystery I still need to solve.  It has three, twisted 3-inch needles per bundle, and short, fat, stubby cones.  That doesn't fit what I can find in my books and on line.  I guess I'll just have to take another walk soon.

This was the scene from the trailhead. Note the large pine tree on the left; it’s gorgeous but it’s a mystery I still need to solve. It has three, twisted 3-inch needles per bundle, and short, fat, stubby cones. That doesn’t fit what I can find in my books and on line. I guess I’ll just have to take another walk soon.

Here are the Deerfield Trail’s highlights:

  • It’s only a five minute drive off of Route 460 via Tom’s Creek Road.
  • There’s plenty of parking.
  • The entire trail is both wide and paved; less tripping hazard for little feet and thoroughly stroller-friendly.
  • It’s only .7 miles long, one way, and there’s very little incline.
  • Around the half mile mark, there’s a wonderful grassy area complete with big, shady sycamore trees and at least two benches, right on the banks of Tom’s Creek.
  • This area of Tom’s Creek (as long as it’s not raining upstream) is nice and shallow, perfect for exploring and splashing.
  • In addition to the creek, this trail also features open meadow and woodland habitats, and more habitats means a greater variety of species to see.
  • Wildlife I’ve seen on this trail include:
    • Songbirds (cardinals, blue jays, Eastern towhees, robins, etc.)
    • Woodpeckers
    • Great Blue Heron
    • Canada Geese
    • Mink (playing in the farm pond)
    • Squirrels
    • Chipmunks
  • Speaking of wildlife, dogs are welcome as long as they’re on leash.
  • This trail has lots of great interpretive signage, too, provided by a local Girl Scout troop when the trail was first built and designed to encourage visitors to use all of their senses to experience nature along the way.  Easy reading for elementary students, these signs are full of wonderful information.
Another cool sight near the trailhead were these spent blossoms of Eastern Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  The blossoms are a gorgeous veil of delicate, lacy white, which is beautiful enough, but after the bloom is done you see these cool, twisted mop tops.  They remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax.  So cool.

Another cool sight near the trailhead were these spent blossoms of Eastern Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). The blossoms themselves are a gorgeous veil of delicate, lacy white, which is beautiful enough, but after the bloom is done you see these cool, twisted mop tops. They remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. So cool.

During my walk last week I enjoyed watching the progression of fall on the trail.  Palest purple asters (Aster spp.) and bright gold wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) were both in bloom, as well as a few goldenrod and some surprising pink gaura (Gaura spp.).  The blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace were just finishing their bloom, browning, and curving upward and inward, sort of like an umbrella that’s been blown inside out.

It's my contention that there aren't enough words to describe the many shades and tints of purple. (Violet, royal, lavender, orchid, and lilac aren't cutting it.) I hereby nominate a new name:  pale aster - a purple so near to white that you have to look twice.

It’s my contention that there aren’t enough words to describe the many shades and tints of purple. (Violet, royal, lavender, orchid, and lilac aren’t cutting it.) I hereby nominate a new name: pale aster – a purple so near to white that you have to look twice.

The black walnut trees along the trail had dropped plenty of baseball-sized, bright green fruit on the ground.  (Even that hard nut is protected by at least a half inch of dense material inside a tough, leathery husk.)

As the trail progresses, you head slightly uphill and past a farm pond (where I saw a mink splashing this spring and two Canada geese nesting this summer).  This is the view of the meadow to the left of the trail and the mountain that grows up on the far side of Tom's Creek.

As the trail progresses, you head slightly uphill and past a farm pond (where I saw a mink splashing this spring and two Canada geese nesting this summer). This is the view of the meadow to the left of the trail and the mountain that grows up on the far side of Tom’s Creek.  In the foreground, a bluebird box is being nicely camouflaged by this season’s now-leafless growth of vines.

As the trail crossed Tom’s Creek, I saw the evidence of the recent floods:  grass and wildflowers still flattened in the direction of the floodwaters, bent permanently by the sheer force of the rush.  The banks of the creek were obviously significantly eroded, scrubbed sheer and concave by the power of so much water headed down even this gentle slope.  There’s a lot of impermeable surface – pavement, roofs, sidewalks, etc. – in the Tom’s Creek watershed, so even a moderate rain can generate a fairly large flash flood.

This photo shows Tom's Creek just downstream from where it flows beneath the trail.  Note the left side of the creek (outside of a slight curve) and how its sides are so heavily eroded by the recent flood that grass which had been growing on flat ground just weeks ago is now hanging down over the creek, the land literally ripped from beneath its roots.

This photo shows Tom’s Creek just downstream from where it flows beneath the trail. Note the left side of the creek (outside of a slight curve) and how its sides are so heavily scoured by the recent flood that grass which had been growing on flat ground just weeks ago is now hanging down over the creek, the land literally ripped from beneath its roots.

Then, following the trail into the woods, my footsteps became noisy as I crunched through drifts of fallen leaves.  It was my first autumn leaf shuffle, and in some spots the leaf litter was deep enough to kick, Rockettes-style, into the air.  Which, of course, I did, because I had the trail all to myself.  Well, I was away from other humans, at least; there were plenty of obvious animal trails visible in the thinning undergrowth and lots of skittering and rustling in my peripheral vision.

One of my favorite things about autumn is a path covered with colorful and/or crunchy leaves.  It does make it significantly harder to see any wildlife, though.  Clumsy, stomping human feet are loud enough without crackling leaves to make it worse.

One of my favorite things about autumn is a path covered with colorful and/or crunchy leaves. It does make it significantly harder to see any wildlife, though. Clumsy, stomping human feet are loud enough without crackling leaves to make it worse.

The great thing about a straight (non-loop) trail is that, if you pay attention, you see lots of things on the way out that you missed on the way in.  Here are some more great autumn wildflowers that caught my eye:

This is the developing seedhead of Spotted  Joe Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), a common autumn sight in moist meadows and at  stream edges.

This is the developing seedhead of Spotted Joe Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), a common autumn sight in moist meadows and at stream edges.

The only thistle blossom I found on the whole trail.  It's my second nomination for a new shade of purple.

The only thistle blossom I found on the whole trail. It’s my second nomination for a new shade of purple.  Check out the little yellow and black fly coming in for a landing at nine o’clock.  Many small flies have found success in the natural selection game because their coloring resembles that of bees and, thus, predators think twice before eating them.

This is not thistle, but rather Spotted Knapweed (Centaureas maculosa).  It's a non-native, invasive species introduced from Europe.  So widely has it spread, though, that it's likely here to stay.  Enlarge the picture to get a good view of the small metallic blue beetle (at 12 o'clock) and pollinating fly (in the center) that are making use of the flower's nectar and pollen.

This is not thistle, but rather Spotted Knapweed (Centaureas maculosa). It’s a non-native, invasive species introduced from Europe. So widely has it spread, though, that it’s likely here to stay. Enlarge the picture to get a good view of the small metallic blue beetle (at 12 o’clock) and pollinating fly (in the center) that are making use of the flower’s nectar and pollen.

This milkweed pod has ripened, turned brown, and burst open to reveal the feathery white seeds inside.  These seeds are dispersed by wind, and look like giant, spherical snowflakes floating through the autumn breeze.  As a kid, I believed that if you caught one, you could make a wish on it.  Now all my milkweed wishes are for monarch caterpillars next year, and so far they've all come true.

This milkweed pod has ripened, turned brown, and burst open to reveal the feathery white seeds inside. These seeds are dispersed by wind, and look like giant, spherical snowflakes floating through the autumn breeze.  As a kid, I called them “fairy seeds” and believed that if you caught one, you could make a wish on it.  Now all my milkweed wishes are for monarch caterpillars next year, and so far they’ve all come true.

As I inserted these last pictures into the post, an overall takeaway occurred to me:  the most noted wildflowers and seedheads of early fall are (generally) members of the Aster family (e.g.: Joe Pye, Aster, Thistle, Goldenrod, Ironweed, and Coreopsis) and the Milkweed family (e.g.: Common Milkweed, Butterflyweed, and Swamp Milkweed).

This is, no doubt, a general rule that should have occurred to me before, but I don’t mind figuring it out again by looking closely at each of these gorgeous flowers and then backing out to the bigger picture.  Just one more reason I love to hike.

To learn a bit more about some of the New River Valley’s other hiking trails, check out my earlier blog posts, Gooooooing Up – The Gateway Trail and A Walk in the Ellet Valley Recreational Area.

Gardner vs. Naturalist

Well, the sun is back out in Blacksburg and we are almost thoroughly dried from the floods.

The town will begin collecting autumn yard waste tomorrow morning, so I spent a good portion of the afternoon trimming branches and cutting stems of overgrown plants in my yard.

I keep a very beautiful, but very messy garden. I like to plant my perennials so close together that it’s difficult to see the weeds growing up between them.  The only downside to this is that by the end of the season, my busy garden is full of brown seed heads, spent daylily stems, and weeds that I thought were pretty enough to let grow.

Meanwhile, only the asters, mums, and goldenrods are still blooming. The garden is more messy than pretty by a longshot.

And this is when the gardener in my brain wrestles with the naturalist.

Messy gardens are good for wildlife.
I have to repeat that mantra to myself a lot throughout the fall.

These past few weeks, though, the wild world has been helping me out by actually showing up to take advantage of my messy garden.
Here are some pictures of the things that have helped the naturalist and the gardener get along:


This picture shows the pokeweed that has grown huge in my corner garden. I find the fuchsia stems and inky purple berries quite attractive. But, there’s no doubt that most of my neighbors consider this poisonous plant a weed.  And, as the season goes on, the large leaves turn yellow and droop and entirely unattractive manner.  I was on the verge of cutting the whole thing down when I arrived home from a walk and spotted my very first cedar waxwing gorging itself on the berries.  The pokeweed stays.


These are the spiky brown seed heads of my purple coneflowers. The stems and leaves are equally brown and crispy. The gardener in me itches to grab the pruners and remove the unsightly, unverdant lot of them.  But then every morning when I first open our front door, I am treated to the startled flight of a small flock of bright yellow American goldfinches. They wake well before I do and feast on coneflower seeds.  So, if I have to put up with brown in order to get a scattering of gold every morning, the coneflower seed heads stay.


My zinnias didn’t come in well this year.  I think I stored last year’s seeds incorrectly.  Where usually they are a gorgeous green mass of leaves topped by impossibly large flowers that look like fireworks, this year they are leggy and not blooming so well, as you can see in the picture. But, when I am stuck folding laundry, I often look out the window because something has zipped through my peripheral vision and I spot  the ruby-throated hummingbirds that are sipping sweet zinnia nectar to fuel their little bodies over the long migration south.  And, just this last week, Monarch butterflies are using the zinnias has pitstops on their southward migration as well.  The zinnias stay.

The naturalist wins.

No doubt the gardener will get some more trimming done after the first killing frost, but the seed heads will stay until every seed has gone into a goldfinch tummy.
And, in the spring, all the branches and stems that I didn’t get collected by the town’s second fall brush collection and, therefore, are piled in an out of the way corner will make a wonderful hiding spot for a mama Eastern cottontail and her soft, sweet, baby bunnies.