Snow Day in Blacksburg

Friday, January 22 at about 4pm.  Wind blowing light, dry, sharp snow against my frozen cheeks.  

Cheers of children (ages 5-21) sledding down a nearby hill; they’re too young to feel the cold.  

Every other  animal in its right mind is hunkered down or huddled up, warmer with friends or making life under the snow.

The sun sank quickly beneath the horizon and behind the clouds, turning a world of white and grey to an infinite blue.
  

    

   

   

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Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

You know how parents do not have a favorite child?

Well, I do not have a favorite bird.  I love them all equally.

Except . . . well, I may have a little extra love for the chickadee.

My mother nicknamed me Dee when I was born, and the name seriously stuck.  Not only do all of the friends I grew up with still call me Dee, but all of the kids I work with at the nature center know me as “Ms. Dee”.

And you kind of have to love a bird that calls your name:

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!  Chick-a-da-dee-dee-dee!”

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This Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) was photographed by Dan Pancamo and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to this obviously superlative call, chickadees are also incredibly brave little birds, a trait that I both admire and aspire to.

At just 4.5 and 5.5 inches from beak to tail, respectively – we get both Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) here and I’ve spent exactly zero time learning to tell them apart, which I’m surprisingly okay with – they are among the smallest of the common songbirds.  So, you might expect them to be shy or timid, but the opposite is true.

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This black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) was photographed by Minette Layne and provided via Wikimedia Commons. The guide books note that the black-capped has buff colored sides whereas the Carolina chickadee’s sides are all very light gray. I must take my fancy new binocs up to my feeder watching chair and see if I can tell which visit my feeder.

They’re often first to the backyard feeder, happy to claim their place among the bigger birds and, seemingly, much less bothered by humans.

On my recent owling walk with the NRV bird club, chickadees nearly surrounded us along the length of the Deerfield Trail.  They sat boldly on low branches, checking out our oddly large eyes (read:  binoculars) with friendly curiosity.

They must have confidence in their rapid wing beats and acrobatic flight.  They can afford to be brave and inquisitive because they know they can be gone in a heartbeat if they sense danger.

I love to watch them in my backyard, flitting back and forth from our yellow birch tree to the hanging feeder, cracking one big black oil sunflower seed at a time with their little, determined beaks.

Just thinking of them makes me smile.

 

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

 

 

 

 

Owling with Birders

This past Saturday the Master Naturalists were invited to go owling with the local bird watching group, the New River Valley Bird Club, and considering my 2016 mission to see an owl in the wild, I jumped at the chance.

The group met at 4:30 (less than an hour before sunset) at the Deerfield Trail, intending to spot birds as we walked toward known owl habitat that the leaders had scoped out on previous evenings.

I was, of course, late, and so I walked the first half mile of the trail quickly and alone, trying to catch up with the birders that I hoped were ahead, but could not hear.  I did catch up, said a quiet hello to a fellow NRV Master Naturalist, and slipped in at the back of the group.

Now that I’ve been out birding with honest-to-goodness real bird watchers, I can report on the differences between birders and naturalists:

  1. Birders are quiet.  Really, really quiet.  They know that birds flee and fly from noisy humans, so not one voice exceeded a whisper for the entire two hour walk.  Master naturalists can be quite quiet and contemplative when alone, but if you get us together without duct-taping our mouths, we’re likely to sound like a flock of laughing gulls.
  2. Birders walk farther and faster than naturalists in between stops to examine nature.  They are looking for one thing:  birds.  They may look up, down, and all around, but only a bird sighting brings them to a stop.  Naturalists, on the other hand, are more like excited toddlers when it comes to nature – ooh, look at the tree, ooh look at the fungus on the tree, ooh look at the mushroom on the ground, ooh did you hear that woodpecker?  You’re lucky if you can get us (okay, me) to go 50 feet without a stop to see something awesome/intriguing/puzzling.
  3. Birders know how to stack the deck.  Our leader on this walk also carried a few handfuls of birdseed in his pack.  Whenever the group stopped to lift their binoculars or listen intently, he cast some seed on the trail.  In this way, he made sure that at our next stop, we could also look back at what feathered friends might be feasting at his impromptu feeding station.  Because of this, I saw my first ever Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), a large, brown, and streaky sparrow that does an adorable sort of hopping moonwalk to scratch up seeds and other little edibles on the forest floor.
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A fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with its beak open. I was so excited to have new binoculars (most excellent Christmas gift) to watch the fox sparrows we saw do their little back-hop scratch!

And the similarities between birders and naturalists?

Birders strike out, too.

Though we were walking in confirmed great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) territory and tempting the resident with recorded great horned owl calls (thanks to the Merlin Bird ID app) that it had responded to only the night before, we saw not one feather and heard not one hoot.

Though we were silent and patient, the owl just didn’t show.  It happens.

After waiting long enough in the January evening cold (temperatures in the teens, snowing up on Brush Mountain), we headed back toward the trail head.  Our second owl quarry, an Eastern screech-owl (Otus asio), occupies territory where the trail crosses Tom’s Creek.

And so we walked quietly in the gathering dusk, stopped silently, and listened intently as the whinnying calls of another screech owl on another night emanated from the leader’s smart phone.  Once, twice, three times.  Nothing.  And then, faintly, we heard an echoing whinny from farther down the creek.  It was so soft, no one dared to name it.  A fifth play from the smart phone brought another delicate whinny from downstream, though, and then we all knew.  Bright smiles lit up the darkening trail.  A real screech owl, and we had been there!  We didn’t see it, but we didn’t need to; at least we had heard it!

Birders get just as excited as naturalists, they’re just quiet about it.

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

It’s January now, and I feel the opposing needs of my body’s evolutionary and cultural pulls:

  1.   Evolution pulls me to pack on insulating fat and sleep as much as possible to survive this cold, dark season, but
  2. Culture pulls me to burn off those holiday calories so that I can live a healthier and longer life.

Culture winds because it keeps me from having to buy (new) larger pants.

So, I was out on Sunday, dutifully braving the windy mid 30s temperatures (I know – in a month or so I’ll dream of temperatures that high), walking my dog.  Usually I don’t expect to see wildlife when I walk the dog because, well, he’s a giant furry predator.

But this Sunday, nature rewarded me for getting out to walk:

I made my first ever positive identification of an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)!

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A male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) standing on prey it has pinned to the ground. Image provided by Bill Bouton via Wikimedia Commons. (The original post on Wikimedia Commons lists this as a female kestrel, but after my research, I believe the photographer got it wrong.)

The dog and I were walking past a fallow corn field when a crow-sized bird swept overhead.  But it didn’t flap like a crow or hold its wings like a crow – or any of the other birds I’m used to seeing, for that matter – so I was drawn to watch it for a little while.

It took up an airborne stance much like a red-tailed hawk “kiting” (see my Hanging Rock post for more info on that); it faced into the wind and held its wings half contracted, using the wind to hold its body relatively still 50ish feet above the ground.  From this position, I know, it was surveying the entire field with its superior vision, looking for a furry little morsel to eat.

I watched for a minute more, trying desperately to pick out field marks from 100 yards away against a bright blue sky. (Oh, how I wished for the awesome new binoculars I got for Christmas.  I’m going to have to start wearing them everywhere – do you think I can get away with it if I call them a “statement necklace”?)  It was difficult, but I was able to make out a rusty red head, a many-banded flared tail, and sharp, angled wings.

Reluctantly, largely motivated by an antsy pooch and a seriously cold wind, I moved on.  By the time we passed back by the field, the kestrel was gone, but those few field marks and some research in my guidebooks helped me not only positively ID the kestrel, but also to fill in the rest of the bird’s story.

Kestrels may be the smallest of our falcons, but they’re fierce and hungry – a big predator in a small package.  They hunt from perches or in mid-air (what I witnessed), searching open fields for small rodents and insects to eat.  They drop down on their prey and pin it to the ground with their talons, eating it right there or carrying it back to a perch to consume.

This choice in hunting method and diet differentiates kestrels from the small hawks (accipiters, e.g. Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk) and the other falcons (e.g. Merlin, Peregrine Falcon) because those birds prefer an airborne, avian diet – snatching songbirds right out of the air.  You may see one or all of these species keeping a wary eye on the bird feeder in your yard.  Don’t fret; this is just the energy of your bird feed spreading up the food chain, keeping all of the birds alive in the cold.

Not that a kestrel won’t keep an eye on your feeder if it’s hungry; kestrels are often called “sparrow hawks” due to their taste for house sparrows.  I don’t see them at my feeder because they’d prefer not to land in my back yard, where the ground level is ruled by the aforementioned giant, furry predator.

I was also able to ID the kestrel I saw as a female, for three reasons:

  1.  It had a rufous head (males’ heads are slate gray);
  2. it had a many banded tail (males’ tails are mostly rufous with black edges); and
  3. it occupied an open field hunting territory.

Apparently, female kestrels move south into their winter range earlier than males, and so they get the best territories.  The males are relegated to scrubbier and more forested territories, where they have to compete with the the small hawks and falcons for part of their diet.

Kestrels have a lot of territory to choose from, though, as they make themselves at home in both city and country.  Their smaller size allows them to hunt fewer square miles and still stay well fed.  (Think of them as the daytime counterpart of the Eastern Screech Owl.)

With a little luck, a little willpower, and a lot of warm layers, I’ll walk this trail more often as the winter weeks go by and see this fierce falcon female again soon.

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

First Day Hike

Happy New Year to me – today I won at hiking.

I know what you’re saying – hiking is not a competitive sport.  Read on and find out – today I got the win in a big way.

My daughter, Abbey, and I drove thirty minutes down to Hiwassee, Virginia to participate in the annual Virginia State Parks First Day Hike along a section of the New River Trail State Park.

The day was gray and colder than it’s been in weeks.  I was a little surprised that the nine-year-old wanted to go, but she hopped in the car with me enthusiastically.

This was a tough hike to sell to a kid – three miles round trip without a mountaintop view at the end, in weather far too cold to play in any trailside streams, and there was no guaranteed (or even promised) wildlife.  Not much incentive.

Still, we arrived happily (if unusually, for me, anyway) on time, though most of the other 70ish hikers had raced ahead while we were parking.  Abbey and I met our hosts at the end of the parking lot and were advised that we could walk down the New River Trail for a mile or so to the head of the new side trail the group would hike, or wait in the parking lot for the van to come back and take its next load of passengers.

It was 32 degrees and windy.  I chose walking to warm us both up.

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This beautiful little stream only has another 100 yards to go before it will join the New River.

It really was a full mile.  She was bored after the first half mile and the “how much longer” question was posed in a variety of ways.  I answered noncommittally, buying time.

Finally we found the state-vehicle-white-with-blue-license-plate van and a private property gate open allowing us access to an uphill gravel trail.  Obviously the last load of van riders beat us to the trailhead.  I had no idea how far behind we were, but catching up meant keeping a steady pace uphill while also keeping Abbey engaged looking for tracks in the wet, red clay at the sides of the gravel road.

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Deer track! There were plenty of these scattered all along the length of the trail.

And so we went, spotting deer tracks and dog tracks, and deer, coyote, and raccoon scat.

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Based on my Internet research, I feel fairly sure in my identification of this scat as coyote scat. Check out all the fur in it! If you want to argue for bobcat or fox, though, let me know in the comments.

We were maybe five minutes past the gate when we heard a loud rustling in the woods between us and a meadow we were passing.  We both stopped.

“What was that,” Abbey asked incredulously.

“Probably just some deer” I replied, having gotten my hopes up for spotting other large mammals one too many times.

“Sounds bigger than a deer,” she said, confident.  “I think it’s a bear.”

“No, I bet it’s just several deer,” I said, as if seeing a herd of white-tailed deer up close weren’t particularly cool.  (For the record, a close encounter with a herd from inside our cabin in the Grayson Highlands sent me over the moon a couple of weeks ago.)

And the the rustling crash came again, about 50 feet behind us.  We turned around just in time to see a full-grown black bear (Ursus americanus) sow run across the wide trail.  We were frozen with our mouths hanging open, staring at the empty space where the bear just been, when what came to fill that space but a little bear cub running to catch up with mama!

Oh!  My brain was reeling.  “I just saw mama bear and baby bear in the wild!” I was completely exhilarated.

And that’s when cub number two followed the family across the road.

Two cubs!  Lucky us, I thought, we actually got to see a mama with her twins!

Then cub number three and, seconds later, cub number four ran by.

Four cubs.

Five bears.

Holy crap!!!

We waited silently to be sure the fourth cub was the last, then we calmly resumed hiking uphill . . . smiling like birthday kids with cake and letting our thoroughly blown minds settle back into working order.

Holeeeeeee crap!!!

I had only ever seen a black bear in the wild once before.  It was from inside a state vehicle the summer I worked for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, seventeen years ago.

These bears were no more than 20 yards away from us.  The big group of hikers must have scared the bears out of crossing, and when we last two, fairly non-threatening humans passed, Mama Bear felt safe enough to gather the cubs and run.

Did I mention holy crap?!

(This is where a picture of the black bears would go if I’d had the time or brain to take my camera out.  I did not.)

We caught up with the main group about 15 minutes later, spurred to finish the end of the (very, very uphill) hike just so we could share our amazing bear experience.

When we reached the end of the trail, we learned all about the Hoover Color Corporation, whose recently donated former mining site we had been hiking.  We stared across a man made canyon and over at a wall of Virginia clay in every shade of yellow, orange, and red.

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Check out those reds, oranges, and yellows! Clay colored by the iron particles within it. Also, for perspective, those are full sized (40+ feet) trees that have fallen down the hill on the right side of the photo.

Hoover Color took the site over in the early 20th century from an iron ore mining company, and made its money selling pigments straight from that ferrous clay.

Hoover Color is, to this day, the largest provider of pigments such as ocher, umber, and sienna.  Only now they don’t need to mine the clay; they can extract their pigments while simultaneously cleaning up acid mine tailing and waste.  That’s why they’ve donated the old mining land.  Now that’s a company doing right by Mother Nature.

Yes, that company is excellent, but they didn’t win the hike.

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A gorgeous, gray view of Draper Mountain in the distance, seen from the farthest point of the hike.

Abbey and I won that hike.  We may have been last up the hill, but we were the only ones who saw bears!

We finally caught up to the Department of Conservation and Recreation ranger as the hike ended, and immediately shared the joy of our sighting.  He was pleased, but not surprised (which is exactly how you want a ranger to react).

It’s been so warm these past few months that the black bears haven’t begun to den up and sleep for the winter.

“But four cubs?” I asked.  I thought bears could only have single cubs or twins.

The ranger replied that sow bears will adopt cubs who’ve lost their family, so this sow was likely caring for her own twins as well as somebear else’s.  Wow.  Maybe she wins.

Still I don’t mind taking second place to that mama bear, because if the first day of January was this incredible, 2016 is gonna be a helluva year!