Trail Shots: Hello, Old Friend

I hadn’t set foot on the trails at Flag Ponds Nature Park in over four months.  I have honestly missed the North Ridge Trail and South Ridge Trail, thinking about them often and wanting to check in with them, like old friends whose voices I long to hear.

My absence is partly due to my discovery of the American Chestnut Land Trust Trails, (make new friends, but keep the old . . .) but more due to the limited hours Flag Ponds is open during the winter.  (Only Friday through Monday 9am to 4pm – entry gate closes at 3pm.  Not that I’m bitter.  Or that I’m a forgetful lazybones who couldn’t remember to get her hind end to the park before 3pm.)

But Sunday, I made it; daylight savings time has pushed the park’s closing till 5pm (entry gate closes at 4pm) and I was there at 2:43!  Ha!

And my old trail “friends” were so happy to see me that they provided one wonderful encounter after another, including:

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This is the ridge-bottom entry to the Northridge Trail.  I left my house under dull, gray cloud cover; fifteen minutes later the trailhead greeted me with azure sky, fluffy white clouds, and warm sunshine.  It was like a “Welcome Back!” sign from the universe.

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Ripening buds on a cut-leaved toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), one of the earliest spring bloomers on the forest floor.  Once I noticed this one, my eyes “woke” to them and they were popping up through the leaf litter everywhere!

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And speaking of teeth . . . if you look closely at the beige bit of detritus at the top of the screen, you’ll notice that it’s a set of two molars that have worked their way free of this carnivore’s scat.  I guess that the scat was made by a fox, since it was left in the middle of a bridge, and that’s always where I seem to find fox scats.  Whatever this fox ate, it had gray fur and teeth made for grinding up seeds and plant matter.

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Just a quarter mile further up the trail, I found more evidence of a successful predator.  This lunch had white fur, though, spread out in clumps over a four foot square area.   

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The stalks growing up from this bed of moss are sporangia – stems with a pouch at the end that holds the developing moss spores.  A new generation of moss in the making!

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These are the dried seedpods of the invasive Royal Paulowina tree (Paulownia tomentosa).  I was sad to find them already empty, their seeds having fallen somewhere in the forest, ready to take nutrients from native species that are pillars of the ecosystem.  I also noticed how much the seed pods look like the head of the alien plant from Little Shop of Horrors; how apropos.

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I heard a rustling in the leaves just next to my right foot.  Usually rustling in the forest is a squirrel or bird, but this was close and small and so I looked down and was delighted to see a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) making its way to the swamp.

Check out this happy little video of the spotted salamander (we’ll call him Sal) making his way through the leaf litter:

Sal Moves Along

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The pond and the Bay beyond.  What you can’t see in this picture, but what absolutely MADE my hike, was the pair of green-winged teal ducks (Anas carolinensis) revealed by my binoculars.  My first green-winged teals EVER!  And the female was having a quick bath-and-preen, so she was showing off her teal wing patch over and over.  Gorgeous!

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On the South Ridge trail, I found this moss with tiny, red and yellow bell-shaped sporangia.  The world of tiny things is fascinating!

Another stroke of luck – the leaf shown in the pictures above was flipped over so that I saw its amethyst underside.  Had I seen only the green top, I might never have noticed it, but that deep purple drew my eye and my camera like a magnet.  Research reveals that it is the foliage of a cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor), which means I can look forward to finding a beautiful 15-inch stalk of blossoms when the weather warms.  Check out this wonderful blog post by Mary Anne Borge, complete with excellent pictures, about the cranefly orchid.

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A bouquet upon leaving.  This vine has just sent out a shock of new leaves to gather energy from the late winter sun.  I haven’t identified the vine properly yet, but knowing that it winds around the tree clockwise (ascending from right to left) is a big clue – the way a vine winds is coded in its DNA; clockwise vines will never wind counter-clockwise, and so you can use winding direction to help identify species.

 

For more shots from the trails at Flag Ponds, read:

Trail Photos: Flag Ponds Nature Park North and South Ridge Trails

Mushroom Mysteries & Fungus Fails

Ninja Hiking with Charlotte

 

Hunting Salamanders at Glen Alton with my Peeps

I am not cool enough to use the word “peeps”.

I know this because I worry about the grammar and spelling of this slang word for “people”.  Still, I’m going to use it anyway, brazenly, because when I hang with my peeps they make me feel cool enough.

My peeps are not my family.  I love hanging with my family, but it’s a whole different wonderful feeling.  My peeps are my fellow Virgnia Master Naturalists.  (New River Valley Chapter, of course.)  These are the nicest, most knowledgeable-but-not-haughty-about-it, most enthusiastic nature nerds you’d ever want to meet.  My peeps.

I took the certification course in 2012-2013, and have kept up my certification with the required 40 hours of volunteer service (I do mine at the local nature center) and eight hours of continuing education every year.

As a part of that continuing education, I helped take the new trainees on their amphibians field trip to Glen Alton Farm.  There was a new teacher who taught us about and helped us search for salamanders in the woods just outside of the farm.

Another view from the main house.  The pond that you see is where we caught the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

Another view from the main house. The pond that you see is where we caught the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

I had searched these same woods for salamanders when I trained, but that field trip was in the spring, and this one was in late October.  My main educational take-away was this:  in the spring you can find a wide variety of salamanders hiding under logs on the forest floor (slimeys and duskies and red-backeds and more); after it’s gotten cold in the autumn, the only species hardy enough to still be found are the red-backeds.  All of the others have wisely burrowed into nooks and crannies in the soil to sleep off the winter.  This is a good move for a tasty morsel such as a salamander; the red-backeds we found on that 34 degree morning were ridiculously easy to catch.  If you could find one under whatever log you’d rolled over to check, the salamander was so cold (they’re ectotherms, so their body is the temperature of the surrounding environment) that it barely moved and you could just reach down and gingerly pick it up.  In spring’s warmer weather, they’re quick as lightning, diving under leaf litter and racing in a new direction in a flash.

Two red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) that we captured, sitting quite still in a plastic storage container, with my hand beneath to provide a solid background.  Under a log, these little guys look at first like a wriggling red  worm.

Two red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) that we captured, sitting quite still in a plastic storage container, with my hand beneath to provide a solid background. Under a log, these little guys look at first like a wriggling red worm.

So that explains another difference in the two salamander hunts – in spring we found a variety of species, but were only able to catch about a half-dozen of the quick little suckers.  In fall, we only found red-backeds, but were able to catch and observe about 25 of them.

This is the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) that our teacher was able to pluck out of the farm's pond.  Newts don't sleep for the winter because ponds only freezes on top; they're still swimming around (albeit slowly) and probably not thinking about how grateful they should be that ice floats.

This is the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) that our teacher was able to pluck out of the farm’s pond. Newts don’t sleep for the winter because ponds only freezes on top; they’re still swimming around (albeit slowly) and probably not thinking about how grateful they should be that ice floats.

If you haven’t caught a salamander yet, I highly recommend you go on a hunt next spring or summer.  Salamanders are so cool (both literally and figuratively) – check out these salamander facts:

  • Salamanders are amphibians, not reptiles.  Most are born from eggs in laid in fresh water and have gills when they’re young.  They lose the gills as they mature and go ashore to live the rest of their lives on land.  (Exceptions:  the Eastern Newt, which lives on land as a Red Eft for a short period, then returns to the water as an adult and the Hellbender, which is completely aquatic.)
  • Their skin is moist and must stay moist so that they can breathe through it; most species have no lungs.  (Exception:  the family of mole salamanders, which have lungs.)
  • Salamanders are adorably small, usually less than ten inches from tip of their blunt little noses to end of their tails, and the tail may make up more than half of that length.  (Exception:  the Hellbender, which can grow up to 16 inches.)
  • They have cute faces, with huge eyes that help them hunt for insects and arthropods in the low light of the forest floor’s leaf litter and decaying logs.
  • Their mouths are too small to worry about a bite.
  • They must be handled gently and placed back under the leaf litter after a few minutes so their skin doesn’t dry out.

After our salamanders were placed back under their logs and tucked in for the winter (any log rolled over must always be put back, or you’ve just destroyed a habitat), we continued our walk down the trail, chatting about nature and life and all manner of good things on a bright and crisp fall morning.

Getting to walk this trail with like-minded people who also stop every few yards to look at something interesting was just plain awesome.

Getting to walk this trail with like-minded people who also stop every few yards to look at something interesting was just plain awesome.

Time with my nature peeps is the best.

The trail continues beyond this beautiful old farm building, but we nature nerds walk so slow that we had to turn around and head back toward our cars at this point.  Someday, though, I'll bring my family peeps and we'll keep on walking.

The trail continues beyond this beautiful old farm building, but we nature nerds walk so slow that we had to turn around and head back toward our cars at this point. Someday, though, I’ll bring my family peeps and we’ll keep on walking.

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.