Mountain of Many Colors

There’s a short window in spring, just a week or two, really, when the mountainsides transform from the brown and gray bones of winter into a pointillist painting of a million different greens.

Here in the valley and ridge of southwest Virginia, that time is now.

As I drove to Roanoke yesterday, drizzle misted the windshield and low clouds hid the peaks of the mountains, but this diffuse light made the colors of the mountainside all the richer – pure pigments soaking the trees as if they were a fine artist’s brushes.

I refrained from taking pictures as I drove (you’re welcome, all you other drivers whom I didn’t run off the road), but for the last 24 hours the names of a million life-giving greens have been wandering through my head.

Here are just a few to inspire you, too:

peridot

emerald

lime

shamrock

chartreuse

hunter

pine

jungle

forest

eucalyptus

absinthe

grass

asparagus

moss 

olive

jade

pear

pistachio

mint

sage

jade

Every one named for a plant, fruit, or stone.  All sprung from the earth, vibrant and refreshing.

I won’t say which is my favorite, but please reveal (or add!) yours in the comments.

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Quickie Post:  What’s Blooming Now

Spring’s in full swing and there are beautiful blossoms all over the New River Valley.  I’ve snapped shots of a few while out and about over the past week.  For your identification edification and floral pleasure:

A pink flowered dogwood tree. In the wild, dogwood trees all have white flowers, but I’ve got a soft spot for the pink ones.

Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus)

My neighbors have both a white dogwood and a pink dogwood. Both are Cornus Florida and I am more that a little jealous!

Viburnum

Buttercup (Ranunculus spp.)

Violet (Viola cucullata)

Showy Orchid (Galearis spectabilis)

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata)

An Unusual Request

You’re about to read a request that I never thought I’d type:

Please go get in your car and start driving.

Even as I type the words, the thought of burning extra fossil fuels makes me feel guilty. . . but this is worth it.

If you live anywhere near the New River Valley, find an excuse to go for a drive on Interstate 81 this weekend!

All along I-81, the native redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) are in full bloom, lining both sides of the road with that bright pink that is almost purple (or that purple that’s not quite pink, depending on your point of view.)

It is absolutely spectacular.

I would have taken a hundred pictures to share with you, but I saw them while I was driving, of course.

So, please, for the sake of a happy soul, go see them yourself.  Go.

Go now.

Stop reading and go already!

Sprinting Spring

Time moves far too fast when you’re getting ready to relocate.  Between spring cleaning and house staging, I feel as if I’m missing spring!

It seems as if just a moment ago the red maple (Acer rubrum) trees were still in burgundy bud, and now their growing green “helicopter” seeds have mellowed the crimson blooms so that the trees look decked with flakes of copper.

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I allow my forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) to grow rather large and wild; it’s tallest branches reach up to my second story window. The arching stems and myriad bright yellow blossoms make it look a little like a firework.

The forsythia bushes (Forsythia x intermedia), tulip magnolia (Magnolia lilliflora), and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are in full bloom, not to mention actual tulips and daffodils.

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The tiny, chartreuse blossoms of the spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are a true sign of spring. The spicebush is a native shrub/small tree in this area of Virginia and, having evolved here for millennia, really “knows” when it’s spring for sure.

I have already seen mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and cabbage white (Pieris rapae) butterflies!

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The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly is one of the first to emerge in spring because its caterpillars feed on willow trees, which are among the first to leaf out.

It’s wonderful to watch the Earth wake up, all blossoms and bird song – if only time would slow just a little so that I could enjoy it longer.

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It makes me unreasonably happy when the willows finally turn green. My inner child skips around singing “It’s here, it’s heeeere, spring is really heeeere!”

To capture the few seasonal moments I had between cleaning and donation runs to the local YMCA, I thought I’d write a couple of haiku poems.

I wanted to do it “right”, of course, so I quickly Googled the how-to.  Big mistake.  The rules I learned in grade school apparently no longer apply.  By the time I was done being confused by the many voices and opinions on what English haiku should comprise, I decided it would be easier just to call the following “triplet” poems.

So, here are the four quick triplets that describe the spring moments of my March:

 

cold hands

tucking in tiny roots and

courageous leaves

breaking ice,

wild yellow explodes

forsythia

warm earth

soft pink petals

hope

trilling, proud

and persistent, he calls

to his future

Signs of Spring

As a naturalist, I feel that I should love all parts of nature.

Mostly, I do.

There are two things I struggle with:

  1. Fear of animals that can kill me, and
  2. February.

I’m trying, I really am, but February is just the coldest, grayest, darkest, most desolate of months.  I think somebody put Valentine’s Day in February in an effort to cheer people up with fat little cupids and chocolate (epic fail).

But, joy to the world, this February hasn’t been so bad!  I even started seeing early signs of spring a week ago.  Here are a few to get your hopes up before the NRV gets pounded by it’s standard end-of-season, first weekend of March snow storm:

  • Robins!  A robin in a tree is a winter sighting, my mom says, but a robin on the lawn is a spring sighting.  I saw one in a tree yesterday, but one on my lawn several days ago.  Go figure.  I’m counting it as one in the early spring column.
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An American robin (Turdus migratorius) that I photographed last year in Heritage Park.

  • Grackles!  The 40-foot yellow birch tree across the street was filled with a flock of at least 50 common grackles three days ago.  They’re one of the first songbirds to return in the springtime.  This flock may still be on its way further north, but I’m counting it!
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A common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) photographed by Jacopo Werther and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • Crocuses blooming!  Okay, I know these aren’t wildflowers, but they are one of spring’s earliest bloomers, and they’re just so pretty!
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Hello, crocuses! These brave little blossoms are peaking up out of my messy-for-the-wildlife winter garden. Ain’t they grand???

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.
  

    

   

   

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.

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!

 

 

Hawking the Road (Red-tailed Hawk, Common 10 Birds of Prey)

The only reason I tolerate long drives is because I can look at beautiful vistas and try to spot wildlife.

My particular favorite is looking for hawks in the barren trees at the side of the highway during holiday driving.

Whether I’m driving or riding shotgun, spotting hawks in the roadside trees is fairly easy; I just scan for lumpy branches.  Most of the time the lumps turn out to be squirrel nests or clumps of leaves caught in a crag, but maybe 1 out of 10 lumps is a hawk!

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A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree. Check out that tail and those talons! Photo provided by MONGO via Wikimedia Commons.

The easiest, largest lump to find is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  They perch, still as statues, in the trees above the median, scanning the grassy area for a juicy little rodent that they can swoop down on and snatch up with their talons.

Red-tailed hawks, sitting nearly two feet tall and with a wing span over four feet, are the largest hawks in this area, beating out the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) by a few inches and the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) by over a foot.

Red-tails, like most hawks, are not the large birds you see soaring in the sky most often; those are usually vultures.  Look for how the bird holds its wings – if they’re in a slight uptilt, forming a wide V, think vulture.  A lighter bird with wings held flat means you may be seeing a hawk.

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Red-tailed hawk in flight. They look like a brown lump when perched, but when they’re flying overhead you’ll not only a brown head on a mostly light colored body, except for that rufous tail, of course! Photo provided by Bear golden retriever via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-tails will take advantage of a thermal (rising column of warm air) to carry them up to great heights where they can survey a whole field for prey.  They’ll also use a mountain updraft to hunt via “kiting,” which I described in my Hanging Rock post.  Also, it must be noted that the springtime soaring and free-fall coitus of a mated pair is fairly spectacular.

In everyday life, though, hawks are watchers and swoopers as they go about the business of catching the little mammals that make up the large part of their diet, including voles, mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels.

Whether flying or perching, the red tail is this hawk’s most reliable identifying feature.  A rusty red that many birders describe as “rufous” colors their entire tail, though it can also look peach or orange if sunlight is pouring through it.

Though you’ll pass them fast at highway speeds, you’ll be surprised how much detail you can see in a perched hawk.  I even spot the little hawks (Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned) from the highway sometimes.

You’ll have to take the first few miles to let your eyes adjust to differentiating lumps while also not driving off the road, but after that a long drive can be hawk heaven!  Even the kiddos might pry their eyes from their tablets to look for a hawk or two; have the right side of the car compete against the left side for who can find the most hawks.  My best count yet was headed west on Route 66 in northern Virginia after Christmas a few years ago – I saw a hawk every mile for at least 17 miles!

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)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

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)