Foggy Morning on the Laurel Loop Trail

Sunshine lifted the fog from my house early Monday morning and its clear rays combined with energy from a really good night’s sleep to get me in the car and headed to the trail before 9:00 a.m..

It seemed the sun had only worked on my rooftop and nearby hilltops, though, and as I drove north to the American Chestnut Land Trust’s Parker’s Creek Preserve, I found myself deep in the misty gray.

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The meadow at the Southside Trailhead as I began my hike.  You can just make out the white birdhouse though the fog at center right.

Hiking in the fog is a near-miraculous experience.  It is, quite literally, walking in a cloud.  Sounds are at once hushed and also heightened – the noise of the human world seems unable to penetrate the cloud, but reduced vision makes hearing all the more acute.  Also, because the mist obscures the larger vistas, the eye is drawn to all the tiny marvels of nature that are so often overlooked.

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The fog condenses on every surface.  Here, water molecules have drawn together and rolled to the curled tips of dried grass leaves.

From the parking lot, the hike commences via a mown track through grassland to the edge of the woods where the Stream Loop, Ridge Loop, and Laurel Loop diverge.

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One of my favorite aspects of fog is how it gathers like pearls along spider thread.  This panicle was hung so profusely with pearly strands that it reminded me of the rigging of sails on a tall ship.

I enjoyed the Stream Loop last week in buttery sunshine, but was excited to experience the Laurel Loop under a layer of cool silver gray.

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Into the mist at the beginning of the Laurel Loop.  The lacy brown trees in the middle distance are young beeches (Fagus grandifolia), which keep their leaves all winter.

The leaf litter was thick, but the moisture of the fog made it soft rather than loud and crackling.  Just beyond the view of the picture above, it becomes obvious how the trail was named – it winds through hillsides full of mountain laurel that arch over hiker’s heads.

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In this laurel I found a small, delicate orb web coated with dew.  This was one of only two webs I found (the other was a bowl and doily web), and I’m glad I took the time to make my phone’s camera focus correctly – what a beautiful job this spider has done, and what a survivor she must be, still alive and weaving after several frosts.

Scampering beneath the laurels and over the leaf litter off the sides of the trail, gray squirrels went about their autumn nut gathering, but didn’t seem frightened by my heavy footfalls or the bright turquoise of my sweatshirt.  They kept a wary eye but didn’t skitter up the nearest tree.  Of course, none held still long enough or close enough for me to get a picture, either.

No matter; I hiked along in a state of peaceful joy, and the woods rewarded my positive attitude with two excellent fungi as still-life subjects:

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A beautifully colored turkey tail fungus growing on a downed hardwood trunk.

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Pear shaped puffballs!  I learned these on an earlier hike at Flag Ponds this season, and knew them immediately this time from their pea green innards.

Just after this shot I looked up to see a serious uphill climb.  Not large compared to the inclines I used to hike in the Appalachians (the Gateway Trail comes to mind), but I haven’t been mountain hiking in over a year now, and my leg muscles have gotten lazy.  I would have taken a picture of the hill, but I didn’t think of it until half way up, when I stopped to huff and puff and my heaving lungs prevented me from holding the camera still.  Had I been able to get a shot, I would surely have captured the man-made miracle at the top of the climb:  some wonderful worker or volunteer had built a bench there, hallelujah!

Though the temperature was in the low 40s, the uphill section had warmed me up enough to ditch my sweatshirt and sit on the bench with my notebook for ten minutes without feeling the chill.  This is what I wrote:

“A chickadee calls “fee-bee, fee-bay” in the beginning of December?

The woods in fog seem even more magical – cloistered, protected – all the sounds amplified because the visual details are muted.

Drops of condensation fall from leaves.  The rat-a-tat-tat of a persistent woodpecker at work.  The squeaks and bell calls of innumerate little brown birds.  Squirrels bounding through leaf litter as deep as they are tall.

I want time to stop so that I can sit on this quiet bench for hours – till the birds and squirrels trust me, till they hop on and over me as if I were a statue.”

I even took the time to get videos of two woodpeckers, a white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) and a red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).  Not great videos, mind you, but you can catch the motion of the little trunk hoppers:

Quick Nuthatch Clip

Quick Red-bellied Woodpecker Clip

And by the time I was done writing and birdwatching (starting to feel fairly competent with my binoculars), the sweat had evaporated out of my shirt, so my upper half was refrigerator chilled, and my butt was numb with cold.  Totally worth it, but time to get moving again.

I hiked the one mile loop in an hour and twenty minutes total, moving at a pace easy enough to touch the trailside trees with gentle gratitude, marvel at a flock of migrating robins in the canopy, and take a few more pictures.  It was sublime.

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My favorite part of the trail:  a hill steep enough to run down (though I’d probably trip if I did), a gully to explore, and at the top of the opposite rise, you have to duck under an immense fallen tulip poplar (Liquidambar styraciflua) trunk.

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This moss grows at the base of a trailside tree.  Up close it looks like a field of emerald stars.

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Back at the parking lot meadow, the fog was finally beginning to lift.  The silvery mist of morning rose like a curtain to reveal another golden autumn day.

 

 

If you liked this trail story, check out some other great southern Maryland trails:

 

A Golden Hour

Every photographer knows that the hour or so before sunset is a “golden hour” for taking photos.  The slanted beams of the setting sun fall at a magic angle that makes everything seem to glow from within.

Today I got to take a walk at golden hour in what is also a golden month.  In November, here, the foliage of the autumn trees is mostly gold, amber, and honey.  So, to walk in the golden hour in November is to walk among the dark giants of forest trunks set against the dazzling topaz of leaves and cerulean autumn sky.

A few shots of my stroll around Annmarie Garden:

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I’m a sucker for leaves lit from behind by the sun, but this maple doesn’t need backlighting for its colors to burn like a fall fire.

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The sculptures at Annmarie Garden are amazing.  (One of dozens is shown at the lower left of this photo.)  They have to be, to compete with the sheer beauty of the forest around them.

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Strong, straight soldiers in the foreground protecting the treasure held aloft beyond.

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Never, never forget to look up!

Mushroom Mysteries & Fungus Fails

My Saturday hike at Flag Ponds was fungally fruitful.   

(Get the awesome pun??  Because mushrooms and other visible fungi are the fruiting parts of the main body, or mycelium, of the fungus.  My family says my mom-jokes are even worse when I explain them, whereas I think they’ve got real pun-tential.)

My mushroom identification skills, however, still leave much to be desired.  There are at least 10,000 different species of mushrooms/fungi in North America.  I can reliably identify about five.  And that’s just not going to cut it on an average hike.  

The stakes are even higher for mushroom foragers who intend to eat what they find.  A misidentified mushroom in your stomach could mean a trip to the emergency room.

When trying to identify a mushroom, amateur mycologists must note myriad details, beginning with:

  • The shape, texture, moisture level, and color of the cap (pileus),
  • The shape and color of the stalk and whether or not it has a “veil”,
  • Whether the underside of the cap (where the spores come from) is smooth or has gills, tubes, or teeth, and
  • What kind of spore print the cap makes.

I took no caps home to make spore prints.  Knowing that the visible mushroom is only the fruiting body of the larger mycelium, I didn’t mind plucking a few to get a better look at, and photo of, their underside – I figure this is no worse than picking a flower or leaf – but I draw the line at taking home pieces of nature from a nature park.  I couldn’t do it.

So, here are the mushrooms I found and the rudimentary identifications that I was able to make with the help of my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and the wonderful MycoKey Fungus Identifier website.  Click on the photos to read the full captions.

I cannot identify either for sure.  Seriously, I got nuthin’.

 

Maybe in the parchment fungus family?  I so badly need a fungus friend to guide me.

 

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Finally, one I know!  This bright yellow, delicate, slimy beauty is witches’ butter.  It is edible, but used in soups rather than to butter bread.

 

Fail.

 

Just enough success to keep me going!

 

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Check out this convoluted beauty!  It sure looks like a Bladder Cup. . . only it’s not yellow.  And it’s not growing on manure.

The mushroom gods are, for sure, laughing at me now.

 

Getting lucky with commoners.

 

 

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So, I may not be able to identify them to genus and species, but I’ve observed enough to know that there are at least four different fungi in this square foot of rotting log:  the delicate, dark brown mushroom sticking up just above center, the Clinker polypore coating the wood in a dark brown/black char, the false-turkey-tail-or-possibly-other-parchment-fungus in the upper right quadrant, and the three cute cup fungi lined up on the center right.

If you, too, are prone to fungus fails, take heart in the following quote:

“Think like a queen.  A queen is not afraid to fail.  Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.” – Oprah Winfrey

I think I’ll go adjust my crown and forage for a few more fungus websites.

Weatherproofing

Ever since I read Marcia Bonta‘s four book series of nature writing about the seasons on her Appalachian mountain in Pennsylvania, I have wanted to be as nature-tough as she is.

She treks out to observe nature on her mountain several times a week, even through snow and rain and the cold of deep winter.  She can sit for hours in the chill and watch the behavior of wildlife with true intelligence and insight.  She is 77 years old, and she is still weather-proof.

I want to be like her when I grow up.  (I also want to be like my mom, Rachel Carson, Michelle Obama, Terry Tempest Williams, Mary Anning, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.)

I’m forty now, so I figure I’d better get cracking.  It’s not that I haven’t hiked in inclement weather before.  I have; just not enough.  So, this season, that all changes.

I’m gonna get all out in it.

I started in yesterday’s stunningly sunny 36 degree temperatures at Flag Ponds.  I wore jeans with a long sleeve shirt topped with a sweatshirt, plus a knit cap and iPhone-friendly gloves.  There was little wind, so I didn’t need a windbreaker as my top layer, but I’m going to ask for an oversized windbreaker for Christmas so that I’ll have it for the rest of the winter.  I prefer layers to thick, heavy coats.  Clothing that makes it harder to move drives me nuts.

I walked the South Ridge Trail in my usual direction and then did the North Ridge Trail in the opposite direction.  (I highly recommend reversing directions on a trail you hike a lot – you get all new views!)

And here’s my reward for layering up and going out – some of my favorite photos from the hike:

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Two different types of moss, completely undeterred by the season’s first freeze.  Though I can’t identify mosses on sight (yet), I find them a fascinating story in competition and natural selection ever since reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

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I’m intrigued by the way lichens have colonized the upper half of this knot hole but mosses have claimed the lower half.  There were several similar knot holes on this fallen trunk and they were all populated the same way.  Cool!

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“Spring” onions defied their designated season and popped up along several parts of the trail.  An anti-oxidant packed snack for the wild herbivores.

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Just sitting there, being beautiful.

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Walking the North Ridge trail beginning at the park entry road (don’t do this if you haven’t already paid your park fee, please) gave me a brand new view.

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Tree roots holding the world together.

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I love giant leaves!  (Particularly fall sycamore and tulip poplar leaves that are as big as your face.)  Unfortunately, this leaf fell from the exotic, invasive Royal Paulownia tree, which is an unwelcome and damaging invader in this ecosystem.  There are a few in the park, and I must remember to ask a ranger about a plan for their removal.

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A pristine white feather amongst the warm riot of fall leaves.  I hope it came from one of the migratory water birds that hang out at Flag Ponds each winter.  They’re my next incentive for braving the cold!

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

Friday was my day to check the salamander traps at Flag Ponds.  (Citizen science for the win!)  But, I arrived to discover that they’d already been checked by a teacher and school group.  (Educating kids about nature for the championship!)

So, what’s a woman with a free hour to do on a mild autumn day with cerulean skies and golden leaves?  Hit the trails, of course!

The best shots from the South Ridge and North Ridge trails on this particular day were of weaving ladies and fun-guys.  (Fungi!  Get it?!  Nerdy science puns rule.)

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A tiny “trail miracle” – I stopped for no reason and found myself eye-level with and six inches from this female Marbled Orb Weaver (Araneus marmoreus), busy making threads of sticky silk to complete the spiral of her orb web. 

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Efficient and capable from the underside, but absolutely stunning from the topside!  Her abdomen was sunflower yellow marbled with chocolate brown, contrasting nicely with her eight flame red, cream, and black legs.  Don’t let the bright colors scare you, though – this lady is completely harmless.  She was too busy with her creation to notice me, but if I’d scared her, she likely would have dropped to the ground or run to hide.

Watching the Marbled Orb weaver was mesmerizing.  She used one of her back legs to stretch the silk out from her spinnerets as she crawled to the next radial strand, then tucked her abdomen under to secure the thread to the radial strand with a dot of spider glue.  Her movements were efficient and economical, looking more like Monday office work than Saturday night fever.  I captured two short videos of her skills; check them out in the video links below.

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 1

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 2

Now, on to the fun-guys.

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After some light research in my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, I have tentatively identified these as Pear-Shaped Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme).  Apparently they’re among the “choice” finds for expert mushroom hunters in terms of edibility.  Being a novice mushroom hunter, however, I’m smart enough to not put any wild fungus in my mouth; there are too many look-alikes that turn a great meal into a deadly dish.

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My Audubon guide (and some image searches on Google) lead me to believe that these convoluted, jelly-like masses are a fungus known as Pale Jelly Roll (Exidia alba).  The Exidia fungi are found on deciduous trees such as oak, willow, and alder.  How I wish I’d stayed to check what kind of tree this log had been!

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Thinking about how many times I say “I wish I’d taken the time to . . .” about something on the trail.  The trouble with hiking is that I’m always trying to make it double as a workout, so I go too fast.  (My idea of heaven necessarily includes an eternity to study nature in minute detail, unnoticed by all of the earthbound fauna.)  This particular section of the North Ridge trail definitely burns the calories, though.  Forty-five-ish steps climb from the bottom of the ridge to the top.  It’s.  No.  Joke.

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Sure, I stopped half way up the steps just for the awesome view of the marsh and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.  Not because I was dying or anything.

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I just love the curving, twisting contortions of the wood grain in this decaying log.  The beginnings of a moss colony – green flecks at center left – and the Clinker Polypore fungus (Inonotus obliquus) – black swaths that look like charred wood – highlight the complex landscape of decay.

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One of my all time favorite trail views.  This flat portion of the North Ridge trail is my dream of a magical woodland.  I sense surprises hiding all around, but it feels as safe and friendly as my own bed.  It will be a feast of sun rays in winter.

Trail Shots: Calvert Cliffs Red Trail

A stroll along the red trail was my Halloween gift to myself.

(All of the candy I steal from my daughter’s enormous trick-or-treating stash is my November gift to myself.)

Here are a few shots from the trail to add to the celebration of the season.

 

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Both moss (the yellow-green hairy stuff) and lichen (the blue-green frilly stuff) have made a home on this fallen branch.  Both mosses (a type of plant called a bryophyte) and lichens (a symbiotic organism containing both a fungus and an algae) have lived on planet Earth for 400 million years.

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What happens to a root trodden by innumerable feet.   Tree roots that stretch across the trail develop interesting, flattened surfaces and knobs in response to being worn down by hikers’ shoes.

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A marsh is a beautiful place to be in the autumn.  Turtles basking in the last of the year’s warmth, minnows dashing among the lily stems, and geese heard but not seen behind the hillocks of sedges.

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Autumn is a very romantic season.  These two Ruby Meadowhawk dragonflies (Sympetrum rubicundulum) are taking time to make time, and the next generation.  They will continue to fly in tandem while mating and even while the female deposits the eggs at the water’s surface.  Dragonflies live most of their lives as aquatic insects that eat mosquito larvae.  (Thank you, dragonflies!)

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Sun shining through crimson maple leaves at the edge of the marsh.

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A reminder not to lose your shoelaces . . . or maybe just to spend more time in nature.

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A view of the Chesapeake Bay at the end of the trail.  Most visitors spend their beach time searching the sand and wrack for fossils.  

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This visitor, a Painted Lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) has also stopped at the beach, but she’s here to soak up warmth in a patch of autumn sunlight.  Her hind wings are a bit worse for wear, but she had no trouble flying.

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You never walk the same trail twice, even if it’s literally walking back out the trail you just walked in.  As the sun’s rays change their angle, different treasures are highlighted in the forest.  I wish I hadn’t been in a hurry on my way out – if I had stopped to check underneath the fancy tops of these shelf mushrooms to see if their undersides were gilled or toothed, I could say for certain whether they’re Turkey Tail fungus or Violet Toothed Polypore.  Either way, though, they’re still gorgeous.

Grayson Highlands State Park in Pictures

GHSP - Sugarland Overlook

The view east-northeast from the Sugarland Overlook just off of the main park road.  The overlook gets its name from the many sugar maple (Acer saccharum) trees found on the slope, which can be tapped for sweet sap that’s boiled down to make pure maple syrup.  The mountains in the far distance on the right are part of the Blue Ridge.

GHSP - ice columns

A huge section of needle ice found at the beginning of the Rhododendron Trail and enthusiastically flipped over by my husband and daughter.  These are actually ice columns (“needles”) that have pushed up a layer of soil.  My family was inspired to turn them over to get a better look at these hundreds of miniature ice stalagmites.  Needle ice forms when the ground temperature is above freezing, but the air at the ground surface is below freezing.  Capillary action in the soil pulls water to the surface (or within a centimeter or so of the surface, in this case) where it freezes.  As the process continues, more and more water is pulled up and frozen, growing upward until it either lifts soil particles or raises a section of soil altogether, as it’s done here.

GHSP - frost formations

Here we see another batch of ice needles, but these have either penetrated through the soil or been rearranged by other hikers.  Note the interesting curves; to see even more amazing ice formations, search the Internet for images of “hoarfrost” and “frost flowers.”

Seven Layer Mountains

I count seven “layers” of ridges fading into the distance.  This kind of vista is one of my favorite things about the Virginia Appalachians.  This shot was taken looking southwest from the Rhododendron Trail; somewhere out there is the Virginia/Tennessee/North Carolina border.

GHSP - our first pony

This is the first pony we saw, resting in the sunshine about 50 yards off of and not even a quarter mile up the trail.  We were lucky to find several ponies; there are no guarantees that you’ll see part of the 100+ member herd.

GHSP - three ponies

Can you see all three ponies?  There’s a black coffee colored pony with a platinum blonde mane on the left, a milk chocolate and cream pony in the middle, and a dark chocolate pony on the right.  They stand about 4 feet tall at the shoulder, though we did see one or two who were a bit larger.

GHSP Pony 1

The ponies didn’t seem to mind us getting up close and personal, though park signs warn that they will bite and/or kick if “harassed.”  We followed general rules for safe behavior around horses:  don’t stand behind them or approach quickly from behind, keep hands and fingers away from their faces, don’t touch them in any way that you wouldn’t want to be touched.

GHSP - rockstar pony

I was incredibly reluctant to let our daughter touch them at all, but in the end, the ponies paid no attention to her careful, gentle petting.  This rockstar pony was the first she touched and the only one I touched.  Her coat was incredibly thick and furry, good for the formidable winters atop the highest mountains in Virginia.  (In fact, Virginia’s two highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are visible from the park.)

GHSP - big pinnacle and ponies

Here are two more ponies we watched, captured with the “Big Pinnacle” peak in the background.  The herd is managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, who sees to necessary veterinary care for the animals and keeps the herd size steady with annual pony auctions in the fall.

GHSP - waterfall

We hiked only one other trail in the park on this visit, but it was the perfect one:  the Cabin Creek Trail.  The trail is a 1.8 mile spur and loop that leads down to (what else?) Cabin Creek and upstream where a series of small falls leads up to this 25 foot cascade.  We sat happily on huge boulders in the middle of the stream watching this falls and dreaming about coming back to the park in summer, when we might dare to wade and even (gasp!) swim in these frigid, crystalline mountain waters.

 

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

I wasn’t sure which species to write about today . . . until a small herd of white-tailed does started browsing in the yard right outside our cabin.

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Does in the yard! We can be fairly certain they’re all females because none have antlers. Male white-tailed deer grow antlers in September for the autumn mating season and don’t drop them until January.

Yeah, that pretty much clinched it.

The white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is the only member of the deer family that lives wild in Virginia.  They make up for being the only species with huge population numbers.

The lack of natural predators (cougars, wolves) has allowed the deer population to explode.  Even in a (small) town like Blacksburg, the deer numbers are estimated at 17 animals per acre.  That’s about 211,000 deer within the town’s borders!

The deer outside right now, though, are country deer.  They’re browsing the close cropped lawn around the cabin.  (We’re at a wonderful cabin in the Grayson Highlands for a couple of days to celebrate our 20th anniversary with velvety black, star-filled night skies and, hopefully, a glimpse of the wild ponies in Grayson Highlands State Park.)

They’re browsing at mid-day, which is either a sign that they’re unafraid of anything in the area – including humans – or that food sources are scarce.  Usually, deer are crepuscular creatures; they’re most active in the dim hours of dawn and dusk, resting in the forest in the brightest hours of day and darkest hours of night.

During those dawn and dusk hours, their warm, cafe au lait fur blends in nearly perfectly with the leaf litter on the forest floor and the taupe trunks of trees.

The deer aren’t named for the brown fur, though, but for the white fur on the underside of their tail.  When they feel safe and relaxed, their tail hangs down and its brown top completes their camouflage.  When frightened, though, they pop their tails up like a big white flag while running away.

Biologists have two theories about why the species has evolved with an foot-long white target on their backside:

  1. The white tail serves as a signal to other members of the herd that there’s trouble nearby and helps the herd keep together as they move away.
  2. The white tail is what chasing predators focus on while following the deer, but since the deer are extremely maneuverable and run in a leaping, zig zagging pattern, the predators following the white tail flag run to the left (toward the tail) while the deer is already turning to the right.  Confused, the predator loses a few steps with each turn.

The deer grazed for a half hour or so.  We watched them from inside the cabin, enjoying every twitch and head tilt.  With any luck, they’ll come back tomorrow.

And that’s 10 minutes on this common 10 mammal.  Check out two other mammals that make the list:  the black bear and the skunk.

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)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

All the Way Up – The Gateway Trail in Fall

I did it!

I hiked nearly 700 vertical feet over 1.4 miles to where the Gateway Trail ends at the crest of Brush Mountain.  (Plus a fairly flat .5 miles each way from the Heritage Park lower parking lot to the trail head, not that I’m counting.)

It was a lot of up.  It took me 51 minutes to get to the top.  I might have made it a few minutes faster but, as always, there were too many cool things to stop and see.

The very coolest was a 2-3″ burnt orange and brown butterfly that, despite the few soft freezes we’ve already had, was fluttering around the top third of the mountain.  It flew too fast for me to identify on the way up, but blessed me on the way down by landing on the side of a large pine tree where it was silhouetted against the sun.  No color was visible, but I didn’t need it – the curled and fluted edges of its wings were highlighted by the setting sun.  There are only two butterflies in this area with such elaborately shaped wings:  the Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) and the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma).  Both are found in open woods (which the forests on Brush Mountain really are, now that the undergrowth has died down and most of the leaves have fallen), both have a season that lasts through November, and both are shades of orange and brown.  Honestly, it could have been either one; and though I’d like to have a definite, positive ID, either way I’m overjoyed to have seen one (only my second since living here in the NRV).

That was the only moving wildlife I saw on the whole hike, though I’m not shocked that my big, clomping feet and my heavy breathing scared all of the other critters away.

I did hear a few things up on the mountain, though, the alarm calls of a songbird, letting all of its friends know that there was a dangerous, heavy-footed human about (as if they hadn’t heard all of that heavy breathing anyway); the chirping of crickets from up in the trees (snowy tree crickets?) and, best of all, the low, gravelly calls of ravens.

I have a thing for ravens.  I first noticed them and became aware that they lived in this area my first year out of college.  My husband and I rented a little country house off of Ironto Road.  My parents visited us there a few times and my mom and I used to watch the sunrise.  (This was well before I had my kiddo – when sunrise was still a non-offensive hour to awaken.)  She and I spotted “the biggest crows ever” feeding in the fields behind the house one sunrise.  I’ve been enchanted ever since.

Crows are noticeably huge-er than crows.  They’re incredibly intelligent. They act as excellent wild area janitors by cleaning up all of that troublesome dead meat leftover when an animal dies.  Not to mention that my favorite scary storyteller, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a mind-melting poem about a raven.  I highly recommend both the poem and the bird.

I made it back to the car just as golden hour turned to dusk.  I left my stress and, truthfully, most of the thoughts in my brain, up on the mountain.  It’s big, it can handle the extra weight.

I came away lighter, carrying only a feeling of accomplishment and the following pictures on my phone.

Cows grazing leisurely greet me as I turn left from Meadowbrook Road to continue on to the trail head.

Cows grazing leisurely greet me as I turn left from Meadowbrook Road to continue on to the trail head.

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I love this little barn. It’s barn-colored, a rusty, brick red that seems welcoming and warm against the clear, chill blue of the autumn sky.

Though most of the deciduous trees are already bare, a few crimson leaved specimens highlight the mountain trails. Here is a young maple, showing off it's cranberry foliage. The red pigments in leaves (unlike the orange and yellow pigments) are manufactured only in the autumn as light decreases and temperatures turn cooler.

Though most of the deciduous trees are already bare, a few crimson leaved specimens highlight the mountain trails. Here is a young maple, showing off it’s cranberry foliage. The anthocyanins are the red pigments in leaves (unlike the orange and yellow pigments) that are are manufactured only in the autumn as light decreases and temperatures turn cooler.

I also love polkadots.  This maple leaf seems to have made its own cherry dots to decorate the background of orangey-yellow made by carotene and xanthophyll pigments that are there all year, hiding under the green of chlorophyll.

I also love polka dots. This maple leaf seems to have made its own cherry dots to decorate the background of orangey-yellow made by carotene and xanthophyll pigments that are there all year, hiding under the green of chlorophyll.

I much prefer the view from the top of Brush Mountain to any I've seen from a tall building.

I much prefer the view from the top of Brush Mountain to any I’ve seen from a tall building.

As I made my way from the trailhead back to the gravel parking lot, one more maple leaf found a way to stun me.  The reds, oranges, and yellows leap out from the dull gray gravel.  This was a better gift than receiving a medal for the hike.  Though, if anyone's offering, I wouldn't say no to a medal!

As I made my way from the trail head back to the gravel parking lot, one more maple leaf found a way to stun me. The reds, oranges, and yellows leap out from the dull gray gravel. This was a better gift than receiving a medal for the hike. Though, if anyone’s offering, I wouldn’t say no to a medal!

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.