The Best Birthday Gifts Ever

Yesterday was bittersweet.  I have to drive out to Claytor Lake and deflate my kayaks.

That’s right, I said “deflate” and “kayaks”.

This August, on my 38th and best birthday ever, I was given two inflatable kayaks!  I have wanted a kayak for at least two decades.  On this birthday, not only did I receive a one person kayak from my parents, but my hubby also gave me a two person kayak.

This is the bow of the Green Darner as I paddled into Claytor Lake's Twin Hollow on my birthday. No more than five minutes after this shot, I was video chatting with my parents and got to share with them the scene of a mink swimming up to and around my kayak. As I said: Best. Birthday. Ever!

This is the bow of the Green Darner as I paddled into Claytor Lake’s Twin Hollow on my birthday. No more than five minutes after this shot, I was video chatting with my parents and got to share with them the scene of a mink swimming up to and around my kayak. As I said: Best. Birthday. Ever!

I was so happy that I could barely keep my feet on the ground.  I walked around all day saying “Hey, you know what? . . . I have two kayaks!” to the family I was with, who a) knew that already, because they watched me open and inflate them, and b) couldn’t yell at me for bragging because it was my birthday.

Besides, if they did get sick of me, I’d just paddle away . . . in one of my two new kayaks!

My nine year old daughter and her friend adventuring in the two person kayak, the

My nine year old daughter and her friend adventuring in the two person kayak, the “Goldfinch”.

The Intex brand heavy-duty inflatable kayaks came with their own pumps, carrying cases, and easy-assembly paddles.  They were a third or less the cost of a traditional kayak.

I was able to easily inflate and assemble the kayaks.  I think the single person took 15 minutes, and the double (which I did second, and therefore more easily) took maybe 12.

I was on the water in my new kayak (well, one of two, did I mention I have two?) in less than 30 minutes!

The bow of the Green Darner pointed out to the main body of Claytor Lake. I

The bow of the Green Darner pointed out to the main body of Claytor Lake. (I “waterproofed” my phone by putting it in a ziptop plastic bag with a few of those inflated packaging cushions.)

Kayaking is awesome.

Not that I’m really great at it; I like kayaking on slow, flat water (hello, Claytor Lake).  I’m not interested in rapids, nor would I take my precious inflatables where there are mean, sharp rocks that might damage them.  I like the peacefulness of a one-person boat.  The ability to choose my own speed and direction.  The secret coves I can get into because of the boat’s tiny, inch-deep draft.

I’m in it for the freedom, for the quiet, and, of course, for the wildlife!  From my kayak, I’ve gotten closer to turtles, dragonflies, damselflies, great blue heron, schools of shiners, and even mink, than I thought possible.

And the half dozen trips I’ve made did not disappoint.  Check out these photos of lake critters:

What's that, attached to that log? Is it frog eggs? Is it fish eggs? Nope. This is a freshwater bryozoan colony. It's an amazing community of microscopic creatures.

What’s that, attached to that log? Is it frog eggs? Is it fish eggs? Nope. This is a freshwater bryozoan colony. It’s an amazing community of microscopic creatures.

From the middle of summer to the first freeze, the lake air is filled with dragonflies and damselflies fulfilling their biological duties. They'll land just about anywhere, including the arms of a swimmer, in order to have a stable platform for their love nest. Here we see two future parents who have alighted on my kayak's bow.

From the middle of summer to the first freeze, the lake air is filled with dragonflies and damselflies fulfilling their biological duties. They’ll land just about anywhere, including the arms of a swimmer, in order to have a stable platform for their love nest. Here we see two future damselfly parents who have alighted on my kayak’s bow.

If you blow this photo up to full size, you'll see that the rock in the center of this little lake-edge grotto is covered with future damselfly parents.

If you blow this photo up to full size, you’ll see that the rock just to the right of center of this little lake-edge grotto is covered with future damselfly parents.

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This turtle was basking in Crawfish Hollow. Based on my research at the Virginia Herpetological Society website, I think this is an Eastern river cooter (Pseudemys concinna concinna), but I must admit that my turtle identification skills are just beginner level. The thing with turtles is that every time you approach one in the wild to get a better look at it, they slide right into the water to avoid the big, scary predator stalking toward them. I have great hopes, though, because I’ve gotten closer to turtles on the kayak (well, both kayaks – did I tell you that I have two?) than I ever could on foot.

Another turtle basking on a log in the gathered flotsam at the back of Twin Hollow. There were many turtles there but, unfortunately, they were far outnumbered by pieces of litter.

Another two turtles basking on a logs in the gathered flotsam at the back of Twin Hollow.  I’m glad that I already gave the disclaimer about my beginner turtle identification skills, because these have me stumped.  They’re far more domed than the Eastern river cooter and the closer one has an awful lot of red on its neck.   More frustrating than that, though, is that there were many turtles there but, unfortunately, they were far outnumbered by pieces of litter.

Now this turtle I know! It's a hatchling (baby) snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). This turtle is easily identified even at a distance by its long, long tail. I was luckily enough to be able to gently lift it out of the water with my paddle.

Now this turtle I know! It’s a hatchling (baby) snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). This turtle is easily identified even at a distance by its long, long tail. I was luckily enough to be able to gently lift it out of the water with my paddle.

This is the largest size snapping turtle you're likely to ever see me handling. Its name is apt, and these turtles at adult size (8-14

This is the largest size snapping turtle you’re likely to ever see me handling. Its name is apt, and these turtles at adult size (8-14″) would easily snap off a misplaced human finger. But this little one is just too cute!

If you, too, would like to see lake critters close up, I highly recommend a kayak.  Or two.

Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part Two

A whole week has passed?  Good grief.

Well, that’s about right for a mother, actually – we have one glorious, relaxing day in the sun every year . . . but then all of the other days gang up and come at us all at once.

No complaints here, though.  All the time I’ve spent not writing this week was spent outside enjoying amazing weather – blue skies, mountainsides deepening from spring green to emerald green, wild phlox blooming everywhere.

I spent most of the week in the garden, planting native plants and weeding non-native weeds.  (I got an excellent new weeding tool from my folks.  Have I mentioned it yet?  It is awesome!)  By the way, “I only weed the non-natives” is an outstanding excuse for only doing half the weeding a perfectionist gardener might do.  Totally believable.

But I digress.  So now I shall progress by regressing to last Sunday.

I ended my last post as afternoon turned slowly to evening, sitting on the deck with my mother- and father-in-law, our bellies full (the men cooked!) and glasses of cold white wine in hand.  The birds were singing, the light was golden, and all was well with the whole world.  Until, that is, I opened my big, fat mouth about the nearby Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythphthalmus) not singing its song properly.

My in-laws have a great look that crosses their faces (briefly, bless them) when I say things like this; it’s somewhere between “Wow, what amazing knowledge you have!” and “Good lord, what is the crazy nature lady talking about now?!”

The best time to see rufous-sided towhees is in the spring; they live and hide in the underbrush of the forest, but in spring they hop up to higher branches to better broadcast their mating song.  Photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

The best time to see Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythryphthalmus) is in the spring; they live and hide in the underbrush of the forest, but in spring they hop up to higher branches to better broadcast their mating song. Photo by William H. Majoros via Wikimedia Commons.

So I explained, thoroughly sanely, I might add, that the song of the Eastern towhee is “Drink your te-e-e-e-a, sweeeet!” but that the towhees around south Main Street in Blacksburg and, apparently, at this end of Claytor Lake, refuse to sing the  “sweeeet” part.  (Are they on diets?  Are they from the north?  What’s wrong with sweet tea, you stubborn birds?!)

Again, showing only momentarily the “Nope, she’s gone thoroughly nuts” face, my in-laws inquired about what other bird calls I might know.

Here’s the part where I confess that I am only a novice bird watcher and a thoroughly amateur bird listener, but I am learning – thanks mostly to a wonderful book that my own folks bought for my daughter when she was young, Bird Calls by Frank Gallo and Lori Lohstoeter, that I now use often with other kiddos when I teach at the nature center.  It’s an incredibly well done picture and information book, but the best parts are the buttons you can push to hear the songs of each bird that’s been illustrated plus mnemonic phrases to help you remember them.

Here are the bird calls I can say that, thanks to that book and a lot of other research, I feel I know, along with links to the Cornell Ornithology All About Birds website pages where you can actually listen to the calls described.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) by Dan Pacamo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) by Dan Pacamo via Wikimedia Commons.

Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

Why not start with my favorite, right?  When I was born my mother nicknamed me “Dee” and so this bird has been calling my name all my life.  It’s standard call sounds to me like “Chick-a-da deedeedeedee”  See what you think by scrolling down to “Calls” on this webpage:  Carolina chickadee sounds.  Did you remember to scroll down?  I hope so, because the mating song of the chickadee (the first sound file on the page) reveals my heartbreak:  although I’ve loved the chickadee best for decades now, in the spring he stops calling for me.  The chickadee gets a seasonal madness and suddenly falls in love and calls for some woman named Phoebe:  “Fee-beee Fee-bay.”  Homewrecker.

Note the variety of beautiful grays on this bird:  from warm, brownish grays to cool, almost blue grays.  Looking at these doves really expands the meaning of the term "dove gray".  Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Note the variety of beautiful grays on this mourning dove (Zenaida macroura): from warm, brownish grays to cool, almost blue grays. Looking at these doves really expands the meaning of the term “dove gray”. Photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Mourning Dove

Nope, it’s not an owl singing during the day, but the gentle coo of the ubiquitous mourning dove (Zenaida macroura).  The mnemonic I use for this one is really just the sound of the call itself “Ooo, OO OO, ooo ooo ooo,” one rising coo at the start, then two loud coos followed by three softer coos.  It sounds like someone crying from deep emotional or physical pain but, rest assured, these birds are healthy and doing just fine.  I guess their females are just attracted to males that need healing?  I know women like that.  In my opinion, though, the far cooler sound made by morning doves is the loud flappy/whistley noise their wings make when they take off in a hurry (like every time I walk past my bird bath).  It’s on that same web page, have a listen.  The experts think it helps to warn other members of their flock and/or startle predators.  I want to know what it is about the wing that allows it to make that sound, but that’s research for another day.

Cardinal

Here we see a mated pair of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), female on the left and male on the right, at a feeder.  Another great photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Here we see a mated pair of cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), female on the left and male on the right, at a feeder. Another great photo by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) are the poster-bird for spring singing.  The impossibly red males flaunt their feathers and their voices, perching high in trees and singing loudly either “Cheer cheer cheer cheer” or “bir-Dee, bir-Dee, bir-Dee.”  (Whoa, maybe I should give them a little love for calling my name, too.)  In the first, the cheer starts on a high note and slurs down to a lower note.  In the latter, the “bir” note is a bit lower and the “Dee” note is higher and louder.  Listen to both songs here.  However, as I am learning, it’s important to get to know the voice of a particular species of bird, rather than just one song.  Ornithologists have recorded over 16 different songs and calls for the cardinal alone and, unlike most species, the female cardinal sings, too.  She may be plain compared to the male (her colors blend in to camouflage the nest she sits on, whereas the male’s plumage is meant to show off to win her heart) but she sings just as sweetly!

It still baffles me that these are so often called "robin redbreast" when their chests and bellies are so obviously orange, not red.  This photograph is mine, I took it last spring in Heritage Park.

It still baffles me that these are so often called “robin redbreast” when their chests and bellies are so obviously orange, not red. This photograph is mine, I took it last spring in Heritage Park.

Robin

The American Robin’s (Turdus migratorius) song is as clear and ringing as the cardinal’s, but is even more musical, with many different notes and trills.  The mnemonic for the robin’s song are the words “cheerily” and “cheer up” repeated and interspersed with one another.  For my money, the cheerilies are a little tough to tell from the cheer ups, so I say remember it in any order you like.  Besides, Mother Nature likes to mess with us, so whatever pattern you remember your cheerily cheer ups, just when you think you’ve finally got it down, She’ll throw a robin with a whole different pattern at you.  Listen to the robins here and tell me which order you think they’re putting their words in.  Ha!

PS – What’s up with that scientific name?  If any bird is going to get tagged with “migrating turd” it should be Canada Geese, judging by the guano bombs each flock drops on our cars in spring and fall!

White-throated Sparrow

Check out the super white throat on this white-throated sparrow.  The names we give animals are more often descriptive than creative, but if you get bored there's nothing wrong with calling them Bob or Sally for short.  The photograph is another great one from Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out the super white throat on this white-throated sparrow. The names we give animals are more often descriptive than creative, but if you get bored there’s nothing wrong with calling them Bob or Sally for short. The photograph is another great one from Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

My mother taught me this one, and well she should, her maiden name is Peabody and that’s just what the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) whistles in his highest pitch: “Ooold man  Peab’dy Peab’dy Peab’dy” with the last Peab’dy getting louder and rising up like a sentence that ends with a question mark paired with an exclamation point.  (FYI, that punctuation is called an interrobang – one of my favorite words ever.)  As if the bird is shocked at whatever Old Man Peabody has done.  Perhaps the female birds fly in to get the gossip on whatever that is, then just decide to stay and make a nest and raise a few babies.  For the record, as far as I can tell, my grandfather Peabody was a law abiding man and far too respectable to be the subject of gossip but, then again, I don’t speak bird, so I don’t really know.  Listen to their song here, but be aware that these birds don’t stick to the mnemonic script as well as the ones in Blacksburg do.

Carolina Wren

"Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger" sings this spunky little Carolina wren (Thyrothorus ludovicianus), captured and shared by Cheep Shot via Wikimedia Commons.

“Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger” sings this spunky little Carolina wren (Thyrothorus ludovicianus), captured and shared by Cheep Shot via Wikimedia Commons.

When we were younger, my older brother asked my mother about the cheeseburger bird in our back yard.  My mother, momentarily perplexed (she had no facial expression for “Is he crazy?” like my in-laws do; she already knew her children were certifiable), asked “Cheeseburger bird?”  My brother replied, yeah, the bird that sings “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger cheeseburger.”  And because of that, in my mind, the Carolina wren’s (Thyrothorus ludovicianus) song mnemonic will always and forever be a thrice-repeated “cheeseburger”, despite the fact that ornithologists usually describe it as “teakettle” or “Germany.”  Bah!  My brother’s is more American anyway.  Listen for yourself and decide if they’re singing for a classic American meal, a British standard, or the 2014 FIFA World Cup champions.

Tufted Titmouse

Perhaps he's pausing to look for Peter?  I know this much:  if I'm looking for a great bird photo, I'll probably find it the way I got this one, by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps he’s pausing to look for Peter?
I know this much: if I’m looking for a great bird photo, I’ll probably find it the way I got this one, by Ken Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

For a little bird, the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) has a big voice.  He uses it to call for Peter.  The titmouse’s song is a phrase made up of repeated “PE-ter”s, sometimes as few as three, sometimes many more; listen here.  I don’t know who this Peter is, but I hope he’s flattered by the attention of this handsome little bird.

Oh!  Big idea!  Maybe I can find Peter and hook him up with Phoebe . . .

Maybe my in-laws are right about the crazy creeping in.

Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part One

Water makes us happy.

It’s something about the sweet smell of freshwater or the negative ions in the air or the saltwater-filled cells in our body having an ancient longing for their ocean home.  Something.

I don’t really care what, actually, I’m just so grateful that in my beloved mountain home, I have family with a cabin on Claytor Lake who let us come out to visit.  It’s because of this tremendous stroke of luck that I got to spend Mother’s Day with my husband and daughter and in-laws looking out over deep blue waters and nearly summer-green mountains.

But the awesomeness doesn’t start at the lake.  It starts on the drive down where, from my Mother’s Day Throne (AKA the passenger seat) I was able to look out at my kingdom and observe long and well as my dear husband kept the car on the road.

The drive from Blacksburg to Claytor Lake is a lovely one when you’ve got the time to look around.  Just on the big roads I saw:

Black locust trees in bloom along Route 460 looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace. Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)trees in bloom along Route 460
looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace.
Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.   Photo courtesy of "Podophyllum peltatum Shenks Ferry 1" by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA - Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve (10). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg#/media/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons.

Mayapples are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers. Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons -

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers.
Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons –

After steering off the highway at exit 109, the drive gets even better; winding through curving mountain roads, past cabins and farms, climbing hills and turning blind corners, observing “country” driving manners with a nod or smile or fingers lifted off the steering wheel in friendly acknowledgement of strangers who might as well be friends.

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun.  In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper. Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun. In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper.
Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

Wild phlox (Phlox paniculata) and its garden siblings were blooming all along the roadside gardens and forest edges.  The purple of phlox is neither dark nor light, but a deep medium purple.  Ugh.  “Deep medium purple” sounds oxymoronic and way too pedestrian for this gorgeous color.  Let’s call it “phlox purple” and set a trend – it’s nothing like lilac or lavender or royal purple or orchid, and it deserves its own shade name.  (Why doesn’t purple have more shade names?  Blue has hundreds.)

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) - via Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) – via Wikimedia Commons

Flitting through that phlox was a season first for me (perhaps that’s why spring is my favorite season – so many “firsts” for the year, each one reassuring and joyful):  an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)!  They’re common enough to be both Virginia’s State Butterfly and its State Insect, but they knock me out every time.  These bright yellow, black-striped and blue edged beauties are nearly 4.5 inches across; giant, yellow flower petals just floating and fluttering through the sky.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.   Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.
Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

The “swallowtail” part of this butterfly’s name means that it is grouped with other butterflies (they make up the swallowtail family) that have two “tails” on their hind wings that reminded early naturalists of the points at either end of a swallow’s tail.  (Swallowing these butterflies tail’s is not recommended.)  We’ll have to come back to swallows themselves the next time I come back from Claytor; several members of the swallow family are native here and spend their summers feasting on the various insects that hatch by the millions from the surface of the lake.

I don’t actually associate spring with seeing butterflies, though they seem to be a centerpiece of every mass produced spring-themed card and product.  The truth about butterflies is that their caterpillars and/or eggs have survived a long winter and need their food sources to leaf out before they can fill their hungry selves up with enough energy to form a chrysalis and become adult butterflies.  The real butterfly bonanza comes from mid-summer through fall, when two or three generations have matured and laid eggs and little wings are fluttering everywhere.

The first butterflies to arrive in spring are those whose caterpillars feast on trees that leaf out early.  The host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails’ eggs and caterpillars include

  • Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina),
  • Common Lilac (Syinga vulgaris),
  • Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana),
  • Tulip poplar/tulip tree (Liriodedron tulipifera), and
  • Willow (Salix spp.),

all of which have bloomed or are blooming (the lilacs smell unbelievably good right now) and are nicely leafy caterpillar buffets.

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia.  A widespread species, this butterfly is called a "Camberwell beauty" in England.  However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.   Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia. A widespread species, this butterfly is called a “Camberwell beauty” in England. However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.
Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

I was gifted with another butterfly sighting once we’d arrived and were seated happily on the dock – a Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) was flying over the water toward us, probably heading for the giant weeping willow on the property to lay its eggs.  Mourning Cloak caterpillars also enjoy a nice meal of willow or poplar (or elm or hackberry).

And then I was lost in conversation and good food and laughter, with only the occasional whip of the head to try to identify a bird streaking by.

As afternoon softened into the golden light of evening, conversation turned again to nature (it seems to do that around me quite a bit) and my in-laws and I got to listening to and talking about bird calls.

But that’s going to have to wait for Part Two of this post, because there’s much more to tell and I’m a nearly an hour past lunch.  I’m so hungry I could practically eat willow leaves.  Or tulip poplar.