Trail Shots: Hello, Old Friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sal Moves Along

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Mushroom Mysteries & Fungus Fails

Ninja Hiking with Charlotte

 

Heart In Two Places

Well, it’s really happening.

I’m moving.

My husband met with his future colleagues last Monday at Patuxent River Naval Air Station (“PAX” to the larger world, “NavAir” or “the base” to the locals) in southern Maryland and it was a mutual admiration fest.

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A view of the Patuxent River through the car window from the Thomas Johnson bridge on a cold and rainy February afternoon.  Look how big!

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we went house hunting and found not one, but two homes we love, both with woods in the back yard.

Our daughter has picked out her room in either home; one of them has a dormer window and we’ve promised to build her a little window seat so she can have her own special reading nook there.

The most amazing part?  I’m actually excited.

I have been dreading this move for four years.  NavAir paid for my husband’s advanced degree, allowing us to move back to Blacksburg for four years – a dream come true for me.  I’m a Hokie, my husband’s a Hokie and a townie, my sister and brother-in-law are Hokies, as are my brother and sister-in-law.  We know why the trees turn orange and maroon in the fall, because Virginia Tech is heaven on earth and God’s a big fan, too.

These mountains, this old New River, this small, smart, bustling town – here is the home of my heart.

I knew when we moved here that our allotted four years would fly too fast, but I never imagined that these next four (or hopefully, 10) years might be seriously lovely, too.  And it turns out they really might.

On our short, rainy, cold visit to southern Maryland, the natural world reached out and pulled me right in.

There are woods – real woods! – complete with sturdy old white oaks, maples in early bud, and countless sweet gum trees and loblolly pines.

There are hills!  I had expected only flat marshland, which would be fine, but I love hills – I think it’s the surprise of not knowing what comes next.

There are jetties and breaks made of chair-sized boulders.  There are sandy beaches strewn with clam shells and claret colored seaweed.

There are three rivers all coming to meet the Chesapeake Bay:  the Patuxent, the St. Mary’s, and the Potomac, all big and wide and deep and powerful.

And the place is just as truly alive as my mountains are.  I can feel it pulsing just below the limits of my hearing, keeping time with my heart.

On our short visit, I saw and heard:

  • A juvenile bald eagle buzz less than 20 feet over the roof of the car at Point Lookout State Park.
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A bald eagle (Haliaeeatus leucocepphalus) must wait four years for its brilliant white head feathers, but identifying a juvenile isn’t so hard; the size of the bird is one thing and the size of that schnoz is another! Photo taken by KetaDesign and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

  • A flock of at least 100 bufflehead ducks, who, by the way, look exactly like duckie stuffed animals dressed in white-on-black tuxedos by a five-year-old putting on an imaginary gala.

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    A bufflehead duck (Bucephola albeola) captured by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Now imagine a hundred of them floating on little bay waves, chattering. Quite the fancy dress party!

  • A loon and a grebe and innumerable ring-billed gulls.
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Ring billed gulls (Laurus delawarensis) are the Goldilocks of gulls; not too big and not too small. Easy to spot by their black wingtips and the black “ring” around their bright yellow beak. Photo taken by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • A jellyfish with a peachy-pink center, likely a moon jelly, but I haven’t positively identified it yet, slowly bouncing through crystal clear waters.

 

Redhead, Laguna Madre Nature Trail, South Padre Island, Texas

Redhead (Aythya americana) duck photographed by www.naturespicsonline.com and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

The challenge for the next few months will be making enough room in my head and heart to be fully present in mountain spring while imaging a bright, bayside summer.

A Lap Around the Pond

The only time I’ve spent outside in the last two days has been weeding.  Unacceptable.

So, this morning I put off my chores (they’re eternal anyway, so what’s another half hour) and strode out of my doorway and down to the Hethwood Pond.

It’s a small, neighborhood pond; a full lap around the paved path is only about one fifth of a mile, but it sure packs a lot of wildlife punch!

I made just one lap around the pond and saw species from five of the seven classes of animals:  birds, mammals, reptiles, fish, and insects. (I stayed on my feet and off my belly, so I missed the amphibians and arthropods this time.)

I photographed and took videos with my iPhone all the way around the pond, but only a few turned out.  Wild animals do not like anything that looks like an eye – either my large sunglasses or the small circle of the iPhone camera lens – pointed at them and they run/fly/dive for cover pretty quickly.

I’ll include the ones that pass the quasi-visible bar with my descriptions below, and rely on wonderful Wikimedia Commons for the rest.

This beautiful photograph of a green heron was provided by By CheepShot (Green Heron) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This beautiful photograph of a green heron was provided by By CheepShot (Green Heron) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The first fellow I saw was a green heron (Butorides virescens) stalking the large rocks that line the pond’s edge, focused on tiny fish beneath the water’s surface, ready to spear his next meal.  Though I knew we had a resident green heron at the pond, actually seeing him still makes me suck air with surprise and delight.  I should have held still and just watched, but I wanted his portrait badly, and my approach scared him up into the overhanging willow nearby.  When I finished my lap, he was hunting from a muddy bank in the shade under that same willow.  Unfortunately, his feathers, which are bright teal green and blue in the sunlight, blended in perfectly with the gray-brown mud.  This isn’t because the mud was covered with green algae, but because blues and greens seen in bird and butterfly wings in nature don’t come from pigment, but from the way light is refracted through specialized color cells.  No light, no green.

My next close encounter came maybe 25 yards later when I came upon the resident Canada goose (Branta canadensis) pair and this season’s clutch of goslings picking through the grass around one of the pond’s picnic tables.  The goslings are still in their fluffy feathers.  They’ll be fully fledged in a couple of weeks, though, and by mid-summer they’ll be so big that you can’t tell them apart from their parents.

There are five goslings - can you find them all?  It shocks me how well animals can hide even in "plain sight".

There are five goslings – can you find them all? It shocks me how well animals can hide even in “plain sight”.

Canada geese are considered by many to be an invader and a nuisance, but they’ve been a regular sight at every pond I’ve visited since I was little, so I’d say they’re here to stay.  You’ve got to admire their reproduction skills, anyway – handling five wandering kids is no small feat – that’s one strong parenting team!  Geese often, however, become accustomed to humans with bread in hand, and that’s not a great thing – geese can be aggressive at times (like when they have goslings) and will most certainly bite the hand that feeds them.  If you’re with kiddos, let them know that these are a watch-but-don’t-touch animal.

Rounding the back side of the pond I very nearly managed to photograph a chipmunk.  Or, rather, she fooled me into thinking I was quicker than I am by freezing for just long enough in her perch upon a large rock that I actually looked down at my phone to open the camera app.  When I looked back up she was, of course, gone.

An eastern chipmunk caught in action by "Tamias striatus2" by Gilles Gonthier - http://www.flickr.com/photos/gillesgonthier/291562671/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamias_striatus2.jpg#/media/File:Tamias_striatus2.jpg

An eastern chipmunk caught in action by Gilles Gonthier – http://www.flickr.com/photos/gillesgonthier/291562671/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tamias_striatus2.jpg#/media/File:Tamias_striatus2.jpg

There are several Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus) living around the pond in tiny burrows under the mid-sized rocks at pond’s edge.  They scavenge in and around the waterline for fallen nuts and seeds and other bits of plant to eat.  They’re not strictly vegetarians, though, and will also stuff their cheeks with insects, mushrooms, and worms.  The three or four I encountered this morning were none too pleased at having their foraging interrupted, though, and sounded the alarm call to all of their neighbors with regular, high-pitched squeaks from the safety of their burrows.

After conceding the race to those cute little rodents, I focused my attention on the shallow corner of the pond where I thought there might be a turtle or two.  And, lucky me, there was a nice, big snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina) just waiting for me there.

This is my (sad) shot of the snapping turtle at the corner of the pond.  Even after considerable digital editing, you can't see as much of the turtle as I'd like.  Not only does surface reflection interfere, but the turtle's back is covered with muddy algae that helps it blend in with the bottom of the pond.

This is my (sad) shot of the snapping turtle at the corner of the pond. Even after considerable digital editing, you can’t see as much of the turtle as I’d like. Not only does surface reflection interfere, but the turtle’s back is covered with muddy algae that helps it blend in with the bottom of the pond.

This particular corner of the pond seems to be prime territory for spring breeding.  I’ve seen snappers in past springs fighting in this corner.  Or maybe they weren’t fighting. . .  Anyhow, the fastest way to identify a snapping turtle is by noting its comparatively huge tail; it looks like somebody

sewed the tip of an alligator’s tail onto these guys in place of a regular, diminutive turtle tail.  These, too, are a watch-but-don’t-touch animal.  Their snapping mouths are powerful enough to break an adult finger easily, and they know it.

A great shot of the common snapping turtle by By Brian Gratwicke [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.  Kudos to Mr. Gratwicke for the great shot, and to the heavy turtle for hauling himself all the way up onto that branch!

A great shot of the common snapping turtle by By Brian Gratwicke [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. Kudos to Mr. Gratwicke for the great shot, and to the heavy turtle for hauling himself all the way up onto that branch!

I have friends who have successfully caught them, but please bear in mind that a) these friends know what they’re doing and b) not all of my friends are rocket scientists.  Even I can claim to have held a snapping turtle, but only because last spring a hatchling no bigger than the palm of my hand was crossing the paved path to get back to that same corner of the pond and I carried it down to the water so that it wouldn’t get squished by big, fat foot or big, black bike tire.  Still, I picked it up carefully with one finger on either side of its shell, far enough back that the mouth couldn’t reach!

And, just 10 or so yards after the snapping turtle, I met a smaller, friendlier turtle who was kind enough to swim toward shore to see me.  I still didn’t get a good photograph, but based on its few, bright markings, it’s slightly domed and smooth-edged carapace (shell), I think it must have been an Eastern red-bellied turtle (Pseudemys rebiventris)

Before I reach the end of my lap and my last picture, I should cover two of the classes I promised:  insects and fish.  First (and least, unfortunately) come the fish – the neighborhood has stocked this pond with large, bright orange goldfish.  They are beautiful and, based on my childhood adventures in fish keeping, will survive just about any water conditions.  Still, I wish I saw more sunfish and other natives in the pond.  Goldfish are a small type of carp (Carassius auratus) that are native to Asia.  There are also lots of tiny minnows in this pond that will churn the water up anytime a crumb of bread or toddler’s enthusiastically tossed Cheerio hits the surface.  I haven’t identified which species they are, though.  I need a dip net with a long handle.  (Hmmm. . .Mother’s Day is coming up.)  Though the turtles will snatch those human-offered food chunks up, they’d much rather have the little minnows!

As for insects, the most prominent species around the pond and in my garden right now are the bumblebees.  Bumblebees are members of the bee genus Bombus, and we have at least 12 different species of bumblebee living in Virginia, according to bumblebee.org.

Three of the ten ducklings that this mallard mom and dad are raising are easily visible in this picture.  It was only later, when the family hurried past me, that I was able to count all ten.

Three of the ten ducklings that this mallard mom and dad are raising are easily visible in this picture. It was only later, when the family hurried past me, that I was able to count all ten.

To finish up this one wonderful lap, which took me no more than 15 minutes including stopping to take pictures, I observed our resident mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos).  Show-off dad with his bright green head and camouflaged mom with her pop of blue wing bar were herding no less than 10, yes 10, fuzzy yellow and black ducklings at the side of the pond.  Talk about parenting and survival skills – this pair of adults will have to try to help these chicks survive hawks and falcons that might attack from above and, when they’re ready to swim, snapping turtles that might attack from below.  Duck meat is high in fat and tasty to all sorts of animals, not just humans.  Note again in this picture, the emerald green of the male’s head plumage is much less bright when not in direct sunlight; just like the green heron’s feathers, no light, no green.  In species of birds where the male looks different from the female (called sexual dimorphism by scientists and nature nerds like me), the male is usually much flashier.  Wildlife scientists have it pretty well decided that it’s the job of the males to impress the ladies with feathers and nests and offerings and songs.  The ladies bring camouflage to the relationship so that when they sit on the nest, they are as invisible to predators as possible.

Luckily, though my camera wasn’t able to capture everything I saw and, more than that, heard (the birdsong is fantastic down there, too) these pond creatures weren’t invisible to me.  Next time I’ll make my one lap even slower to see what else I can see!

PS – Though the walk took only 15 minutes, the writing of this has taken 75!  Ha!  Chores, schmores.