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!

 

 

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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.

Gooooooing Up – The Gateway Trail

“So, Mom, when are we leaving for our hike?”

This is an underrated advantage of having children:  they remind you that weekends aren’t just for house and garden chores, but for doing those things you want to do “if you have time”.

And we had time.  But just barely.  It was already 5:30 p.m. on Sunday and it’s getting dark around 8:00 p.m. now (Hallelujah!  I love long days!) and I knew the Gateway Trail was at least a mile long.  Well, I thought, even if we walk as slow as two miles per hour, a snail’s pace compared to our flatland clip of 3.5 to 4 mph, we’d be up and back in less than two hours.

Excitement and hope are often enablers of temporary amnesia and wishful thinking.

Still, we had to move quick if we were going to make it, so I (self-sacrificing mother that I am) skipped the shower that I badly needed and settled for an extra couple of swipes of deodorant.  Clinical strength deodorant.

We kissed the hubby/daddy goodbye, grabbed our shoes and my hiking pack and were out the door in under ten minutes.  We arrived at the trail head in another ten. (Or less – have I  mentioned that there are trails everywhere near Blacksburg and that it is the best place on Earth?)

The entrance to Gateway Park (before you reach through the actual trailhead) is a gentle stroll through an idyllic country scene.

The entrance to Gateway Park (before you reach through the actual trailhead) is a gentle stroll through an idyllic country scene.

The trail begins across Meadowbrook Road from the lower parking lot of Heritage Park.  On nice flat ground.  It rolls through a deep green field and past a bucolic old barn.  A tiny stream that burbles along to the right of the trail feeds buttercups and sweet-smelling grass.  In this place, with the golden light of afternoon sun warming your cheeks, there could be nothing wrong with the world.

And then you reach the trailhead, and realize that this hike is about to get real.

After all, this trail leads up the side of Brush Mountain.  Mountain.  And that’s what we wanted, right – to see spring in reverse, to see how it climbs the mountain slowly?  Right!

And so we, too, climbed the mountain.  Slowly.

My daughter is actually a great hiking partner.  She has no trouble keeping up with me, largely due to the fact that she is 60ish pounds and maybe 5% body fat and I am . . . not.  She also has the tremendous grace to be interested in nature and stop often to look at something or another.  Not only does this save my heart and lungs from explosion, but it gives me a chance to hear one of my favorite sentences:

“Mom, come look at what I found!”

Between her stops, my photo ops, and our mutual stops to drain the large canteen we had brought, we were hiking at nowhere near two miles an hour.  And the trail is 1.4 miles long, not one mile.  Our slow speed didn’t bother me, though, except maybe when trail runners both younger and older than I passed us like white-tailed dear loping by errant, distracted turtles.

But we turtles saw great stuff:

As the incline starts to get steeper we see a little waterfall in the brook next to the trail.

As the incline starts to get steeper we see a little waterfall in the brook next to the trail.

Wild geranium

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) blooms here and there on the forest floor.

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Had we hiked just a little faster I might have missed this wild iris, called “blue flag” (Iris virginica L.).

And just a few inches from  the blue flag posed this pretty little smooth Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

And just a few inches from the blue flag posed this pretty little smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

The mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) are already in bud!  I'm mentally planning future hikes to make sure I see the blossoms.

The mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) are already in bud! I’m mentally planning future hikes to make sure I see the blossoms.  As for the tiny, green beetle, I don’t know its name yet, but I’m working on it!

Abbey called my attention to this pine that looks a little bit like a friendly monster.  Beyond its dead branch "arms" I can see the tiny, lacy new leaves of a deciduous tree.  The leaves at ground level are already as big as my palm.

Abbey called my attention to this pine that looks a little bit like a friendly monster. Beyond its dead branch “arms” I can see the tiny, lacy new leaves of a deciduous tree. The leaves at ground level are already as big as my palm.

This view from not-quite-the-top of the mountain shows that we've hiked high enough to be nearly level with surrounding ridges.

This view from not-quite-the-top of the mountain shows that we’ve hiked high enough to be nearly level with surrounding ridges.

We didn’t make it to the end of the trail, of course.  Abbey tuckered out after an hour of hiking, and I was A-OK with that!  Just after we turned back, we ran into a fellow Master Naturalist friend of mine who commented “Isn’t this trail great?  You can burn over 600 calories in an hour and a half!”

From that I made two mental notes:

  1. The next time I hike this trail, I’ll allot two hours for the journey up to cover climb time plus photo and rest time, and
  2. When I get home, I’m having dessert!

The hike back down went much more quickly, of course, we were back to the trail head in under 45 minutes.  There we had just enough sunlight left to count the lines on the topographic trail map to find that we hiked about a mile of trail and gained over 700 vertical feet.  We were quite pleased with ourselves.

I did achieve my hope from my previous post; I saw a few maple trees still in blossom and I watched the leaf sizes shrink down and the canopy open up.  More than that, though, I just had a great hike with my daughter, my favorite hiking buddy.