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

 

Opportunity Taken: The Bloodroot Trail

No question about it, it had to be today.

It’s been windy and in the teens for two weeks, we’re expecting snow tonight and tomorrow, and then even more frigid temperatures to follow.

This afternoon, however, was a balmy 33 degrees with gentle breezes that kept the “feels like” temp in the upper 20s.  For a gal still learning to be “weatherproof” today was the day to get out for a hike.

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The trailhead sign for the Bloodroot Trail, which winds around the ridge inside and above the Stream Loop I hiked a few weeks ago.

Or, rather, a walk in the woods.  Hiking, to me, carries a connotation of physical exercise.  This makes me feel obligated to move quickly along the trails, keeping up my pace and heart rate.  Walking quickly on the trails is also a great way to miss everything going on in the woods that I came out to see in the first place.  So, my “resolution” for this year is to quit hiking and just walk (slowly, pausing often) in the woods.

(Exercise will have to be accomplished at home on my NordicTrac elliptical machine.  I call it “Hellga” for obvious reasons.)

So today, despite a hip-deep mound of unfolded laundry and before the urgent grocery run, I hit the Bloodroot Trail in the American Chestnut Land Trust’s (ACLT) Parker’s Creek Preserve.

It was a good choice.  Nature never disappoints.

I started the trail walking way too fast.  Three weeks of holiday preparation and family visits, the last two of which I was basically stuck indoors, had me in my head.  And my head up my backside.  (I could tell because my thoughts were all crappy.)

All I heard was the crunch of leaves and the rustling of my many layers against the extra blubber I’d built up over the holidays (warm, but bad for my self-esteem) as I barged down the trail.

Luckily, I ran into another woods-walker, an ACLT volunteer who was out to bow hunt the evening hours in order to check the local white-tailed deer population.  He didn’t know me.  He didn’t care about my holidays.  He was just glad to be in the woods, and glad for me that I was there, too.  We chatted for a minute about the beautiful lacy leaves still decorating the beech trees, about how Parker’s Creek had frozen solid and so the raft crossing is closed, about how some unwise soul would probably try to cross it on foot anyway and be sorry for it.

I thanked him for his good trailwork – the ACLT trails impress me more on every visit – and wished him luck in his hunting, eager to move on now that our chat had stopped my inner monologue and successfully removed my head from my rump.  (I kept that last part to myself.)

That’s maybe the best part of the woods; once you wake up and tune in, the sights and sounds overtake the tempest-in-a-teapot of human thought and push it aside.  The questions the woods ask are so much more interesting that anything I already know.

Still, as long as I was moving, the forest remained silent.  Strange.  Or not.  If I were a critter in the winter woods and a nosy human was clomping through, I’d save my warm breath and enjoy my hiding space until the clumsy clomper had passed.

It is counter-intuitive to pause in the wilderness when the weather is cold.  There’s some mammalian drive that wants your feet to keep moving until you reach warm cabin or safe car.  Today I fought that urge, and nature rewarded me.

Just as I rounded a corner, I saw on the bridge over the valley stream a cat-sized bit of furry, rusty-red motion.  As the creature in question trotted away I caught sight of four black paws and snow-white tipped tail.  A red fox (Vulpes vulpes)!  My first trail-sighting!

I’ve seen many furry friends from the driver’s seat of car as they dashed away from the road (and a few that didn’t make it across), plenty of orange-red eyes glowing in the night at the edge of the field, but I’d never seen one on a trail until today.  Though the normally nocturnal fox was likely out hunting early to avoid the coldest hours of night, its appearance was full-on magical to me.  Worth the whole trip.  But the walk wasn’t even half over yet, and the pictures below reveal some of the questions and answers the woods gave me.

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I paused to admire and photograph the two trees at center before I came upon the fox.  It was probably the fact that I had quit making so much noise that encouraged the fox to stay long enough for me to catch a glimpse when I rounded the corner.

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I really am developing a thing for beech trees.  Look at this giant!  Too wide to wrap my arms around, but still showing off that “muscles under skin” appearance.  To me, this looks like the inside of a bent elbow.  I wonder what caused the bend.

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This is the standing snag of a dead giant.  Though I didn’t examine the bark at the base closely enough to know what kind of tree this was, I love how easy it is to see the tree’s natural twisting-as-it-grows pattern.  Why do trees twist as they grow?

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The fox’s view.  A frozen streamlet taken with a hand still slightly shaky from the excitement of seeing a fox.  If the streams are frozen, where will the fox find water to drink?

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Who will this shelter tonight?  How do the feathered ones and furry ones survive these arctic blasts?  

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How gorgeous is this split cherry trunk?!  What makes it so red?

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Is this American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) offering its bright red fruit to the birds, or is it its invasive cousin Oriental Bittersweet (C. orbiculatus) getting a toehold in these woods?  Is there enough water in these shriveled berries to help keep the animals hydrated while the stream is frozen?

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Why do the birds wait all winter to eat the holly berries?  Do they taste so bad that they’re the kale of bird cuisine (only eaten as a last resort) or do repeated freezes somehow make them more palatable or nutritious come March?

Tomorrow I’ll snuggle in under the blanket of snow and research more answers. . .and more questions to ask on my next walk.

 

 

 

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Mixing it up among Common 10 lists, as promised (but with an unexpected,  fun segue), we’re going from yesterday’s stinky skunks to the species I blindly pulled from the Common 10 prompt box today:  stink bugs.

Stink bugs have made their way onto the Common !0 Insects list for the New River Valley, and most of us wish they hadn’t.

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This is the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys) adult. It’s weird to see just one, isn’t it?  Photo provided by David R. Lance, USDA APHIS via Wikimedia Commons.

The brown marmorated stink bug – A.K.A. the BMSB – (Halyomorpha halys) is an invader from Asia.  Accidentally brought here in the mid 1990s, the BMSB population has exploded because this area’s climate and ecology are remarkably similar to east Asia (many of our non-native, invasive species come from Asia, e.g. the hemlock woolly adelgid, emerald ash borer beetle, Japanese honeysuckle, kudzu vine, tree of heaven, and many, many more) and because none of the BSMB’s natural predators live here.

They gather on warm, sun drenched exterior walls in autumn by the dozens or hundreds, and as temperatures drop, they find little nooks and crannies through which to work their way inside walls or even into a home’s interior.  They will spend all winter in these warm refuges.  I have had neighbors and friends complain of finding hundreds loitering around sunny windows.

And did I mention that they stink?  You know s species really smells bad when they put stink right there in the name.

Everyone has a different level of sensitivity to the BSMB’s smell.  They don’t bother me much as long as they’re out of doors and unmolested, but I’ve never had them gather inside my house, so I may be being unrealistically generous about it.

The stink they emit is actually a chemical compound used for self defense.  They emit this vile compound from holes in their abdomen in order to make themselves smell highly unappetizing to any would-be predators.

When poked or, heaven help us, squished, they release a load of this foul chemical brew and the stench could knock a buzzard off an outhouse.

I experienced this rank odor in full during Master Naturalist training.  We were learning about insects (3 bodyparts, 6 legs, antennae, wings, exoskeleton) in an entomology lab at Virginia Tech and one of the already certified naturalists brought dead stink bugs in for us to explore and dissect.  (I’m only now realizing that this may have been hazing.  Cheeky!)

Thirty trainees picking apart stink bugs under macro scope for at least a half hour.  Thank goodness the lab door was left open (small  mercies) or I’m certain that I would have a) vomitted or b) passed out.

If you’re visited by unwanted stink bugs in your home this winter, I suggest removing them by sucking them into a handheld vacuum or one with a hose.  Then, either throw the bag away immediately inside of a sealed trash bag or, if it’s bagless, dump the contents of the vacuum’s plastic container into a plastic grocery bag that you can knot up tight or completely seal before putting it in the outside garbage bin.  Releasing unconstrained BMSBs outdoors gives them an opportunity to find their way back inside – a challenge they’ll meet with ease.

Do I feel bad about advising the mass slaughter of these invaders?   A little, but they don’t belong here and they’re throwing our native species off balance.  (Here’s a guide to telling the BSMB apart from its native look-alike bugs.)  The only good thing you can say about them, in fact, is that at least they don’t sting or bite.  They’re a real pest in orchards though, destroying fruit by the acre.

So, for the sake of the fruit and to save all our noses, go get your vacuum and suck the little stinkers up!

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)