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.

 

 

 

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A Gift of a Day

Yesterday was not going to be ignored.

Morning dawned at a mild 47 degrees with gentle sunshine and no wind, and the Weather.com app promised the day’s temperatures would peak in the mid 60s.

I struggled with my urge to hike, which was tamped down by both irrational fear (I’m reading a book where a woman gets clobbered on a trail) and rational fear (gun hunting season is open), not to mention the burden of a mountain of laundry to do.

But a day like this?  Sunny and 60s at the end of November?  I can weatherproof myself till I’m winter-immune, but to reject the gift of a glorious, warm, free day with no scheduled appointments because of irrational fear or dirty laundry is an insult to Mother Nature herself.  (I called the organization, checked trail conditions, hiked at mid-day, and wore bright colors to make sure I wouldn’t run afoul of hunters.  I’m enthusiastic, not stupid.)  There are going to be plenty of times that commitments and chores keep me inside, but not today.

I made the short drive to the south side of the Parker’s Creek Trail System created and maintained by the American Chestnut Land Trust, and I was rewarded with a brand new trail and all the joy that comes with spending two hours in the woods.

After parking in the gravel lot and signing in, I strode out across a field to begin the Stream Loop in the clockwise direction.  Beginning counter-clockwise on a new trail seemed counter-intuitive.  I’ll have to walk it that direction next time, though, to see what I missed this time.

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The beginning of the Stream Loop in the Parker’s Creek Preserve.  Warm sun on my shoulders and crackling leaves underfoot, I felt I could finally breathe deeply.

 

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Choosing the low road and feeling good about it:  the upper trail, to the right, is the Bloodroot Trail.  I chose to hike the Flint & Swamp Trails, which are collectively known as the Stream Loop.

 

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With the sun in my eyes, it was hard to make out the words scrawled on this log and at first I was frightened it said “Closed”, but the graffiti actually advises hikers to Look Closer – a sentiment I can totally get behind.  

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And this is what I found when I followed instructions and did look closer.  Perfectly round little holes made by some insect or animal.  Now I just have to figure out which insect or animal makes perfectly round little holes.  

If this log had been smaller or more decomposed, I would have rolled it and looked closely underneath.  There are always all sorts of critters -from salamanders to millipedes – living in and underneath decomposing wood.  Rolling logs is one of my all time favorite activities to do with kiddos.

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The Stream Loop’s stream.  I took this picture to show how wide the stream’s floodplain is.  All of the flat land stretching out to either side of the stream has been made flat by floods year after year for generations.  They’re incredibly important for riverine ecosystems.  

One should note, however, when hiking in any floodplain or bottomland, unless the area is in the middle of a major drought, there will be muddy areas on the trail.  This is not a reason to avoid the “low road” hikes, though – you’ve got to remember that hiking boots aren’t ruined by mud, they’re baptized by it.  And, while you might not want to wear your newest, most expensive clothes on a muddy hike, a little mud does a body good.  (And human skin is wonderfully washable, too.)

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One of my favorite aspects of this trail was the number of tree gateways though which it winds.  

Though I have always taught kids to look first before touching something in the wild, I won’t stop them from touching.  The urge to reach out and lay your hands against the bark of the tree gate sentinels is overwhelming, and if you take a moment to close your eyes and breathe deeply while touching these forest elders, you get the greatest feeling of peace and joy.

 

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A place for Pooh sticks.  

Whenever I hike with kids, and especially when I hike with my daughter, we play Pooh Sticks.  Named for Winnie the Pooh, it’s a game of dropping sticks on the upstream side of a bridge and seeing whose stick reaches the downstream side of the bridge first.  I’ve played it a lot with toddlers, but I can now vouch that kids as old as 11 (my girl) still get excited by the competition.

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And, on the same bridge where Pooh Sticks was a good idea, I also found scat (wild poo) and used a stick to investigate it’s contents.  I’ve spared you from the close up picture, but examining scat and trying to solve the mystery of what animal left it is also great fun on the trail.

In researching the scat I found on the trail, I first leaned toward bobcat as the source.  Bobcats are known to leave scats right in the middle of the trail.  However, my stick investigations revealed that the contents of the scat belonged to an herbivore.  After looking at dozens of scat identification pictures and descriptions, I think this scat was made by a raccoon.

Important note:  I did not, and one should never, pick up or examine scat with bare hands or put the scat close to your face where you might accidentally ingest or inhale even the tiniest bit of scat.  Scat can be rife with parasites and diseases.  (This is a long way of saying please don’t touch, sniff, or taste wild poo.  Obvious to many, but an important thing to watch out for when hiking with the very young!)

 

I found nut shells left by some critter and, further down the trail, a black walnut (I think – see the caption) half eaten by another.  A hiker clomping through the crackling fallen leaves has little chance of interacting with wildlife; they hear us coming and high-tail it to safety or hiding.  However, you can often delight in a close encounter when you find tracks, scat, or seeds.

On this particular hike, I did get to observe wildlife for a little while, because I found a fallen log at the side of the trail on which to sit still and be quiet.  I rarely take the time to pause mid-hike because I’m usually trying to get some exercise but, based on this experience, it’s going to become a part of every hike.

After I’d sat for a few minutes, not really moving and not making any noise, a squirrel skittered down the hill and stopped on the streambank opposite me.  It sat on its haunches and looked straight at me.  As I returned its gaze with a gentle, passive expression (no toothy smile to advertise my status as a predator), the squirrel examined me first with its left eye, then its right.  It scratched its belly absent-mindedly with its arms and then dropped back down onto all fours, beginning to move in a circuitous path at least 10 yards away from me.  Springing from ground to branch, branch to trunk, trunk to nearby log, the squirrel didn’t hurry or panic, but kept me always in sight.

The squirrel escaped my sight, though, within about five minutes.  Another three minutes after that, a second squirrel (or it could have been the same one – they’re not like whales with individualized, identifying tails) followed the exact same path the first took, just a little faster.

Finally, I heard two squirrels chittering in a nearby tree.  I’m fairly sure I interrupted an afternoon of warm, productive foraging.  I put my nature journal away and calmly got up to finish my hike.

My fungus ignorance hasn’t dampened my mushroom love one bit.  Before the squirrel(s) appeared, I found this little purplish brown beauty in the leaf litter at my feet.  I photographed it against the pages of my nature journal so that I could get approximate measurements for cap diameter (30mm) and stalk width (7mm) when I got home to a ruler.  I observed the gills and their attachment to the stalk.  Still, I can only narrow the identification down to group level – either a Milky or a Russula.  I think.

But once your eyes are opened to mushrooms, you see them everywhere!  I found four more great examples – my attempt at identification is in the caption for each.

And, last but certainly not least, two videos from this hike:

Leaf Showers – every time the breeze ruffled the tree branches, I was showered with fall leaves like confetti.  A great autumn game for kids is to try to catch a falling leaf in midair.  It’s best to play this in an open field, though – on the trail it’s a tripping accident waiting to happen!

Flow Under Protozoans – Don’t be grossed out by the oily film on the water, it’s just millions of microscopic organisms called protozoans.  They’re feasting on bacteria blown onto the water’s surface by wind.  As long as there’s no nearby sewage input to the water body (and there certainly wasn’t here) there’s nothing to worry about.  In fact, if you’ve got a kid and a microscope, a sample of this “scum” is an educational treasure trove!  I just love how you can see the stream water swirling and flowing underneath the protozoan film.

Yesterday’s hike was really wonderful and I’m so glad I went.

Now on to the (one day bigger) piles of laundry.

 

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!

 

 

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

The most teeth of any mammal in North America.

There are plenty of cool facts about Virginia opossums (Didelphis virginiana), but that one’s my favorite.

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This Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana) was photographed by Cody Pope and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

How many teeth?  50!  (Adult humans have a measly 32.)

And those many, tiny teeth are employed chewing everything from fruits and grains, to insects, earthworms and snails, to snakes and mice and even carrion.  Opossums will even eat the skeleton of a dead animal that all of the other scavengers have left behind!  They’ve also been known to feast nightly on pet food left out for cats and dogs at night.

Opossums are about the size of a house cat, but it would be unfortunate to mistake it for one.  You do not want to startle a creature with that many teeth while it’s eating Purina from Fluffy’s bowl.  (Another excuse not to make that last run taking the trash out at night.)  You may be lucky and only get an intimidating show of all of those teeth, with hissing for extra fright value, or they may excrete foul smelling liquid from glands on their hind end.  If you’re unlucky, you’ll have a perfect impression of those 50 teeth on your ankle to show the doctor at the emergency room; biting the dust instead of biting you is never guaranteed.

Playing “possum,” or feigning death is actually a reaction of last resort for the opossum; it’s more like fainting into a coma from extreme fear and stress.  You’d think this would make them highly desirable to predators, but it actually benefits the opossum in two ways:  predators who eat live food will be turned off and not eat a “dead” opossum, and large animals protecting their young will not fear, and therefore not fight, a frozen lump of fur.

Opossums are a classic example of Virginia’s nocturnal creatures.  They have excellent night vision, with a tapetum lucidum (reflector in the back of the eye common among nocturnal creatures) that doubles the amount of light they see in what we would call “pitch dark”.  That tapetum also reflects the light of a flash light back as orange, which is another great way to distinguish them from a house cat, whose “eyeshine” is yellow.

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A Virginia opossum at night – if you look very closely, you can see a hint of the orange eyeshine, but since the camera’s flash isn’t shining directly at the opossum’s eye, this picture doesn’t show the full effect. Photograph taken by M. Betley and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

These little nocturnal predator/scavengers are at home in both forests and suburbs, in the trees as well as on the ground, and will nest in empty tree cavities, which they pack with leaves, or in another animal’s burrow.

They are also North America’s only marsupial, growing both in the mother’s womb and then, later, in her pouch.  Opossum babies, called “joeys” just like their Australian marsupial cousins, the kangaroos, are born tiny, the size of a honeybee.  They then crawl up into their mothers pouch where as many as 13 of them safely nurse and grow for another 10 weeks.

When the babies finally poke their heads out into the moonlight, mom lets them ride on her back instead of in her belly pouch, caring for them for another three months.  They can even use their long (sometimes longer than their whole body), furless, pink and prehensile tails to grab and lift joeys that have fallen back on to their backs.

And opossums don’t wait for sprint to start making babies – their breeding season begins now, in December, and may stretch all the way through next October.  In that time females may have two or even three litters.  They make up for a short life span (only about two years in the wild) by being prolific joey producers, which is good news for hungry coyotes, large owls, red foxes, and hawks.  And, sometimes, humans.  ‘Possum stew, anyone?

Opossums are active year-round, even on the coldest winter nights.  To observe them (again, from afar, smart people), go out with a flashlight and look for that orange eyeshine, and listen for the raspy clicking sounds they use to communicate.

 

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  Learn more about common nocturnal animals with these posts:

Eastern Screech Owl

Skunk

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.

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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.

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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)