Old Home Week: Pandapas Pond

Yes, I can go home again.

I can and I did, and it was fantastic.

While out daughter was at basketball camp this week in Blacksburg, my husband and I took the opportunity to tour the mountains of southwest Virginia and southeast West Virginia, hiking peaks and creeks and driving wonderfully winding roads.

It was heaven.  Don’t get me wrong, I love living in southern Maryland – the water, the people, and especially the seafood are all excellent – but the old saying is true (for me, at least)  you can take the girl out of the mountains, but you can’t take the mountains out of the girl.

My first stop was a new trail at an old haunt, Pandapas Pond.  I’ve walked and hiked Pandapas and the Poverty Creek trails with most of my family members and plenty of friends and students, but the one trail I hadn’t done was the Lark Spur trail.  My hubby and in-laws refer to this trail as the “rhodie trail” because they hiked it once when the rhododendrons were in full bloom.  I wanted that same experience, so I kept putting off hiking it until the “right time”.  So, in the four years we lived in Blacksburg, I tried to time it right every spring, and every spring I missed the window (or thought I did), and put it off till the next year.  Lesson learned.

Hubby is a late sleeper, so I hit the trail alone after camp dropoff.  It felt unbelievably good to be back in the mountain air, with nothing to do but follow my feet and please myself.  The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the trail, though only half in bloom, was worth the wait.  Here are the trail shots:

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The beavers have been hard at work in the two years we’ve been gone.  They’ve completed their efforts at damming the upper pond.  You can see their work at the bottom of the above photo – a dam so tight that only trickles escape to the lower pond (enough to keep it full, though).  You can also see what seems to be a beaver-made water trail through the lilypads covering the upper pond surface as the builders tend to their creation.

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Beetleweed!  Beetleweed!  Beetleweed!  (Galax rotundifolia)  I found it blooming on a shady hillside next to the trail around the pond.  Research in the Audubon guide taught me that its scientific name, Galax, comes from the Greek word “gala” for milk, referring to the milky color of the blossoms.  

 

Now, as promised, the rhodies.  I wish I had taken a picture of the beginning of the Lark Spur trail, but I was so entranced by the canopy of twisting branches and dark, leathery leaves that I completely forgot.  It was only after the hall of rhododendron opened to sunny forest with large bushes at each side that I brought my camera out to capture these:

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Rhododendron or “Great Laurel” or “Rosebay” (Rhododendron maximum) in bud.

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Here’s a rhodie just beginning to bloom.  The bright pink of the bud petals softens to a baby pink as the small flowers open.

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Wait, what’s this?  I found these white galls on many, if not most, of the rhodies I passed.  A bit of research has informed me that these galls are formed by an infection of one of the Exobasidium species of fungus.  As with many plant infections, it looks a bit unsightly, but really isn’t harming the plant.  (It would be much worse for the ecosystem to spray chemicals on a rhododendron to try to kill the fungus than to let the infection take its course.  Something to note for the home gardener:  research before you spray!)

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Ahh, much better.  One of the many rhododendrons in full bloom along the trail, showing every pink from punch to powder in its pretty petals.

Right here I need to make a confession, because here is where the photographs from the Lark Spur trail end.  The truth is that I had intended to hike the Lark Spur trail out to where it meets the Lady Slipper trail back to the pond, but I reached the place where the Lark Spur and Joe Pye trails connect first, and I decided (upon consulting my trail map, see below) to make the hike a little longer by hopping on the Joe Pye and walking it to where it meets the Lady Slipper.  Which was a great idea, for any person who has a decent sense of direction.  Unfortunately, I am not that person.  I went the wrong way on the Joe Pye and hiked it all the way back to the main Poverty Creek trail and then on back to the pond.  (Which made for an even longer, lovelier hike, so take that, gods of orienteering!)

So, the photos from here on out were taken on the Joe Pye trail.  But, first, please open enjoy this trail map of the whole system so that you can enjoy my navigational stupidity as much as I did.  Poverty Creek Trail System Map

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Ridgetop Rhodie:  a shaft of sunlight illuminates the leaves and buds of a rhododendron growing alongside the highest elevation of the Joe Pye trail.

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Cousin Running Late:  This Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), rhododendron’s cousin in the heath family, had one last blossom open.  They usually bloom a few weeks before the rhodies in this area each spring.

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Not all forest color comes from flowers!  This cinnabar colored mushroom is a russula (Russula spp.), but I can’t say for sure if it’s the Shellfish-scented Russula (I didn’t smell it) or the Emetic Russula (I didn’t eat it or, thank goodness, puke it back up).  

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From big and red to tiny and alien, fungus takes many forms.  These could be tiny, immature Marasimus mushrooms or the spore stalks of a slime mold.  I regret not taking out my hand lens to investigate further , then again I was smart enough not to eat this one, either, so on balance I’m okay with my amateur mycology.

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I may not have caught a photo of the wonderful rhododendron allee at the beginning of the Laurel Spur trail, but here’s something similar growing over the creek toward the lower end of the Joe Pye trail.  If a grove of rhododendrons isn’t the best place in the forest to hide and do magic, I don’t know what is.

Pandapas Pond and the Poverty Creek trail system are absolute must-hikes if you’re in the Blacksburg area, as these previous posts attest:

Pandapas Pond – Part One

Pandapas Pond – Part Two

 

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Pandapas Pond – Part Two

Wednesday.  I’m in my house and should be sorting laundry or cleaning the kitchen or writing the grocery list.

But I promised a second part to our little trip to Pandapas Pond, and I’m a woman of honor, so I’m going to skip those other things and write about nature instead.

For you.  Because I’m selfless and committed like that.

Now let’s see. . .where were we at the end of part one?  Oh, yes, 2,196 feet high in the Jefferson National Forest, one quarter of the way around man-and-beaver-made Pandapas Pond with the golden evening sun pouring through the trees on the mountainside.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.  I captured this shot in 2013.

This photograph of a daisy (Chrysanthemum spp.) shows a honey bee having her fill of sweet nectar.

Five petals and plenty of thorns - you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.  I took this photo in Louisiana in March of 2012; they bloom two months earlier that far south.

Five petals and plenty of thorns – you can bet this blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) is related to the wild rose.

We walked past blackberry vines in bloom (Rubus allegheniensis, another member of the rose family of plants – five petaled flowers and fruit that follows, just like cherry and crabapple trees and cockspur hawthorn we talked about) and oxeye daisies (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) showing their friendly faces.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas.  This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

The bright orange native flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea) is so gorgeous it makes me wonder why we bother with the nursery hybrid azaleas. This beauty is blooming at Pandapas right now.

We were drawn across the first bridge of this figure eight shaped pond by something that seemed to have been set aflame by slanted rays of the setting sun, but was, in fact, a flame azalea (Azalea calendulacea or Rhododendron calendulaceum depending on which book you reference) in full bloom, pictured at left.

Though the flowers have little smell and the blossom color can vary from soft yellow to muted red, hummingbirds and other pollinators have no trouble finding this native nectar source.

I’m growing a flame azalea in my back yard next to the deck stairs; I bought it at a local nursery that specializes in native plants.  It’s only about two feet tall right now, but someday it will reach 12 feet, and the bright orange, trumpet shaped flowers will be at eye level as I stand on the deck, which means that the hummingbirds visiting it will be at eye level, too!

More great information and excellent pictures of the flame azalea is available at another excellent blog, Virginia Wildflowers.

I’ve just realized that I’m straying from my usual bold title and underlying description format.  I’ll get back on track for the rest of the post.

Our next stop was the wetland boardwalk (the top of the figure eight, looking back into the wetlands that stretch into woods) where we sat, looked, and listened for almost an hour with birds overhead and fish beneath our feet.  Here are the rest of the highlights from our Sunday nature walk at Pandapas:

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer.  Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

The star of the wetland songbird stage, the red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) trills its high notes all summer. Photo provided by Alan D. Wilson via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-winged Blackbird

“Conk-ka-reeeee” sang a male red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) from the top of a nearby snag.  There are several dead trees (called “snags”) in the wetland area at the back of Pandapas, and the male was using the closest one as a stage, flashing his scarlet and gold epaulets.  He must have been singing for an all female audience in the nearby woods, because we didn’t see a single female respond.  That didn’t stop the gallant soloist, though, and my dear husband swears he heard a few new trills previously undocumented for the red-winged blackbird.  I doubt that in our family hour we made a minor discovery in wildlife biology, but I heard the different trill, too – a long trill that went up and back down like a shallow bowl turned over – and my interest is piqued!

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo.  This excellent shot was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

This tail-wagging member of the flycatcher family of birds was fabulous to watch even if I never got a decent photo. This excellent shot of an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) was provided by Manjithkaini via Wikimedia Commons.

Eastern Phoebe

“Oooh, look over there, what’s that little bird?” my daughter asked.  My first answer?  It’s an LBB.

Ahh, the LBBs (Little Black Birds and Little Brown Birds) – they’re hard to distinguish from one another!  I never got close enough to be 100% certain that this was an Eastern phoebe (Sayomis phoebe) and not an Eastern wood-pewee (Contopus virens), and heaven knows the zoom on my phone was no help (not that I’m bitter), but I got close enough to see the shape, size (about as long as my hand from base of palm to tip of middle finger), and behavior of the bird, so I’m fairly certain I’ve got it right.  The first thing you notice about a phoebe is that it’s a tail wagger, constantly pumping its tail up and down, and this little fellow was definitely wagging.  It was also perched on a low branch near the wetland boardwalk bridge, and phoebes nest under bridges and other overhangs.  The birdy never sang, but it did fly out and fly back to its perch on several insect-snatching sorties.  What this LBB lacks in size it makes up for in speed and maneuverability, which is too bad for the insects, who make up its meals.

This mallard mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas.  I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

This mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)mama is obviously more used to humans than the one we encountered at Pandapas. I never got a clear shot of her and the ducklings, but Alan D. Wilson came through with this beautiful photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Mystery Mallards

As we sat and watched Abbey sally forth up and down the boardwalk, spotting perch and Eastern newts in the tea-brown water, we kept an eye and ear on the field of cattails in the marsh.  And then they moved.  Suddenly.  Not blown by the wind, but by some not-tiny animal moving within them.  We all got excited.  I don’t know about the other two, but as I held my breath I wished for beavers.  Lots and lots of people have seen the beavers at Pandapas, but I haven’t.  Their lodge and dam work is obvious to all, but I’ve yet to spot the furry brown builders themselves.

I didn’t this time, either.  What did come waddling into a clearing was a mama mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and her half dozen ducklings.  And it didn’t matter that they weren’t beavers or that I’ve seen hundreds of them before, my face split into an instinctive grin at the fussing mother and the wandering, wobbling, fuzzy little babies.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade.  This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) we saw was a female, like the one pictured here, but had less sparkly and duller green feathers because she was flying in the shade. This fabulous specimen was captured by Dick Daniels and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

I’m extra glad for the noisy mallards that kept my eyes focused on the cattails because that gave me another gift – the sighting of a ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris).  The ruby-throat, as they’re often known, is the only hummingbird that visits us here in the mid-Atlantic region of North America.  I have planted lots of native, hummingbird friendly plants (coral honeysuckle, liatris, wild columbine, bee balm/monarda, and more) and have even hung a hummingbird feeder, so I know they’re out there, but still a sighting is rare.  They’re little green birds – well, if phoebes are little, then these are actually tiny – that dart so quickly through the landscape it’s hard to catch them.  In fact, they’re the only birds that are so maneuverable that they can fly backwards!

I thank my lucky stars that I saw this one, a female, I think, because I didn’t see the ruby throat that indicates a male, because she was gathering cattail fluff to tuck into her nest!  I saw her pluck fluffy seeds from the spent cattail flower stalk, fly to a second stalk, grab even more, and then carry it off in her beak as she flew away to the woods’ edge.  That kind of sighting, well, for a nature nerd like me, it’s enough to make your whole week!

And it did:  I’m still grinning.  But, on the other hand, it’s not going to get the laundry done, so off I go!

Pandapas Pond – Part One

Eight minutes.

I timed it.  In just eight minutes I can drive from my house to Pandapas Pond, one of the best family nature spots I’ve ever visited – living in Blacksburg is the best!

We go there fairly often, but not often enough.  I say this because the trails around Pandapas (called the Poverty Creek trail system – over 17 miles of hiking) are full of rhododendrons and I have still not been up there when they’re all in bloom.  Four years as an undergrad at Virginia Tech, one as a young newlywed, and now three years as a townie, and I haven’t seen the rhodies in bloom.  Unacceptable.  And now, with our move date only a year away, I’m down to my last two springs, my last two chances.

Here in town, the rhododendrons are just finishing bloom.  So, doing my handy-dandy elevation math, with Pandapas at 2,196 feet and Blacksburg at 2,080 feet, and spring climbing the mountain at 100 feet per day (heaven help me, I’m writing a word problem – and I so hated math class) I was about to miss them again!

So yesterday evening we hopped in the car and went.  No plans, no packs, just decent walking shoes and the golden sunlight of evening.  Perfect.

Except the rhodies weren’t blooming.  Actually, we did see one, on the way out, in deep shade and in full, glorious bloom.  But it turned out to be the cherry on the sundae, because everything else going on at the pond pushed the rhododendrons right out of my mind within five minutes of being there.

My daughter, Abbey, recorded over 30 different plants and animals in her nature notebook.  (FYI, if you want to slow an eight-year-old kid down so you can have a leisurely nature walk, give her a waterproof camera and a nature notebook.  Works like a charm.)  I’m not going to review all 30 here because it’s a beautiful day and I want to get outside, but here are the highlights:

Mountain Laurel

This mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is just beginning to bloom.  It is a cousin to the rhododendron; both are in the Heath family of plants.

This mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is just beginning to bloom. It is a cousin to the rhododendron; both are in the Heath family of plants.  I snapped this picture of a plant 10 feet from the parking lot.

These are what made me temporarily forget the rhododendrons.  The mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) were blooming everywhere in shades of delicate pink pretty enough to make just about anything slip your mind.  This is one of my favorite parts of nature – that it can so occupy the senses that the mind has no room left to process worries.

Mountain laurel also goes by the names “spoonwood”, because early Americans made spoons from its wood (again, nature names are often utilitarian or descriptive) or “lambkill”.  Want to guess at the origin of that second one?  Yep, lambs that ate mountain laurel could end up dead.  Mountain laurel is toxic to livestock and to humans, so much so that even eating honey made from the nectar of its flowers could give you a bad case of stomach upset.  Not that you would, thankfully, because the honey is very bitter.

The poison within the plant is called grayanotoxin.  Various Native American tribes made use of the plant externally as an analgesic or anti-inflammatory, and I hope that somewhere in a lab they’ve got this stuff stocked away for further study as to its medical uses.  After they get rid of the hideous diarrhea and vomiting side effects of course.

Not that that’s what I want you to remember about mountain laurel.  Remember this, please:  oooohhhhh, pretty, pretty, pretty – so pink and pretty!

Canada Geese & Goslings

Only one adult is pictured here, but there were several browsing with the goslings and herding them, slowly, away from us.  They were not worried about us - or the cameras we were pointing at them - in the slightest.

Only one adult is pictured here, but there were several browsing with the goslings and herding them, slowly, away from us. They were not worried about us – or the cameras we were pointing at them – in the slightest.

Pandapas is a year-round haunt for Canada geese (Branta canadensis).  They’re rather tame, too, and will even follow you at a safe distance on the off chance that you’ll drop a crumb of bread or toddler’s Cheerio.  We didn’t feed them (not that I’m morally opposed to it; I’d just use birdseed rather than bread) but they let us get close enough to take good photographs of the goslings still in their fluffy baby feathers.

The only notice they took of us was a little perfunctory head bobbing and hissing performed by one of the adult geese in the group when we got within three feet.  Did I say rather tame?  I meant very tame.  A wilder goose would likely have spread his wings to look bigger and chased us off, snapping its bill.  They’ve even been known to bite (though they don’t have real teeth, so it’s more like a vicious pinch).  Not these geese, though; they treated us like the possibly-profitable/possibly-annoying tourists that we were.

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) posing prettily in the evening sun at Pandapas Pond.

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) posing prettily in the evening sun at Pandapas Pond.

Black Locust Blossoms

Photo courtesy of the esteemed Abigail Birch, budding photographer and excellent nature buddy.

Photo courtesy of the esteemed Abigail Birch, budding photographer and excellent nature buddy.

Moving on around the pond’s flat, graveled, one mile loop trail, we ran right into some low hanging black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) blossoms.  They look like lacy frills from far away, but up close they’re velvety and sumptuous, the color of cream sauce with tiny floating pools of butter.  (Yes, I’m writing at lunch time again.)  I photographed the blossoms on the left a little further around the trail in a sunny spot.  The first ones we saw were in shade and a bit to high to get a really good picture.  (I’m still bitter about the poor quality of zoomed photos from my phone.)  Abbey took a fairly good shot of these, though, with the “real” camera, which I’m using with her permission here on the right.

Abbey let me borrow the "real" camera to get this shot of the cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli) blossoms.

Abbey let me borrow the “real” camera to get this shot of the cockspur hawthorn (Crataegus crus-galli) blossoms.

Cockspur Hawthorn Blossoms

Not to be outdone by the locust trees, just across the path we were stunned by some small (20′) trees absolutely covered with tiny white flowers.  The five-petaled blooms gave me the hint that this tree is in the rose family, just like so many other wild fruit trees, such as black cherry, crabapple, and beach plum, but it just didn’t “look right” to be any of those.  Closer examination of the photos we took, showing large thorns among the blooms, and a bit of research in my identification books makes me believe it’s cockspur hawthorn (Cragaegus crus-galli).  If you know better, please post in the comment section!

This no-longer hungry caterpillar had finished its spring feast of cherry or apple tree leaves and was headed for a safe spot to create a chrysalis.

This no-longer hungry caterpillar had finished its spring feast of cherry or apple tree leaves and was headed for a safe spot to create a chrysalis.

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

The tents in the trees are looking brown and tattered, so it’s no surprise that we found a fully-grown Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americanum) out of its webby nest and crawling across the path in search of a place to pupate.  The caterpillar is much more colorful than the beige moth it will become, with a bright white stripe down its back flanked by alternating yellow, black, and periwinkle blue stripes on its sides.  It even has a row of half-moon eyespots running the length of each side of its body, and the whole caterpillar is covered with fine, yellow hairs.

In general, hairy or “tufted” caterpillars are best left untouched, as their hairs or bristles can give a nasty sting, but there are no warnings on this one in my caterpillars guide book.  Still, my husband gently lifted the caterpillar with a stick (let it crawl on, don’t scrape it up!) so we could examine it more closely.  Gorgeous.  Made me dislike the trashy looking tents much less!

Okay, we’ve barely rounded the first corner of the loop trail and look how much we’ve seen!  I’m starving though, so stand by for part two, which I hope to publish later this evening, or at least after some lunch!