Mountain of Many Colors

There’s a short window in spring, just a week or two, really, when the mountainsides transform from the brown and gray bones of winter into a pointillist painting of a million different greens.

Here in the valley and ridge of southwest Virginia, that time is now.

As I drove to Roanoke yesterday, drizzle misted the windshield and low clouds hid the peaks of the mountains, but this diffuse light made the colors of the mountainside all the richer – pure pigments soaking the trees as if they were a fine artist’s brushes.

I refrained from taking pictures as I drove (you’re welcome, all you other drivers whom I didn’t run off the road), but for the last 24 hours the names of a million life-giving greens have been wandering through my head.

Here are just a few to inspire you, too:

peridot

emerald

lime

shamrock

chartreuse

hunter

pine

jungle

forest

eucalyptus

absinthe

grass

asparagus

moss 

olive

jade

pear

pistachio

mint

sage

jade

Every one named for a plant, fruit, or stone.  All sprung from the earth, vibrant and refreshing.

I won’t say which is my favorite, but please reveal (or add!) yours in the comments.

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Sprinting Spring

Time moves far too fast when you’re getting ready to relocate.  Between spring cleaning and house staging, I feel as if I’m missing spring!

It seems as if just a moment ago the red maple (Acer rubrum) trees were still in burgundy bud, and now their growing green “helicopter” seeds have mellowed the crimson blooms so that the trees look decked with flakes of copper.

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I allow my forsythia (Forsythia x intermedia) to grow rather large and wild; it’s tallest branches reach up to my second story window. The arching stems and myriad bright yellow blossoms make it look a little like a firework.

The forsythia bushes (Forsythia x intermedia), tulip magnolia (Magnolia lilliflora), and spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are in full bloom, not to mention actual tulips and daffodils.

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The tiny, chartreuse blossoms of the spicebush (Lindera benzoin) are a true sign of spring. The spicebush is a native shrub/small tree in this area of Virginia and, having evolved here for millennia, really “knows” when it’s spring for sure.

I have already seen mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and cabbage white (Pieris rapae) butterflies!

Mourning_Cloak_butterfly_(Nymphalis_antiopa)_near_West_Overlook

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterfly is one of the first to emerge in spring because its caterpillars feed on willow trees, which are among the first to leaf out.

It’s wonderful to watch the Earth wake up, all blossoms and bird song – if only time would slow just a little so that I could enjoy it longer.

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It makes me unreasonably happy when the willows finally turn green. My inner child skips around singing “It’s here, it’s heeeere, spring is really heeeere!”

To capture the few seasonal moments I had between cleaning and donation runs to the local YMCA, I thought I’d write a couple of haiku poems.

I wanted to do it “right”, of course, so I quickly Googled the how-to.  Big mistake.  The rules I learned in grade school apparently no longer apply.  By the time I was done being confused by the many voices and opinions on what English haiku should comprise, I decided it would be easier just to call the following “triplet” poems.

So, here are the four quick triplets that describe the spring moments of my March:

 

cold hands

tucking in tiny roots and

courageous leaves

breaking ice,

wild yellow explodes

forsythia

warm earth

soft pink petals

hope

trilling, proud

and persistent, he calls

to his future

Happy Spring! A Guest Post by Abigail Birch

I am pleased to introduce another writer in the family; my daughter Abigail.  She’s a nature-minded fourth grader and has a wonderful way with words.  Enjoy!

Hi! I am very excited to blog here with my mom and tell you all about my spring experiences!  I also added a poem about spring at the bottom of my paragraph.

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Tulips growing in our front garden.

Yesterday afternoon I noticed five blooming tulips in our front yard and realized that spring is finally here!  I was so overjoyed!  I then looked around and saw many blooming daffodils, tulips, crocuses and cherry trees.

But one thing was wrong one plastic bag was floating and got itself stuck in a tree!  My smile immediately turned into a frown and I quickly ran outside to try to catch it but it drifted away too quickly when I was running after it I saw many candy wrappers, bags and, of course, beer cans. It was not fun to see.  I stopped running and sadly watched it drift away that part was very sad.  But things turned around when I had the idea to pick up all the trash I saw on the way and boy was there a lot of it!  When I finally reached home I had armfuls of trash I was so happy to throw it all away and rest!

Goodbye for now and here is my poem! – Abbey

Spring

Robins playing in my yard

Butterflies everywhere

Flying once again to flowers growing

There.

Meadows Rivers and Things

Spring spreads across to everything!

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Abigail Birch, 9 1/2 years old.

 

Signs of Spring

As a naturalist, I feel that I should love all parts of nature.

Mostly, I do.

There are two things I struggle with:

  1. Fear of animals that can kill me, and
  2. February.

I’m trying, I really am, but February is just the coldest, grayest, darkest, most desolate of months.  I think somebody put Valentine’s Day in February in an effort to cheer people up with fat little cupids and chocolate (epic fail).

But, joy to the world, this February hasn’t been so bad!  I even started seeing early signs of spring a week ago.  Here are a few to get your hopes up before the NRV gets pounded by it’s standard end-of-season, first weekend of March snow storm:

  • Robins!  A robin in a tree is a winter sighting, my mom says, but a robin on the lawn is a spring sighting.  I saw one in a tree yesterday, but one on my lawn several days ago.  Go figure.  I’m counting it as one in the early spring column.
American Robin II 3x4

An American robin (Turdus migratorius) that I photographed last year in Heritage Park.

  • Grackles!  The 40-foot yellow birch tree across the street was filled with a flock of at least 50 common grackles three days ago.  They’re one of the first songbirds to return in the springtime.  This flock may still be on its way further north, but I’m counting it!
Common Grackle

A common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) photographed by Jacopo Werther and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • Crocuses blooming!  Okay, I know these aren’t wildflowers, but they are one of spring’s earliest bloomers, and they’re just so pretty!
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Hello, crocuses! These brave little blossoms are peaking up out of my messy-for-the-wildlife winter garden. Ain’t they grand???

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.

Baby Names

I’m headed out into the yard in 20 minutes (when the sunblock I just put on kicks in), to hand-weed dandelions.  I thought about using a standard “weed and feed” chemical product, but I just can’t stand the idea of creating a monoculture of grass while at the same time depriving our yard bunny (AKA the wild Eastern cottontail that seems to have made its home amongst the three yards on our street corner) of delicious dandelion greens.

So, in honor of the yard bunny (whom my daughter has aptly named Fluff Tail) I’m going to write a little bit about a subject at which rabbits excel:  babies.

Not the making thereof – that talk is about birds and bees – but the naming.  Wild animals have funny and fantastic baby names!  We all know that birds have chicks, goats have kids and and horses have foals, but the list of popular animal baby names goes on and on.  Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Baby rabbits are called “levrets”.  The word levret comes to us from Anglo-Saxon, back through the French, and all the way to the Latin “lepus” for “hare”.  The constellation Lepus can be found just below Orion in the night sky.  Some say that Lepus is the quarry hunted by Orion’s dogs’ (Canis Major and Canis Minor – literally “big dog” and “little dog”).  If that’s true, then Lepus is one quick and crafty hare – those dogs are totally looking the other way.  (If you should look the right way and find a levret alone, read these tips from the Virginia Wildlife Center before interfering.)

There are lots of -ets in animal baby names:

  • Pig – piglet
  • Owl – owlet
  • Hen (chicken) – pullet
  • Eagle – eaglet
  • Frog – froglet (after the tadpole stage, of course)
  • Snake – snakelet
  • Swan – cygnet

It’s not just dogs that have pups – all of these animals’ babies are called pups, too:

  • Armadillo
  • Bat
  • Coyote
  • Mouse
  • Prairie dog
  • Seal
  • Shark
  • Squirrel
  • Wolf

Cubs are also pretty widespread.  They are the babies of:

  • Bears (all species)
  • Big cats (bobcats, cheetahs, lions, leopards, tigers, etc.)
  • Foxes
  • Hyenas
  • Raccoons

Then there are the kits, which are the babies of:

  • beaver
  • muskrat
  • skunk
  • weasel

And, rounding out the popular animal baby name categories, those animals that give birth to a calf or calves:

  • antelope
  • cattle
  • caribou (reindeer)
  • dolphin
  • elk
  • manatee
  • moose
  • whales

Last but not least, a few outstanding outlier names:

  • Ant – antling (keeping good company with spiderlings and ducklings, which would eat the two arthropods happily)
  • Hawk – eyas
  • Codfish – hake, sprag, or sprat
  • Eel – elver
  • Otter – whelp
  • Porcupine – porcupette

All right, out into the garden I go (and yes, it’s been significantly more than 20 minutes).  With any luck I’ll catch sight of Fluff Tail.  With a little more luck, Fluff Tail might meet a mister rabbit and bring some levrets to my garden, too!

Spring at the Top of the Mountain

Spring green has reached the top of Brush Mountain!

I live just off of Prices Fork Road, so whenever I leave home, I get to drive parallel to Brush Mountain and have a good view of it over the fields of corn (right now they’re just fields of yellow cress) and grazing cattle.

A view of Brush Mountain from Heritage Park in Blacksburg, VA on April 22, 2015.

A view of Brush Mountain from Heritage Park in Blacksburg, VA on April 22, 2015.

I watch the mountain, see the seasons change over its great, sloping face, that looks somehow like a great expanse of clay shaped by a massive hand whose fingers carved the hollows, squeezing ridges up between them.

My husband swears that my love of nature will have me drive the car off the road one day.  He’s probably right.  I can’t honestly swear that my attention is fully focused on the road when I’m looking out my driver’s side window exclaiming “Look!  At the crest of the mountain!  One of the trees has gone bright green!”

But today it has!  I must get out to hike the Gateway Trail up the side of the mountain this afternoon to see how spring is spreading – watch the weeks reverse as I climb higher and higher.  Brush Mountain peaks at 3,100 feet, while Blacksburg sits at 2,080 feet.  My internet research says that spring moves up the mountainside at 100 feet per day. A little bit of math tells me that with each step up the mountain, I’ll travel backward in time over the last week and a half, seeing:

  1. Trees at the bottom mostly leafed out, with half-size, peridot green leaves obscuring the view of birds’ nests already
    White trillium blooming in Falls Ridge Nature Preserve near Blacksburg, VA in late April 2015.

    White trillium blooming in Falls Ridge Nature Preserve near Blacksburg, VA in late April 2015.

    made, some full of eggs, some with fledglings already squawking at mom and dad for food.  Dogwoods here are in full bloom or just past it.  Yellow and white violets blooming all over the forest floor, and maybe white and pink trilliums, too.

  2. Higher up I’ll see trees just beginning to leaf out, their seeds (“helicopter” samaras on the maples, dangling catkins on the birches) more prominent than their leaves, making the trees appear more yellow or orange than green.  Dogwood bracts (what look like the petals of their flowers are actually specialized leaves) smaller and still growing.  Redbuds and trees in the fruit family (cherries, apples, and pears) in full bloom.
  3. Up at the crest there will be but one or two trees showing green, most still those
    The colors of early spring blossoming on the trees of Sinking Creek mountain in Giles County, VA in early April 2012.

    The colors of early spring blossoming on the trees of Sinking Creek mountain in Giles County, VA in early April 2012.

    precious gem colors of earliest spring’s blossoms – ruby and garnet reds for the red maples, citrine for the sugar maples.  Yes, maples blossom first around here; their sap starts running in late winter (which is why maple syrup harvesters – heaven bless them – freeze themselves going out to check their taps as early as February).

And the thought of hiking to the top of Brush Mountain only makes me long to check out the even higher mountaintops.   Today I’ll hike the Gateway Trail, this weekend I’ll aim for the trails around Mountain Lake, situated on Salt Pond Mountain, which peaks at 4,360 feet – so high it’s called a “sky island”.

I’d like to see what’s blooming in the “sky”, and feel the pure pleasure of walking into spring on the way back down.