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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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?


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


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


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?


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.




Foggy Morning on the Laurel Loop Trail

Sunshine lifted the fog from my house early Monday morning and its clear rays combined with energy from a really good night’s sleep to get me in the car and headed to the trail before 9:00 a.m..

It seemed the sun had only worked on my rooftop and nearby hilltops, though, and as I drove north to the American Chestnut Land Trust’s Parker’s Creek Preserve, I found myself deep in the misty gray.


The meadow at the Southside Trailhead as I began my hike.  You can just make out the white birdhouse though the fog at center right.

Hiking in the fog is a near-miraculous experience.  It is, quite literally, walking in a cloud.  Sounds are at once hushed and also heightened – the noise of the human world seems unable to penetrate the cloud, but reduced vision makes hearing all the more acute.  Also, because the mist obscures the larger vistas, the eye is drawn to all the tiny marvels of nature that are so often overlooked.


The fog condenses on every surface.  Here, water molecules have drawn together and rolled to the curled tips of dried grass leaves.

From the parking lot, the hike commences via a mown track through grassland to the edge of the woods where the Stream Loop, Ridge Loop, and Laurel Loop diverge.


One of my favorite aspects of fog is how it gathers like pearls along spider thread.  This panicle was hung so profusely with pearly strands that it reminded me of the rigging of sails on a tall ship.

I enjoyed the Stream Loop last week in buttery sunshine, but was excited to experience the Laurel Loop under a layer of cool silver gray.


Into the mist at the beginning of the Laurel Loop.  The lacy brown trees in the middle distance are young beeches (Fagus grandifolia), which keep their leaves all winter.

The leaf litter was thick, but the moisture of the fog made it soft rather than loud and crackling.  Just beyond the view of the picture above, it becomes obvious how the trail was named – it winds through hillsides full of mountain laurel that arch over hiker’s heads.


In this laurel I found a small, delicate orb web coated with dew.  This was one of only two webs I found (the other was a bowl and doily web), and I’m glad I took the time to make my phone’s camera focus correctly – what a beautiful job this spider has done, and what a survivor she must be, still alive and weaving after several frosts.

Scampering beneath the laurels and over the leaf litter off the sides of the trail, gray squirrels went about their autumn nut gathering, but didn’t seem frightened by my heavy footfalls or the bright turquoise of my sweatshirt.  They kept a wary eye but didn’t skitter up the nearest tree.  Of course, none held still long enough or close enough for me to get a picture, either.

No matter; I hiked along in a state of peaceful joy, and the woods rewarded my positive attitude with two excellent fungi as still-life subjects:


A beautifully colored turkey tail fungus growing on a downed hardwood trunk.


Pear shaped puffballs!  I learned these on an earlier hike at Flag Ponds this season, and knew them immediately this time from their pea green innards.

Just after this shot I looked up to see a serious uphill climb.  Not large compared to the inclines I used to hike in the Appalachians (the Gateway Trail comes to mind), but I haven’t been mountain hiking in over a year now, and my leg muscles have gotten lazy.  I would have taken a picture of the hill, but I didn’t think of it until half way up, when I stopped to huff and puff and my heaving lungs prevented me from holding the camera still.  Had I been able to get a shot, I would surely have captured the man-made miracle at the top of the climb:  some wonderful worker or volunteer had built a bench there, hallelujah!

Though the temperature was in the low 40s, the uphill section had warmed me up enough to ditch my sweatshirt and sit on the bench with my notebook for ten minutes without feeling the chill.  This is what I wrote:

“A chickadee calls “fee-bee, fee-bay” in the beginning of December?

The woods in fog seem even more magical – cloistered, protected – all the sounds amplified because the visual details are muted.

Drops of condensation fall from leaves.  The rat-a-tat-tat of a persistent woodpecker at work.  The squeaks and bell calls of innumerate little brown birds.  Squirrels bounding through leaf litter as deep as they are tall.

I want time to stop so that I can sit on this quiet bench for hours – till the birds and squirrels trust me, till they hop on and over me as if I were a statue.”

I even took the time to get videos of two woodpeckers, a white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis) and a red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus).  Not great videos, mind you, but you can catch the motion of the little trunk hoppers:

Quick Nuthatch Clip

Quick Red-bellied Woodpecker Clip

And by the time I was done writing and birdwatching (starting to feel fairly competent with my binoculars), the sweat had evaporated out of my shirt, so my upper half was refrigerator chilled, and my butt was numb with cold.  Totally worth it, but time to get moving again.

I hiked the one mile loop in an hour and twenty minutes total, moving at a pace easy enough to touch the trailside trees with gentle gratitude, marvel at a flock of migrating robins in the canopy, and take a few more pictures.  It was sublime.


My favorite part of the trail:  a hill steep enough to run down (though I’d probably trip if I did), a gully to explore, and at the top of the opposite rise, you have to duck under an immense fallen tulip poplar (Liquidambar styraciflua) trunk.


This moss grows at the base of a trailside tree.  Up close it looks like a field of emerald stars.


Back at the parking lot meadow, the fog was finally beginning to lift.  The silvery mist of morning rose like a curtain to reveal another golden autumn day.



If you liked this trail story, check out some other great southern Maryland trails:


Adventures in Brown

The transition from the color riot of summer’s greens and early autumn’s red, orange, and yellow – that final stage before the world refines itself into the black and white of winter – is brown.

Late November is brown.  Or, more accurately, browns.

Today I had a scant half hour to get myself some much-needed wilderness time, and I chose a walk around Battle Creek Cypress Swamp, where all of November’s browns are on display.

It was like walking through a sepia-toned photograph, where everything held still or flowed slowly, like molasses.

The swamp was unearthly quiet; there were no sounds but for the thud of my own boots on the boardwalk, the trickle of water, and an occasional chirp between birds.  (Brown birds, no doubt.)

It was heavenly.  Brown is a highly underrated color.  Here are some shots from the trail that illustrate this point:


The trail begins with a long staircase that spans the hill from the visitors’ center to the boardwalk.  This type of ecosystem is known as a Coastal Plain Bottomland Forest – it’s in the land that’s literally at the bottom.


Browns abound.  From wispy stalks of dried grass to the carpet of cypress needles and other leaves, the landscape is warm and welcoming.


I can already hear you arguing “those leaves aren’t brown,” but consider this:  Leaf color is really a factor of distance.  From inches away, these leaves were splotches of carmine red in a citrine yellow background.  From a foot or so away (and backlit by the sun) they appear dark orange.  From a few feet away, they’re brown.  And, just to fully finish blowing your mind:  brown(s) are actually just a darker shade of orange.


Like a lichen, but not quite!  Lichen are green because they are an algae (which is a green plant) united with a fungus.  This is just fungus.  It’s called reddish-brown crust (Hymenochaete badio-ferruginia) – an on-the-nose common name if ever I saw one.


When the eye isn’t distracted by a variety of colors, it can focus on intricate details, such as the texture of this tree bark.  I’m not 100% certain on the identity of this tree – it’s branches were well above my head and all tangled with other trees’ limbs – but I think it’s a dogwood. 


Here’s a view back down on the swamp from the end of this circular trail.  Yes, I see the green holly leaves at the right and the golden gum leaves at center left.  Don’t they look wonderful against all of those browns?

And now, because it’s my blog and I can, a list of some of the beautiful browns I saw today:






maple syrup












kraft paper







brown sugar



cafe au lait

terra cotta

Feel free to add some of your favorite browns to my long list by submitting them as comments!

Trail Photos: Flag Ponds Nature Park North and South Ridge Trails

Friday was my day to check the salamander traps at Flag Ponds.  (Citizen science for the win!)  But, I arrived to discover that they’d already been checked by a teacher and school group.  (Educating kids about nature for the championship!)

So, what’s a woman with a free hour to do on a mild autumn day with cerulean skies and golden leaves?  Hit the trails, of course!

The best shots from the South Ridge and North Ridge trails on this particular day were of weaving ladies and fun-guys.  (Fungi!  Get it?!  Nerdy science puns rule.)


A tiny “trail miracle” – I stopped for no reason and found myself eye-level with and six inches from this female Marbled Orb Weaver (Araneus marmoreus), busy making threads of sticky silk to complete the spiral of her orb web. 


Efficient and capable from the underside, but absolutely stunning from the topside!  Her abdomen was sunflower yellow marbled with chocolate brown, contrasting nicely with her eight flame red, cream, and black legs.  Don’t let the bright colors scare you, though – this lady is completely harmless.  She was too busy with her creation to notice me, but if I’d scared her, she likely would have dropped to the ground or run to hide.

Watching the Marbled Orb weaver was mesmerizing.  She used one of her back legs to stretch the silk out from her spinnerets as she crawled to the next radial strand, then tucked her abdomen under to secure the thread to the radial strand with a dot of spider glue.  Her movements were efficient and economical, looking more like Monday office work than Saturday night fever.  I captured two short videos of her skills; check them out in the video links below.

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 1

Marbled Orb Weaver 11-3-17 2

Now, on to the fun-guys.


After some light research in my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, I have tentatively identified these as Pear-Shaped Puffballs (Lycoperdon pyriforme).  Apparently they’re among the “choice” finds for expert mushroom hunters in terms of edibility.  Being a novice mushroom hunter, however, I’m smart enough to not put any wild fungus in my mouth; there are too many look-alikes that turn a great meal into a deadly dish.


My Audubon guide (and some image searches on Google) lead me to believe that these convoluted, jelly-like masses are a fungus known as Pale Jelly Roll (Exidia alba).  The Exidia fungi are found on deciduous trees such as oak, willow, and alder.  How I wish I’d stayed to check what kind of tree this log had been!


Thinking about how many times I say “I wish I’d taken the time to . . .” about something on the trail.  The trouble with hiking is that I’m always trying to make it double as a workout, so I go too fast.  (My idea of heaven necessarily includes an eternity to study nature in minute detail, unnoticed by all of the earthbound fauna.)  This particular section of the North Ridge trail definitely burns the calories, though.  Forty-five-ish steps climb from the bottom of the ridge to the top.  It’s.  No.  Joke.


Sure, I stopped half way up the steps just for the awesome view of the marsh and the Chesapeake Bay beyond.  Not because I was dying or anything.


I just love the curving, twisting contortions of the wood grain in this decaying log.  The beginnings of a moss colony – green flecks at center left – and the Clinker Polypore fungus (Inonotus obliquus) – black swaths that look like charred wood – highlight the complex landscape of decay.


One of my all time favorite trail views.  This flat portion of the North Ridge trail is my dream of a magical woodland.  I sense surprises hiding all around, but it feels as safe and friendly as my own bed.  It will be a feast of sun rays in winter.

Ninja Hiking with Charlotte

Today I met every orb-weaving spider on the trails at Flag Ponds Nature Park.


This two foot diameter web was practically invisible until I was right next to it!  Luckily it was set high and off to the right side of the trail, so I was able to duck under it’s attachment strands.

I call all spiders Charlotte.  It reminds me of Charlotte’s Web and makes me feel friendlier to our little eight-legged allies.

To most of the Charlottes I was exceedingly polite, making no more indent in their day than that of a short, thick, oddly mobile tree.  (This is what I think humans look like to spiders.)

A few, however, I rudely insulted by walking face first into their web.


Most of the Charlottes I met today looked like this.  This is a member of the Verrucosa genus of spiders. Commonly called “Arrowhead” spiders, they are thoroughly harmless and easily identifiable by the big, white triangle-shaped abdomen.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of getting web on your face, it’s a bucket list activity.  You’ll never know if you could have been a ninja until you see what martial arts your body produces in response to walking through a web.

I could’ve been a ninja.   (Click for hilarious spider ninja video compilation.)

My husband could’ve been the shogun.  FYI: it’s not productive to the marital relationship to double over laughing and nearly wet oneself when one’s husband displays his spider-induced ninja skills on the trail.  Maybe that’s why my hubby hasn’t been hiking with me in a while. . .


I can’t be sure of this Charlotte’s species, because she skittered off right after this shot.  I can, however, be relatively sure she’s a she – male spiders don’t spend much time in their webs, they’re usually wandering hunters and maters.

I’ve come to the level of nature appreciation where I don’t mind going first as we hike, though, because my training (Master Naturalist in two states, thank you very much) has nearly eliminated my fear of these web encounters.  I wrote a lot about spiders and their webs in an earlier post, Weaver’s World.  But here are the basics you need to know so that you don’t have a ninja-style web freak out, either:

  • North American orb weavers are tiny (usually smaller than a nickel, legs included) and generally regarded as totally harmless.  Black widows and brown recluses DO NOT make orb webs.

Meet Charlotte, the Micrathena.  Spiders in the genus Micrathena have really cool, spiked, triangular bodies.  They look like the devil’s own minions, but are just as harmless as all of the other North American orb weavers.

  • The vast majority of spiders build their webs next to the trail, not over it.  Those that do build their web on the trail usually center the web to one side or the other.  A web destroyed by human, deer, or bird walking in the middle of the trail is just more work for the spider to have to rebuild.

These two trees stood about 20 feet apart on the left side of the trail.  A tiny orb weaver managed to build her web by attaching long strands of silks to both trees.  

  • When you hit web, you’re usually running into the long silk threads that the spider uses to attach the web to a nearby tree.  These threads are only the tiniest bit sticky, and you can easily (and calmly) pluck them off of yourself and rub your fingers together to release the strand.
  • When its web is disturbed by something large, the spider will flee, usually by quickly crawling up and away from the disturbance (you) to hide in nearby foliage.  If the spider chooses the wrong direction, it’s not coming to get you, it just doesn’t recognize that you’re not a slow, thick, oddly mobile tree.  Drop the strand and/or your whole hand to the ground and the spider will happily skedaddle.
  • By flailing your arms and legs in a “coordinated” ninja-style attack, you are more likely to destroy the center of the web and accidentally scoop up the spider.  Do you want the spider on you?  If not, Daniel-san (note the classic 80s movie reference), when you walk into a web follow these steps:
  1.  Do NOT panic.  (Classic 80s fiction reference.)
  2.  Back up a few steps.  The less sticky attachment strands will likely stretch a little (they’re so stretchy!) and then pop off of you, no harm done.
  3.  If you can see the strands, you can duck under them or grasp a strand with your finger, thus detaching the main orb web, and then move the entire web to the side.

Remember, we love spiders – our Charlottes eat mosquitos and flies and all sorts of other insect pests!

If you still want to be a ninja, that’s cool, just keep it off the trails, eh?


Bonus:  There are about 4,000 species of spiders in North America.  Of those, only two are considered potentially harmful.  Learn more about Maryland’s spiders here.


Owling with Birders

This past Saturday the Master Naturalists were invited to go owling with the local bird watching group, the New River Valley Bird Club, and considering my 2016 mission to see an owl in the wild, I jumped at the chance.

The group met at 4:30 (less than an hour before sunset) at the Deerfield Trail, intending to spot birds as we walked toward known owl habitat that the leaders had scoped out on previous evenings.

I was, of course, late, and so I walked the first half mile of the trail quickly and alone, trying to catch up with the birders that I hoped were ahead, but could not hear.  I did catch up, said a quiet hello to a fellow NRV Master Naturalist, and slipped in at the back of the group.

Now that I’ve been out birding with honest-to-goodness real bird watchers, I can report on the differences between birders and naturalists:

  1. Birders are quiet.  Really, really quiet.  They know that birds flee and fly from noisy humans, so not one voice exceeded a whisper for the entire two hour walk.  Master naturalists can be quite quiet and contemplative when alone, but if you get us together without duct-taping our mouths, we’re likely to sound like a flock of laughing gulls.
  2. Birders walk farther and faster than naturalists in between stops to examine nature.  They are looking for one thing:  birds.  They may look up, down, and all around, but only a bird sighting brings them to a stop.  Naturalists, on the other hand, are more like excited toddlers when it comes to nature – ooh, look at the tree, ooh look at the fungus on the tree, ooh look at the mushroom on the ground, ooh did you hear that woodpecker?  You’re lucky if you can get us (okay, me) to go 50 feet without a stop to see something awesome/intriguing/puzzling.
  3. Birders know how to stack the deck.  Our leader on this walk also carried a few handfuls of birdseed in his pack.  Whenever the group stopped to lift their binoculars or listen intently, he cast some seed on the trail.  In this way, he made sure that at our next stop, we could also look back at what feathered friends might be feasting at his impromptu feeding station.  Because of this, I saw my first ever Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), a large, brown, and streaky sparrow that does an adorable sort of hopping moonwalk to scratch up seeds and other little edibles on the forest floor.

A fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) with its beak open. I was so excited to have new binoculars (most excellent Christmas gift) to watch the fox sparrows we saw do their little back-hop scratch!

And the similarities between birders and naturalists?

Birders strike out, too.

Though we were walking in confirmed great horned owl (Bubo virginianus) territory and tempting the resident with recorded great horned owl calls (thanks to the Merlin Bird ID app) that it had responded to only the night before, we saw not one feather and heard not one hoot.

Though we were silent and patient, the owl just didn’t show.  It happens.

After waiting long enough in the January evening cold (temperatures in the teens, snowing up on Brush Mountain), we headed back toward the trail head.  Our second owl quarry, an Eastern screech-owl (Otus asio), occupies territory where the trail crosses Tom’s Creek.

And so we walked quietly in the gathering dusk, stopped silently, and listened intently as the whinnying calls of another screech owl on another night emanated from the leader’s smart phone.  Once, twice, three times.  Nothing.  And then, faintly, we heard an echoing whinny from farther down the creek.  It was so soft, no one dared to name it.  A fifth play from the smart phone brought another delicate whinny from downstream, though, and then we all knew.  Bright smiles lit up the darkening trail.  A real screech owl, and we had been there!  We didn’t see it, but we didn’t need to; at least we had heard it!

Birders get just as excited as naturalists, they’re just quiet about it.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!



Hanging Out at Hanging Rock

If you want to see golden eagles, bald eagles, broad-winged and red-tailed hawks practically at eye level, soaring on mountain winds to their southern, winter roosts, Hanging Rock Observatory in West Virginia is the place to go.


The view from the western side of the observatory tower, looking north.

Birders from all over the region make pilgrimages there every fall (migratory bird numbers peak in late September and October) to get their fill of raptors (birds of prey).  The bird spotters who volunteer at the tower identifying and counting birds record huge numbers; check out their season totals and maximum daily counts for 2015:

I’m kicking myself for not making it out to Hanging Rock before this last weekend.  Migration peak has definitely passed.

Then again, migrating raptors may be the headliner, but they aren’t the only story in this clear, crisp autumn day.

The Drive

It takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to get from Blacksburg, VA to the trail head.  The directions consist of three roads:

  1. Take Route 460 past Pembroke.
  2. Turn right onto Route 635 (Big Stony Creek Road), enjoy excellent winding country drive for almost an hour, when you’ll reach Waiteville, WV.
  3. Turn left onto Limestone Hill Road and drive four switchback miles up the mountain till you reach the gravel parking lot with the Hanging Rock sign.

The scenery on the drive is heaven for a mountain-lover like me, and the curves on the road are pure exhilaration.  (This is why there are no pictures of the journey; I was having too much fun driving.)

Fair warning, though, there aren’t places to stop for liquid intake or, um, output, so take provisions and make sure everybody hits the head before you leave.

Second fair warning:  as you may have guessed from the name of Rt. 635, it follows Big Stony Creek for miles and miles.  There are places to pull off and park, and any kid (or middle aged nature nerd, come to think of it) will want to climb down and play in the creek for a while.  Plan some extra time for it; that’s easier than finding child-sized blinders.

The Mountain

Once you’ve arrived in the parking lot, you’re a little more than half way there.

No, seriously.

The .9 mile hike is no joke.  Remember how I described the Gateway Trail in Blacksburg as “a lot of up“?  Yeah, this one may be worse.  The website claims that the hike takes 20 to 40 minutes depending on ability.  Let me translate:  20 minutes for extremely fit mountain goats, at least 40 minutes for the rest of us, who end up feeling like mountain cows.


You can see that someone has scratched out the .9 distance to the lookout.  I have no doubt that this was done by a bitter, exhausted hiker who wanted the signpost to reflect the “feels like” miles trail, which would be more in the neighborhood of 2.5.

This trail is actually a section of the Allegheny Trail.  It rises about 350 feet to the ridge where the tower sits at 3,800 feet.  Unfortunately, it’s not a steady climb like the Gateway trail.  The first 100 yards are straight-up murder.  Then they throw a fairly flat stretch in.


A chipmunk I spotted on the trail is sitting smack dab in the center of this photo.  Can you see it?  Try blowing the photo up to full size by clicking on it.  The chipmunk’s brown fur with black stripes provides excellent camouflage in the dead leaves on the forest floor.

Then some more murder.  Then a flat stretch to give you hope.  At the end of that stretch you see the sign “Hanging Rock Observatory .5 miles” and your hope dies like an ingenue in a soap opera.



This is a huge sandstone outcrop that you’ll pass on the trail.  Taking a photo of it is a great excuse to stop for a minute and catch your breath.

Then the trail gets really rocky, so you can use the (completely valid) excuse of watching your step in order to survive the next murderous incline, which seems to go on forever.  Finally, oh, joy, you see the sign that says turn left for the observatory.  And then you look left and see one last insane incline.  You stifle tears, really creative curses, and maniacal laughter and head up.

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Joy of joys, I’m almost there!  Just one more quadricep-killing uphill.


You reach the sandstone ridge of massive, overhanging boulders, for which Hanging Rock was named (but, more importantly, which are excellent for leaning against as you attempt to catch the breath that left you a quarter mile ago) then walk the last 30 flat-ish yards to the clearing.  You can see promising blue sky and the observatory building and they inspire you to pick up your pace.  You reach the building, and see at last:  you have another two flights of steps to climb to get to the observation platform.  You briefly consider burning the whole damn thing down, but you’ve come this far, so you make the climb.

And it is so, so, so worth it!

The View


The view from the observatory building facing northeast.  The setting November sun cast the shadow of the tower over the ridge line. Pictures can’t do it justice.

You are now standing atop Peters Mountain, the longest continuous mountain in the Appalachians, stretching over 50 miles between river gaps.

Facing northeast, you have Spring Creek valley on your left and Potts Mill Creek valley on your right.



Potts Mill Creek Valley and the valley and ridge stretching out to the east/southeast into Virginia.

This is the geographic and geologic transition point from the Valley and Ridge area of Virginia to the Appalachian Plateau of West Virginia.  The roller coaster of ridge and valley stretches out past Potts Mill valley to the east and the high peaks of the plateau make the land to the west look like the bumpy skin of a mountainous gourd.


Spring Creek Valley and the bumpy Appalachian plateau stretching out to the north and west.

It looks exactly like one of those plastic raised relief maps come to life.  Which it exactly what it is, of course, but seeing it in person sooooo cool.

The Birds

And then, once the little lights stop swimming in front of your eyes from the hike, you see them:  the raptors are soaring on mountain updrafts, headed south, and coming straight toward you!

In my short time in the tower (about an hour, I think), I saw four red-tailed hawks making the trip south.  One of the volunteer birders (and Allegheny Highlands Chapter Virginia Master Naturalist) loaned me his binoculars (I’ve stopped taking my set hiking; they’re old and really heavy) so that I could witness the hawks “kiting” for the first time.

I’m used to seeing hawks waiting patiently on a tree branch or fence post next to an open field, as still as statues until they spot prey, then making a quick swoop in for the kill.  Kiting is very different.

Migrating hawks don’t have the leisure of landing and waiting for the chance of a meal.  It takes too much energy, which they’re trying to conserve.  They hunt on the wing by acting like a kite.  When kiting, a hawk faces into the wind (in this case, the wind moving up the mountain) and makes tiny adjustments in its wing posture to keep its position steady while the wind holds it up – no energetic wing flapping required.  Holding still in mid-air, like a kite tethered to the ground, the hawk is able to get a good view of the open valley and spot prey from the air .  (Their vision is 8 times better than ours – think 20/160; they can see something 160 feet away as well as we see it at 20 feet away.)  It only swoops down, then, when the meal is guaranteed, and the energy from the food in its belly will pay for the energy it takes to flap back up and into the steady winds aloft that will allow it to soar south.

Between red-winged hawk sightings, the ravens kept my eyes and brain plenty busy.  They flitted and frisked all over the mountaintop, seemingly playing in the turbulent winds at the top of the ridge.  I got to watch one making its low, gravelly babble call while it flewTwice.

Though next year I’ll try to get to one of these migration funnel points – places where the geography tends to gather migrating birds in big numbers, such as long mountain ridges they can soar or bits of land between open waters – earlier in the season to see more birds, I’m delighted with what I saw from Hanging Rock even this late in November.  And, had I been able to stay longer, I might have seen even more.  The total counts my birder/Master Naturalist friend made that day were:

  • 1 Bald Eagle
  • 5 Golden Eagles
  • 29 Red-tailed Hawks
  • 2 Sharp-shinned Hawks

My bird count for the day may have been just 4 red-taileds, but I also count 70 minutes of good hiking exercise (yes, the trail back took me 30 minutes – my legs felt like leaden rubber bands), innumerable lungfuls of fresh, cold mountain air, two pretty pink cheeks from the brisk wind, and one mind as empty of stress as the bright blue autumn sky.



PS – I also spotted a cairn on the trail.  Another stop-for-breath photo opportunity.


These stacked rocks are called a cairn;  a bit of nature art/architecture left by a previous hiker.  They’re cool to look at and fun to build, but naturalists will tell you that they’re not so good for wildlife.  Animals need those rocks to hide under to escape predators in the summer and escape killing cold winds in the winter.  There’s nowhere to hide in a cairn.  If  you feel inspired to build one, do, but then put the rocks back where you found them before you leave.  Take only pictures, leave only footprints.



Deerfield Trail – Early Autumn.

The Deerfield Trail is a small wonder of the New River Valley nature scene.

A good friend of mine tipped me off to its existence early this spring, when she and her family walked the trail at dusk in order to hear the woodcocks “peenting” their mating song.

I didn’t get out there fast enough (or at the right time of evening) to catch the woodcocks’ serenade, but I have walked the trail several times this spring and summer and, most recently, last week, so it’s one I can highly recommend, particularly for families with young children.

This was the scene from the trailhead.  Note the large pine tree on the left; it's gorgeous but it's a mystery I still need to solve.  It has three, twisted 3-inch needles per bundle, and short, fat, stubby cones.  That doesn't fit what I can find in my books and on line.  I guess I'll just have to take another walk soon.

This was the scene from the trailhead. Note the large pine tree on the left; it’s gorgeous but it’s a mystery I still need to solve. It has three, twisted 3-inch needles per bundle, and short, fat, stubby cones. That doesn’t fit what I can find in my books and on line. I guess I’ll just have to take another walk soon.

Here are the Deerfield Trail’s highlights:

  • It’s only a five minute drive off of Route 460 via Tom’s Creek Road.
  • There’s plenty of parking.
  • The entire trail is both wide and paved; less tripping hazard for little feet and thoroughly stroller-friendly.
  • It’s only .7 miles long, one way, and there’s very little incline.
  • Around the half mile mark, there’s a wonderful grassy area complete with big, shady sycamore trees and at least two benches, right on the banks of Tom’s Creek.
  • This area of Tom’s Creek (as long as it’s not raining upstream) is nice and shallow, perfect for exploring and splashing.
  • In addition to the creek, this trail also features open meadow and woodland habitats, and more habitats means a greater variety of species to see.
  • Wildlife I’ve seen on this trail include:
    • Songbirds (cardinals, blue jays, Eastern towhees, robins, etc.)
    • Woodpeckers
    • Great Blue Heron
    • Canada Geese
    • Mink (playing in the farm pond)
    • Squirrels
    • Chipmunks
  • Speaking of wildlife, dogs are welcome as long as they’re on leash.
  • This trail has lots of great interpretive signage, too, provided by a local Girl Scout troop when the trail was first built and designed to encourage visitors to use all of their senses to experience nature along the way.  Easy reading for elementary students, these signs are full of wonderful information.
Another cool sight near the trailhead were these spent blossoms of Eastern Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  The blossoms are a gorgeous veil of delicate, lacy white, which is beautiful enough, but after the bloom is done you see these cool, twisted mop tops.  They remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax.  So cool.

Another cool sight near the trailhead were these spent blossoms of Eastern Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). The blossoms themselves are a gorgeous veil of delicate, lacy white, which is beautiful enough, but after the bloom is done you see these cool, twisted mop tops. They remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. So cool.

During my walk last week I enjoyed watching the progression of fall on the trail.  Palest purple asters (Aster spp.) and bright gold wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) were both in bloom, as well as a few goldenrod and some surprising pink gaura (Gaura spp.).  The blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace were just finishing their bloom, browning, and curving upward and inward, sort of like an umbrella that’s been blown inside out.

It's my contention that there aren't enough words to describe the many shades and tints of purple. (Violet, royal, lavender, orchid, and lilac aren't cutting it.) I hereby nominate a new name:  pale aster - a purple so near to white that you have to look twice.

It’s my contention that there aren’t enough words to describe the many shades and tints of purple. (Violet, royal, lavender, orchid, and lilac aren’t cutting it.) I hereby nominate a new name: pale aster – a purple so near to white that you have to look twice.

The black walnut trees along the trail had dropped plenty of baseball-sized, bright green fruit on the ground.  (Even that hard nut is protected by at least a half inch of dense material inside a tough, leathery husk.)

As the trail progresses, you head slightly uphill and past a farm pond (where I saw a mink splashing this spring and two Canada geese nesting this summer).  This is the view of the meadow to the left of the trail and the mountain that grows up on the far side of Tom's Creek.

As the trail progresses, you head slightly uphill and past a farm pond (where I saw a mink splashing this spring and two Canada geese nesting this summer). This is the view of the meadow to the left of the trail and the mountain that grows up on the far side of Tom’s Creek.  In the foreground, a bluebird box is being nicely camouflaged by this season’s now-leafless growth of vines.

As the trail crossed Tom’s Creek, I saw the evidence of the recent floods:  grass and wildflowers still flattened in the direction of the floodwaters, bent permanently by the sheer force of the rush.  The banks of the creek were obviously significantly eroded, scrubbed sheer and concave by the power of so much water headed down even this gentle slope.  There’s a lot of impermeable surface – pavement, roofs, sidewalks, etc. – in the Tom’s Creek watershed, so even a moderate rain can generate a fairly large flash flood.

This photo shows Tom's Creek just downstream from where it flows beneath the trail.  Note the left side of the creek (outside of a slight curve) and how its sides are so heavily eroded by the recent flood that grass which had been growing on flat ground just weeks ago is now hanging down over the creek, the land literally ripped from beneath its roots.

This photo shows Tom’s Creek just downstream from where it flows beneath the trail. Note the left side of the creek (outside of a slight curve) and how its sides are so heavily scoured by the recent flood that grass which had been growing on flat ground just weeks ago is now hanging down over the creek, the land literally ripped from beneath its roots.

Then, following the trail into the woods, my footsteps became noisy as I crunched through drifts of fallen leaves.  It was my first autumn leaf shuffle, and in some spots the leaf litter was deep enough to kick, Rockettes-style, into the air.  Which, of course, I did, because I had the trail all to myself.  Well, I was away from other humans, at least; there were plenty of obvious animal trails visible in the thinning undergrowth and lots of skittering and rustling in my peripheral vision.

One of my favorite things about autumn is a path covered with colorful and/or crunchy leaves.  It does make it significantly harder to see any wildlife, though.  Clumsy, stomping human feet are loud enough without crackling leaves to make it worse.

One of my favorite things about autumn is a path covered with colorful and/or crunchy leaves. It does make it significantly harder to see any wildlife, though. Clumsy, stomping human feet are loud enough without crackling leaves to make it worse.

The great thing about a straight (non-loop) trail is that, if you pay attention, you see lots of things on the way out that you missed on the way in.  Here are some more great autumn wildflowers that caught my eye:

This is the developing seedhead of Spotted  Joe Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), a common autumn sight in moist meadows and at  stream edges.

This is the developing seedhead of Spotted Joe Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), a common autumn sight in moist meadows and at stream edges.

The only thistle blossom I found on the whole trail.  It's my second nomination for a new shade of purple.

The only thistle blossom I found on the whole trail. It’s my second nomination for a new shade of purple.  Check out the little yellow and black fly coming in for a landing at nine o’clock.  Many small flies have found success in the natural selection game because their coloring resembles that of bees and, thus, predators think twice before eating them.

This is not thistle, but rather Spotted Knapweed (Centaureas maculosa).  It's a non-native, invasive species introduced from Europe.  So widely has it spread, though, that it's likely here to stay.  Enlarge the picture to get a good view of the small metallic blue beetle (at 12 o'clock) and pollinating fly (in the center) that are making use of the flower's nectar and pollen.

This is not thistle, but rather Spotted Knapweed (Centaureas maculosa). It’s a non-native, invasive species introduced from Europe. So widely has it spread, though, that it’s likely here to stay. Enlarge the picture to get a good view of the small metallic blue beetle (at 12 o’clock) and pollinating fly (in the center) that are making use of the flower’s nectar and pollen.

This milkweed pod has ripened, turned brown, and burst open to reveal the feathery white seeds inside.  These seeds are dispersed by wind, and look like giant, spherical snowflakes floating through the autumn breeze.  As a kid, I believed that if you caught one, you could make a wish on it.  Now all my milkweed wishes are for monarch caterpillars next year, and so far they've all come true.

This milkweed pod has ripened, turned brown, and burst open to reveal the feathery white seeds inside. These seeds are dispersed by wind, and look like giant, spherical snowflakes floating through the autumn breeze.  As a kid, I called them “fairy seeds” and believed that if you caught one, you could make a wish on it.  Now all my milkweed wishes are for monarch caterpillars next year, and so far they’ve all come true.

As I inserted these last pictures into the post, an overall takeaway occurred to me:  the most noted wildflowers and seedheads of early fall are (generally) members of the Aster family (e.g.: Joe Pye, Aster, Thistle, Goldenrod, Ironweed, and Coreopsis) and the Milkweed family (e.g.: Common Milkweed, Butterflyweed, and Swamp Milkweed).

This is, no doubt, a general rule that should have occurred to me before, but I don’t mind figuring it out again by looking closely at each of these gorgeous flowers and then backing out to the bigger picture.  Just one more reason I love to hike.

To learn a bit more about some of the New River Valley’s other hiking trails, check out my earlier blog posts, Gooooooing Up – The Gateway Trail and A Walk in the Ellet Valley Recreational Area.