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:

IMG-4237

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.

IMG-4243

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:

unnamed

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

IMG-4251

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.

IMG-4254

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!)

IMG-4241

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

IMG-4247

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

IMG-4260

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.

IMG-4258

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).  

IMG-4263

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.

IMG-4262

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

 

Trail Shots: Hello, Old Friend

I hadn’t set foot on the trails at Flag Ponds Nature Park in over four months.  I have honestly missed the North Ridge Trail and South Ridge Trail, thinking about them often and wanting to check in with them, like old friends whose voices I long to hear.

My absence is partly due to my discovery of the American Chestnut Land Trust Trails, (make new friends, but keep the old . . .) but more due to the limited hours Flag Ponds is open during the winter.  (Only Friday through Monday 9am to 4pm – entry gate closes at 3pm.  Not that I’m bitter.  Or that I’m a forgetful lazybones who couldn’t remember to get her hind end to the park before 3pm.)

But Sunday, I made it; daylight savings time has pushed the park’s closing till 5pm (entry gate closes at 4pm) and I was there at 2:43!  Ha!

And my old trail “friends” were so happy to see me that they provided one wonderful encounter after another, including:

unnamed

This is the ridge-bottom entry to the Northridge Trail.  I left my house under dull, gray cloud cover; fifteen minutes later the trailhead greeted me with azure sky, fluffy white clouds, and warm sunshine.  It was like a “Welcome Back!” sign from the universe.

unnamed-1

Ripening buds on a cut-leaved toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), one of the earliest spring bloomers on the forest floor.  Once I noticed this one, my eyes “woke” to them and they were popping up through the leaf litter everywhere!

unnamed-2

And speaking of teeth . . . if you look closely at the beige bit of detritus at the top of the screen, you’ll notice that it’s a set of two molars that have worked their way free of this carnivore’s scat.  I guess that the scat was made by a fox, since it was left in the middle of a bridge, and that’s always where I seem to find fox scats.  Whatever this fox ate, it had gray fur and teeth made for grinding up seeds and plant matter.

unnamed-3

Just a quarter mile further up the trail, I found more evidence of a successful predator.  This lunch had white fur, though, spread out in clumps over a four foot square area.   

unnamed-4

The stalks growing up from this bed of moss are sporangia – stems with a pouch at the end that holds the developing moss spores.  A new generation of moss in the making!

unnamed-5

These are the dried seedpods of the invasive Royal Paulowina tree (Paulownia tomentosa).  I was sad to find them already empty, their seeds having fallen somewhere in the forest, ready to take nutrients from native species that are pillars of the ecosystem.  I also noticed how much the seed pods look like the head of the alien plant from Little Shop of Horrors; how apropos.

unnamed-6

I heard a rustling in the leaves just next to my right foot.  Usually rustling in the forest is a squirrel or bird, but this was close and small and so I looked down and was delighted to see a spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) making its way to the swamp.

Check out this happy little video of the spotted salamander (we’ll call him Sal) making his way through the leaf litter:

Sal Moves Along

unnamed-8

The pond and the Bay beyond.  What you can’t see in this picture, but what absolutely MADE my hike, was the pair of green-winged teal ducks (Anas carolinensis) revealed by my binoculars.  My first green-winged teals EVER!  And the female was having a quick bath-and-preen, so she was showing off her teal wing patch over and over.  Gorgeous!

unnamed-9

On the South Ridge trail, I found this moss with tiny, red and yellow bell-shaped sporangia.  The world of tiny things is fascinating!

Another stroke of luck – the leaf shown in the pictures above was flipped over so that I saw its amethyst underside.  Had I seen only the green top, I might never have noticed it, but that deep purple drew my eye and my camera like a magnet.  Research reveals that it is the foliage of a cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor), which means I can look forward to finding a beautiful 15-inch stalk of blossoms when the weather warms.  Check out this wonderful blog post by Mary Anne Borge, complete with excellent pictures, about the cranefly orchid.

unnamed-12

A bouquet upon leaving.  This vine has just sent out a shock of new leaves to gather energy from the late winter sun.  I haven’t identified the vine properly yet, but knowing that it winds around the tree clockwise (ascending from right to left) is a big clue – the way a vine winds is coded in its DNA; clockwise vines will never wind counter-clockwise, and so you can use winding direction to help identify species.

 

For more shots from the trails at Flag Ponds, read:

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

Mushroom Mysteries & Fungus Fails

Ninja Hiking with Charlotte

 

Quickie Post:  What’s Blooming Now

Spring’s in full swing and there are beautiful blossoms all over the New River Valley.  I’ve snapped shots of a few while out and about over the past week.  For your identification edification and floral pleasure:

A pink flowered dogwood tree. In the wild, dogwood trees all have white flowers, but I’ve got a soft spot for the pink ones.

Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus)

My neighbors have both a white dogwood and a pink dogwood. Both are Cornus Florida and I am more that a little jealous!

Viburnum

Buttercup (Ranunculus spp.)

Violet (Viola cucullata)

Showy Orchid (Galearis spectabilis)

Wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata)

An Unusual Request

You’re about to read a request that I never thought I’d type:

Please go get in your car and start driving.

Even as I type the words, the thought of burning extra fossil fuels makes me feel guilty. . . but this is worth it.

If you live anywhere near the New River Valley, find an excuse to go for a drive on Interstate 81 this weekend!

All along I-81, the native redbud trees (Cercis canadensis) are in full bloom, lining both sides of the road with that bright pink that is almost purple (or that purple that’s not quite pink, depending on your point of view.)

It is absolutely spectacular.

I would have taken a hundred pictures to share with you, but I saw them while I was driving, of course.

So, please, for the sake of a happy soul, go see them yourself.  Go.

Go now.

Stop reading and go already!

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.

IMG_0818

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.

IMG_0801

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.

IMG_0716

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

A Walk in the Ellett Valley Recreational Area

I needed a little exercise and couldn’t bring myself to walk the sunny trails of our neighborhood – it’s just too hot outside.  Nor could I bear to sweat in place for an hour in the black and grey, aggressively air conditioned neighborhood gym.

The answer presented itself in the Ellett Valley Recreational Area.  A shady, one mile loop trail only 10 minutes away from home?  Yes, please!

The rays of a hot September sun filter through a canopy of green and throw shifting spotlights on the forest floor.

The rays of a hot September sun filter through a canopy of green and throw shifting spotlights on the forest floor.

I figured I’d have time to do two laps.  Obviously I had momentarily forgotten that my hiking speed is permanently set to 30 seconds (maximum) of fast walking followed by complete stop for a minute (minimum) to take a picture/study a plant/listen to birds/try to find the animal that just scurried through my peripheral vision.

An hour later I had made one lap of the loop trail (plus two tenths for round-trip leg to the parking lot, of course, give me some credit).  Along the way, I stopped for . . .

Spiderweb Karma

I should have known when I wrote that snarky comment about spider web ninjas in my Weavers’ World post that it would come back to bite me in the butt.  Or, rather, to smack me in the face, as the many, many spiderwebs across this trail did.

Even my slow pace wasn’t enough to keep me looking ahead properly to avoid running into and destroying webs.  However, I did make two interesting observations:

  1. Almost all of the webs across this trail were inhabited by young micrathena spiders.  Perhaps the young haven’t yet learned that when you build your web across the trail, big, clumsy humans will just wreck it over and over again.  Live and learn, little spiders.
  2. Though I must have walked through at least a dozen webs, and micrathenas tend to sit in the middle of their webs (and once I walked through and could see that the micrathena was trapped on my face by her web)  the little spiders fled each and every time and I didn’t get bitten once.  To a spider the size of half your pinkie nail, you are basically a moving tree.  No point in biting a tree – it’s not a threat, it’s a force of nature.

Informational Signs

One of the things that really impressed me was that this is more than a trail – the interpretive signs alone make it a true learning experience.  The signs are really well done, too; easy enough for a grade-schooler to read, but with information interesting to all ages and graphics that make it easy to understand.

I tip my sun hat to the creator of this interpretive sign.  It's placed near some huge outcrops of stone that you can't help but examine more closely after you've read this sign.

I tip my hiking hat to the creator of this interpretive sign. It’s placed near some huge outcrops of stone that you can’t help but examine more closely after you’ve read this sign.

Virginia Creeper’s Red Leaves

Fall really is on its way.

Just two red leaves on the trail this day.  In a week or two the trail will be covered with colored leaf confetti.

Just two red leaves on the trail this day. In a week or two the trail will be covered with colored leaf confetti.

One of the first plants to turn is Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), which goes from green to stunning scarlet seemingly in the blink of an eye.  Suddenly, as you look up in the woods, you see trees festooned with red streamers that put party decorations to shame.  That’s Virginia creeper.

I caught this tiny Virginia creeper while it was changing.  I bet by the next day all five leaves were scarlet.

This little Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) got caught changing!  I bet by the next day all five leaves were scarlet.

Look before you touch, though; poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) also turns red, so remember “leaves of three, let it be”.  Virginia creeper’s leaves are in groups of five.  (It also has blue/black berries where poison ivy’s tiny berries are white.

Holy Mackerel, a Salamander!

My daughter is the Queen of Salamanders.  She can find them anywhere.  I’m merely the fool in her court . . . but even a fool can get lucky!  An ephemeral mountain stream crosses the trail and it was mostly dry when I visited – down to wet soil without any mud puddles even.  There was one rock that looked easy to turn over, and it was just barely off the trail, and salamanders need somewhere cool and wet to hide (they breathe through their wet skin), so I decided to give it a shot.  Success!!

I was so overjoyed to find an actual salamander under the one stone I turned over that I think I held my breath the whole time.  This northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) runs well, but held perfectly still for the half-minute I had the rock lifted.  Nowhere wet to run to, I suppose.

I was so overjoyed to find an actual salamander under the one stone I turned over that I think I held my breath the whole time. This northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) runs well, but held perfectly still for the half-minute I had the rock lifted. Nowhere wet to run to, perhaps.

I almost couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a bright yellow northern two-lined salamander (Eurycea bislineata) curled up under that rock!  He held very still, which could have been a technique to avoid the giant predator who just lifted his precious rock, or it could have been because they’re only active on nights and wet days.  I held the rock up just long enough to get a picture of my little citrine treasure and then put it ever so gingerly back down.  Good luck till it rains again, little guy.

Holey Trees

A hole in a tree is habitat for some little body, guaranteed.

Woodpeckers have made good work of this tree!  Dead and dying trees, called snags, provide a lot of habitat for woodland creatures and are very important to the forest ecosystem.

Woodpeckers have made good work of this tree! Dead and dying trees, called snags, provide a lot of habitat for woodland creatures and are very important to the forest ecosystem.

Some holes are relatively dry, made high on the trunk by woodpeckers drilling through bark to get at bugs.

I used a flash to get a better image of the inside of the rotted-out knot at the base of this tree.  I didn't see anything moving inside, but I suspect that's because fairies become invisible when humans are around.

I used a flash to get a better image of the inside of the rotted-out knot at the base of this tree. I didn’t see anything moving inside, but I suspect that’s because fairies become invisible when humans are around.

Others are low, a rotted out spot where a diseased branch or trunk used to be.  Either way, check them out and you’ll be happily surprised at all of the life inside.

Where two strong trunks diverged at the base of a tree, time, water, fungus and bacteria made a week spot home.  It's now a hole big enough to fit an adult hand.  It's half full of water, and several invertebrates were taking advantage of the moisture.  At the upper left corner of the hole, you can see the large millipede that was running for cover when my flash lit.

Where two strong trunks diverged at the base of a tree, time, water, fungus and bacteria made a week spot home. It’s now a hole big enough to fit an adult hand. It’s half full of water, and several invertebrates were taking advantage of the moisture. At the upper left corner of the hole, you can just barely see the large millipede that was running for cover when my flash lit.

Additional Awesomeness

There are a thousand treasures, small and large, to be found on any trail.  That’s why it takes me so long to walk them – it’s hard to be a treasure hunter disguised as an exerciser.   (Exercist?)

The spicebush trees (Lindera benzoin) that bring us the first (tiny, lemon yellow ) blossoms of spring now sport crimson berries.  Some people eat the berries, but I leave them as good wild food for songbirds.  All parts of this bush smell deliciously spicy.

The spicebush trees (Lindera benzoin) that bring us the first (tiny, lemon yellow ) blossoms of spring now sport crimson berries. Some people eat the berries, but I leave them as good wild food for songbirds. All parts of this bush smell deliciously spicy.

This small sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of my favorite trees because of its varied leaf shapes.  While identification books say only that the leaves have one to three lobes, I prefer to remember them as "simple leaf", "mitten", and "trident" shaped.  You can see all three on this one specimen!

This small sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is one of my favorite trees because of its varied leaf shapes. While identification books (boringly) describe the leaves as having one to three lobes, I prefer to remember them as “simple leaf”, “mitten”, and “trident” shaped. You can see all three on this one specimen!

Moss identification is no joke.  Mosses make up an entire class of life on earth.  This one might be haircap moss (Polytrichum juniperum), but I need to study moss much, much more to know for sure.  In the meantime, it reminds me of a friendly, Muppet monster.  Muppet moss.

Moss identification is no joke. Mosses make up an entire class of life on earth. This one might be haircap moss (Polytrichum juniperum), but I need to study moss much, much more to know for sure. In the meantime, it reminds me of a friendly, Muppet monster. Therefore, I’ll call it Muppet moss.

One last shot:  I had to stop the car on the short gravel drive to the main road.  This cluster of wildflowers was I wild bouquet waiting to be captured.  The yellow is goldenrod (Solidago spp.), the orange is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), the dark blue is great lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), the white is boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), and the little periwinkle star at the bottom center is  one lone blossom of chicory (Chicorium intybus).  All are in the aster family except the jewelweed.  It's aster time!

One last shot: I had to stop the car on the short gravel drive to the main road. This cluster of wildflowers was I wild bouquet waiting to be captured. The yellow is goldenrod (Solidago spp.), the orange is jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), the dark blue at the base of the goldenrod is great lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), the white is boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), and the little periwinkle star at the bottom center is one lone blossom of chicory (Chicorium intybus). All are in the aster family except the jewelweed.

Couldn't resist a close up on the chicory.

Couldn’t resist a close up on the chicory.

What’s Blooming Now: A Wildflower Gallery

This post could be 14,000 words long.

Or I could use 14 pictures and give them all captions that will tell you a bit about the flower pictured, then get myself back out into the gorgeous weather to experience more nature.

Yeah, that’s way better.

This particular cluster of elder flowers is only half-bloomed.  Later, the blossoms will give way to tiny, purple-black berries that are a staple food source for wild birds.  If you can beat the birds to them, the berries can be used to make jelly or, even better, wine!

This particular cluster of elder flowers is only half-bloomed. Later, the blossoms will give way to tiny, purple-black berries that are a staple food source for wild birds. If you can beat the birds to them, the berries can be used to make jelly or, even better, wine!

The elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)  bushes are blooming in flat topped clusters of tiny white flowers.  Look for them in moist forests and at road sides.

The elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) bushes are blooming in flat topped clusters of tiny white flowers. Look for them in moist forests and at road sides.

Wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) from afar looks like a dusting of gold on top of tall (5-6 foot), flat elf umbrellas.  Look for it in open fields and on roadsides.

Wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) from afar looks like a dusting of gold on top of tall (5-6 foot), flat elf umbrellas. Look for it in open fields and on roadsides.

The wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) is also in the carrot family and, therefore, resembles the poisonous water hemlock except for the gorgeous citrine flowers.  Though held in the same loose umbel (umbrella-like cluster of flowers), the golden blossoms are a standout.  Unfortunately, water hemlock and wild parsnip have been confused by too many people in the past, leading to human consumption of a hemlock root and deadly results.

The wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) is also in the carrot family and, therefore, resembles the poisonous water hemlock except for the gorgeous citrine flowers. Though held in the same loose umbel (umbrella-like cluster of flowers), the golden blossoms are a standout. Unfortunately, water hemlock (see below) and wild parsnip have been confused by too many people in the past, leading to human consumption of a hemlock root and deadly results.

The field thistles (Cirsium discolor) are just beginning to blossom, but the butterflies and bees have already found them.  This cabbage white butterfly (Find a thistle and you'll find a treasure trove of pollinators to study.  You'll also likely spy an American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) checking the plant for any ripe seeds, which are their main source of food; it isn't until the thistle blooms that the goldfinches will breed - they want to be sure of a steady food source for their nestlings.

The field thistles (Cirsium discolor) are just beginning to blossom, but the butterflies and bees have already found them. This cabbage white butterfly (Find a thistle and you’ll find a treasure trove of pollinators to study. You’ll also likely spy an American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) checking the plant for any ripe seeds, which are their main source of food; it isn’t until the thistle blooms that the goldfinches will breed – they want to be sure of a steady food source for their nestlings.

Just before I aimed my camera at this lovely patch of field thistle, a brilliantly yellow and black male American goldfinch took off from one of the stalks.  The energy of his lemon feathers against the purple of the thistle was electric.

Just before I aimed my camera at this lovely patch of field thistle, a brilliantly yellow and black male American goldfinch took off from one of the stalks. The energy of his lemon feathers against the purple of the thistle was electric.

From afar, water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) looks like delicate, white, fluffy tufts.  It stands about five feet tall and, though it's related to the edible carrot, it can kill with just a nibble.

From afar, water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) looks like delicate, white, fluffy tufts. It stands about five feet tall and, though it’s related to the edible carrot, it can kill with just a nibble.

This is what a water hemlock plant (Cicuta maculata) looks like.  Pretty to the eyes but not to be eaten - all parts of the plant are deadly poisonous, and it only takes a small quantity to kill a grown person.  Cattle, horses, and other livestock have died from grazing on it.

This is what a water hemlock plant (Cicuta maculata) looks like. Pretty to the eyes but not to be eaten – all parts of the plant are deadly poisonous, and it only takes a small quantity to kill a grown person. Cattle, horses, and other livestock have died from grazing on it.

A beloved summertime treat of my childhood, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is actually a non-native.  Introduced from Asia, this invasive climbing vine has made itself quite at home in the USA.  The only way I stop myself from being upset over the fact that it's an invader is by realizing that this means we should drink the nectar from as many flowers as possible to prevent the plant from spreading by seed.  I'm on it!

A beloved summertime treat of my childhood, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is actually a non-native. Introduced from Asia, this invasive climbing vine has made itself quite at home in the USA. The only way I stop myself from being upset over the fact that it’s an invader is by realizing that this means we should drink the nectar from as many flowers as possible to prevent the plant from spreading by seed. I’m on it!

How could they name a plant this pretty

How could they name a plant this pretty “spiderwort”; I’m a gal that loves spiders and I still cringe at the “wort” part. However, etymologists tell us that the word “wort” comes from old English and, in fact, means “good”. The only association with spiders is that (to someone who had good intentions, I’m sure) the angular arrangement of spiderwort’s (Tradescantia virginiana) leaves looked like a sitting spider.

If you’ve driven on a highway lately, you’ve likely noticed that the hillsides seem covered with a lacy pink blanket. This is crown vetch (Coronilla varia). It’s a member of the pea family and a cousin of red clover (Trifolium pratense), which you might mistake it for as you whiz down the road. Crown vetch, though, was imported from Europe and used to stabilize hillsides (hence its appearance next to highways). Though it’s an invasive import, I still like it better than the other vine imported to stabilize hillsides, kudzu. Not only is crown vetch prettier, but it’s not eating the entire southeast the way kudzu is!

One more pretty poison is in blossom right now, the bittersweet nightshade vine (Solanum dulcamara).  It is a member of the nightshade family  introduced from Europe.  Europeans first colonizing the Americas were treated to two wonderful, edible members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and potatoes, which they didn't trust at first because their experience with nightshade included the many poisonous plants of the family.

One more pretty poison is in blossom right now, the bittersweet nightshade vine (Solanum dulcamara). It is a member of the nightshade family
introduced from Europe. Europeans first colonizing the Americas were treated to two wonderful, edible members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and potatoes, which they didn’t trust at first because their experience with nightshade included the many poisonous plants of the family.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is, perhaps, my favorite wildflower.  I just can't get over its color - more blue than purple, more bright than pastel, delicate and powerful all at the same time.  And, if that weren't enough, the chicory root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (or blended with regular coffee - very popular in the deep south).  If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower - I know you'll love it, too!

Saved the best for last!  Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is, perhaps, my favorite wildflower. I just can’t get over its color – more blue than purple, more bright than pastel, delicate and powerful all at the same time. And, if that weren’t enough, the chicory root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (or blended with regular coffee – very popular in the deep south).

If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower - I know you'll love it, too!

If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower – I know you’ll love it, too!

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!

Mother’s Day at Claytor Lake: Part One

Water makes us happy.

It’s something about the sweet smell of freshwater or the negative ions in the air or the saltwater-filled cells in our body having an ancient longing for their ocean home.  Something.

I don’t really care what, actually, I’m just so grateful that in my beloved mountain home, I have family with a cabin on Claytor Lake who let us come out to visit.  It’s because of this tremendous stroke of luck that I got to spend Mother’s Day with my husband and daughter and in-laws looking out over deep blue waters and nearly summer-green mountains.

But the awesomeness doesn’t start at the lake.  It starts on the drive down where, from my Mother’s Day Throne (AKA the passenger seat) I was able to look out at my kingdom and observe long and well as my dear husband kept the car on the road.

The drive from Blacksburg to Claytor Lake is a lovely one when you’ve got the time to look around.  Just on the big roads I saw:

Black locust trees in bloom along Route 460 looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace. Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)trees in bloom along Route 460
looked like trees covered and dripping with heavy lace.
Photo courtesy of By Famartin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.   Photo courtesy of "Podophyllum peltatum Shenks Ferry 1" by Nicholas A. Tonelli from Pennsylvania, USA - Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve (10). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg#/media/File:Podophyllum_peltatum_Shenks_Ferry_1.jpg

Colonies of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) dotted across fields amongst grazing cattle.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas A. Tonelli via Wikimedia Commons.

Mayapples are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers. Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons -

Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) are named not for their fruit, but for their blossoms, which are blooming right now and reminded the early namers of apple tree flowers.
Photo courtesy of Cody Hough via Wikimedia Commons –

After steering off the highway at exit 109, the drive gets even better; winding through curving mountain roads, past cabins and farms, climbing hills and turning blind corners, observing “country” driving manners with a nod or smile or fingers lifted off the steering wheel in friendly acknowledgement of strangers who might as well be friends.

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun.  In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper. Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

This photo of phlox (Phlox paniculata) is taken in bright sun. In the shade of the forest edge, the blossom color is a bit darker and much deeper.
Photo courtesy of Atilin via Wikimedia Commons

Wild phlox (Phlox paniculata) and its garden siblings were blooming all along the roadside gardens and forest edges.  The purple of phlox is neither dark nor light, but a deep medium purple.  Ugh.  “Deep medium purple” sounds oxymoronic and way too pedestrian for this gorgeous color.  Let’s call it “phlox purple” and set a trend – it’s nothing like lilac or lavender or royal purple or orchid, and it deserves its own shade name.  (Why doesn’t purple have more shade names?  Blue has hundreds.)

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) - via Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) is shown here feeding on a native coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).
Photo courtesy of Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) – via Wikimedia Commons

Flitting through that phlox was a season first for me (perhaps that’s why spring is my favorite season – so many “firsts” for the year, each one reassuring and joyful):  an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus)!  They’re common enough to be both Virginia’s State Butterfly and its State Insect, but they knock me out every time.  These bright yellow, black-striped and blue edged beauties are nearly 4.5 inches across; giant, yellow flower petals just floating and fluttering through the sky.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.   Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

Check out those long outer tail feathers on this barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight.
Photo courtesy of Alpsdake via Wikimedia Commons.

The “swallowtail” part of this butterfly’s name means that it is grouped with other butterflies (they make up the swallowtail family) that have two “tails” on their hind wings that reminded early naturalists of the points at either end of a swallow’s tail.  (Swallowing these butterflies tail’s is not recommended.)  We’ll have to come back to swallows themselves the next time I come back from Claytor; several members of the swallow family are native here and spend their summers feasting on the various insects that hatch by the millions from the surface of the lake.

I don’t actually associate spring with seeing butterflies, though they seem to be a centerpiece of every mass produced spring-themed card and product.  The truth about butterflies is that their caterpillars and/or eggs have survived a long winter and need their food sources to leaf out before they can fill their hungry selves up with enough energy to form a chrysalis and become adult butterflies.  The real butterfly bonanza comes from mid-summer through fall, when two or three generations have matured and laid eggs and little wings are fluttering everywhere.

The first butterflies to arrive in spring are those whose caterpillars feast on trees that leaf out early.  The host plants for Eastern Tiger Swallowtails’ eggs and caterpillars include

  • Wild black cherry (Prunus serotina),
  • Common Lilac (Syinga vulgaris),
  • Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana),
  • Tulip poplar/tulip tree (Liriodedron tulipifera), and
  • Willow (Salix spp.),

all of which have bloomed or are blooming (the lilacs smell unbelievably good right now) and are nicely leafy caterpillar buffets.

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia.  A widespread species, this butterfly is called a "Camberwell beauty" in England.  However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.   Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

The mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) butterflies were likely named by Scandinavian settlers in America, according to Wikipedia. A widespread species, this butterfly is called a “Camberwell beauty” in England. However, its limited northward range would have meant that Scandinavians would have been less familiar with it.
Photo courtesy of D. Gordon E. Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

I was gifted with another butterfly sighting once we’d arrived and were seated happily on the dock – a Mourning Cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa) was flying over the water toward us, probably heading for the giant weeping willow on the property to lay its eggs.  Mourning Cloak caterpillars also enjoy a nice meal of willow or poplar (or elm or hackberry).

And then I was lost in conversation and good food and laughter, with only the occasional whip of the head to try to identify a bird streaking by.

As afternoon softened into the golden light of evening, conversation turned again to nature (it seems to do that around me quite a bit) and my in-laws and I got to listening to and talking about bird calls.

But that’s going to have to wait for Part Two of this post, because there’s much more to tell and I’m a nearly an hour past lunch.  I’m so hungry I could practically eat willow leaves.  Or tulip poplar.