Opportunity Taken: The Bloodroot Trail

No question about it, it had to be today.

It’s been windy and in the teens for two weeks, we’re expecting snow tonight and tomorrow, and then even more frigid temperatures to follow.

This afternoon, however, was a balmy 33 degrees with gentle breezes that kept the “feels like” temp in the upper 20s.  For a gal still learning to be “weatherproof” today was the day to get out for a hike.

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The trailhead sign for the Bloodroot Trail, which winds around the ridge inside and above the Stream Loop I hiked a few weeks ago.

Or, rather, a walk in the woods.  Hiking, to me, carries a connotation of physical exercise.  This makes me feel obligated to move quickly along the trails, keeping up my pace and heart rate.  Walking quickly on the trails is also a great way to miss everything going on in the woods that I came out to see in the first place.  So, my “resolution” for this year is to quit hiking and just walk (slowly, pausing often) in the woods.

(Exercise will have to be accomplished at home on my NordicTrac elliptical machine.  I call it “Hellga” for obvious reasons.)

So today, despite a hip-deep mound of unfolded laundry and before the urgent grocery run, I hit the Bloodroot Trail in the American Chestnut Land Trust’s (ACLT) Parker’s Creek Preserve.

It was a good choice.  Nature never disappoints.

I started the trail walking way too fast.  Three weeks of holiday preparation and family visits, the last two of which I was basically stuck indoors, had me in my head.  And my head up my backside.  (I could tell because my thoughts were all crappy.)

All I heard was the crunch of leaves and the rustling of my many layers against the extra blubber I’d built up over the holidays (warm, but bad for my self-esteem) as I barged down the trail.

Luckily, I ran into another woods-walker, an ACLT volunteer who was out to bow hunt the evening hours in order to check the local white-tailed deer population.  He didn’t know me.  He didn’t care about my holidays.  He was just glad to be in the woods, and glad for me that I was there, too.  We chatted for a minute about the beautiful lacy leaves still decorating the beech trees, about how Parker’s Creek had frozen solid and so the raft crossing is closed, about how some unwise soul would probably try to cross it on foot anyway and be sorry for it.

I thanked him for his good trailwork – the ACLT trails impress me more on every visit – and wished him luck in his hunting, eager to move on now that our chat had stopped my inner monologue and successfully removed my head from my rump.  (I kept that last part to myself.)

That’s maybe the best part of the woods; once you wake up and tune in, the sights and sounds overtake the tempest-in-a-teapot of human thought and push it aside.  The questions the woods ask are so much more interesting that anything I already know.

Still, as long as I was moving, the forest remained silent.  Strange.  Or not.  If I were a critter in the winter woods and a nosy human was clomping through, I’d save my warm breath and enjoy my hiding space until the clumsy clomper had passed.

It is counter-intuitive to pause in the wilderness when the weather is cold.  There’s some mammalian drive that wants your feet to keep moving until you reach warm cabin or safe car.  Today I fought that urge, and nature rewarded me.

Just as I rounded a corner, I saw on the bridge over the valley stream a cat-sized bit of furry, rusty-red motion.  As the creature in question trotted away I caught sight of four black paws and snow-white tipped tail.  A red fox (Vulpes vulpes)!  My first trail-sighting!

I’ve seen many furry friends from the driver’s seat of car as they dashed away from the road (and a few that didn’t make it across), plenty of orange-red eyes glowing in the night at the edge of the field, but I’d never seen one on a trail until today.  Though the normally nocturnal fox was likely out hunting early to avoid the coldest hours of night, its appearance was full-on magical to me.  Worth the whole trip.  But the walk wasn’t even half over yet, and the pictures below reveal some of the questions and answers the woods gave me.

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I paused to admire and photograph the two trees at center before I came upon the fox.  It was probably the fact that I had quit making so much noise that encouraged the fox to stay long enough for me to catch a glimpse when I rounded the corner.

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I really am developing a thing for beech trees.  Look at this giant!  Too wide to wrap my arms around, but still showing off that “muscles under skin” appearance.  To me, this looks like the inside of a bent elbow.  I wonder what caused the bend.

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This is the standing snag of a dead giant.  Though I didn’t examine the bark at the base closely enough to know what kind of tree this was, I love how easy it is to see the tree’s natural twisting-as-it-grows pattern.  Why do trees twist as they grow?

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The fox’s view.  A frozen streamlet taken with a hand still slightly shaky from the excitement of seeing a fox.  If the streams are frozen, where will the fox find water to drink?

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

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

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Is this American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) offering its bright red fruit to the birds, or is it its invasive cousin Oriental Bittersweet (C. orbiculatus) getting a toehold in these woods?  Is there enough water in these shriveled berries to help keep the animals hydrated while the stream is frozen?

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Why do the birds wait all winter to eat the holly berries?  Do they taste so bad that they’re the kale of bird cuisine (only eaten as a last resort) or do repeated freezes somehow make them more palatable or nutritious come March?

Tomorrow I’ll snuggle in under the blanket of snow and research more answers. . .and more questions to ask on my next walk.

 

 

 

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A Gift of a Day

Yesterday was not going to be ignored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A place for Pooh sticks.  

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sprinting Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

cold hands

tucking in tiny roots and

courageous leaves

breaking ice,

wild yellow explodes

forsythia

warm earth

soft pink petals

hope

trilling, proud

and persistent, he calls

to his future

Signs of Spring

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

Mostly, I do.

There are two things I struggle with:

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

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

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

  • Robins!  A robin in a tree is a winter sighting, my mom says, but a robin on the lawn is a spring sighting.  I saw one in a tree yesterday, but one on my lawn several days ago.  Go figure.  I’m counting it as one in the early spring column.
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An American robin (Turdus migratorius) that I photographed last year in Heritage Park.

  • Grackles!  The 40-foot yellow birch tree across the street was filled with a flock of at least 50 common grackles three days ago.  They’re one of the first songbirds to return in the springtime.  This flock may still be on its way further north, but I’m counting it!
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A common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) photographed by Jacopo Werther and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

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

Heart In Two Places

Well, it’s really happening.

I’m moving.

My husband met with his future colleagues last Monday at Patuxent River Naval Air Station (“PAX” to the larger world, “NavAir” or “the base” to the locals) in southern Maryland and it was a mutual admiration fest.

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A view of the Patuxent River through the car window from the Thomas Johnson bridge on a cold and rainy February afternoon.  Look how big!

On Tuesday and Wednesday, we went house hunting and found not one, but two homes we love, both with woods in the back yard.

Our daughter has picked out her room in either home; one of them has a dormer window and we’ve promised to build her a little window seat so she can have her own special reading nook there.

The most amazing part?  I’m actually excited.

I have been dreading this move for four years.  NavAir paid for my husband’s advanced degree, allowing us to move back to Blacksburg for four years – a dream come true for me.  I’m a Hokie, my husband’s a Hokie and a townie, my sister and brother-in-law are Hokies, as are my brother and sister-in-law.  We know why the trees turn orange and maroon in the fall, because Virginia Tech is heaven on earth and God’s a big fan, too.

These mountains, this old New River, this small, smart, bustling town – here is the home of my heart.

I knew when we moved here that our allotted four years would fly too fast, but I never imagined that these next four (or hopefully, 10) years might be seriously lovely, too.  And it turns out they really might.

On our short, rainy, cold visit to southern Maryland, the natural world reached out and pulled me right in.

There are woods – real woods! – complete with sturdy old white oaks, maples in early bud, and countless sweet gum trees and loblolly pines.

There are hills!  I had expected only flat marshland, which would be fine, but I love hills – I think it’s the surprise of not knowing what comes next.

There are jetties and breaks made of chair-sized boulders.  There are sandy beaches strewn with clam shells and claret colored seaweed.

There are three rivers all coming to meet the Chesapeake Bay:  the Patuxent, the St. Mary’s, and the Potomac, all big and wide and deep and powerful.

And the place is just as truly alive as my mountains are.  I can feel it pulsing just below the limits of my hearing, keeping time with my heart.

On our short visit, I saw and heard:

  • A juvenile bald eagle buzz less than 20 feet over the roof of the car at Point Lookout State Park.
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A bald eagle (Haliaeeatus leucocepphalus) must wait four years for its brilliant white head feathers, but identifying a juvenile isn’t so hard; the size of the bird is one thing and the size of that schnoz is another! Photo taken by KetaDesign and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

  • A flock of at least 100 bufflehead ducks, who, by the way, look exactly like duckie stuffed animals dressed in white-on-black tuxedos by a five-year-old putting on an imaginary gala.

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    A bufflehead duck (Bucephola albeola) captured by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Now imagine a hundred of them floating on little bay waves, chattering. Quite the fancy dress party!

  • A loon and a grebe and innumerable ring-billed gulls.
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Ring billed gulls (Laurus delawarensis) are the Goldilocks of gulls; not too big and not too small. Easy to spot by their black wingtips and the black “ring” around their bright yellow beak. Photo taken by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

  • A jellyfish with a peachy-pink center, likely a moon jelly, but I haven’t positively identified it yet, slowly bouncing through crystal clear waters.

 

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Redhead (Aythya americana) duck photographed by www.naturespicsonline.com and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

The challenge for the next few months will be making enough room in my head and heart to be fully present in mountain spring while imaging a bright, bayside summer.

Tufted Titmouse (Common 10 Songbirds)

Tufted titmouse.

Go ahead, say it out loud.

Tufted titmouse!

Now laugh out loud just like you’re laughing on the inside.

For most of the world, and particularly for juvenile men (which includes pretty much all of them) you might as well call this poor bird “Fluffy boob rat!”

Actually, the word “tit” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for anything small.  Hence, the titmouse is not alone; there are also coal tits, willow tits, varied tits, sultan tits, crested tits, blue tits, and, of course, great tits.

But there’s much more to these little songbirds than a slightly naughty giggle.

 

A tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor) in winter. Photo provided by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren via Wikimedia Commons.

 The tufted titmouse (Parus bicolor) is a regular at backyard feeders in the winter.  They’re cousins to the chickadee (both in the family Paridae) and will often flock with them.

The titmouse is a bit larger than the chickadee, though, at six inches from beak tip to tail tip, cool gray above with a rusty underwing and ecru belly.  Their most outstanding feature is the triangular crest of feathers atop their heads, their “tuft”.

Titmouse is also a shade more standoffish than the chickadee, and may make fewer trips to the feeder when humans are present or visible through a window.

That bit of shyness is easily overcom, sitting still and keeping quiet.  I love to sit and watch my feeders over my morning cup of coffee, and as long as I sit two or three feet back from the window and keep my mug in my hands I seem to meet the titmice’s trust standards.

This is exactly where you’ll find me for most of this weekend, in fact, participating in he annual Great Backyard Bird Count.

In just a few weeks now – the vernal equinox is only five weeks and two days away, joy! – the titmice males will begin singing their spring mating song to try to win the hearts of the females, calling eight alternating high and low notes that sound like ” Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter”.  

 

A tufted titmouse in summer, photographed by Ken Thomas and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

 
Have a great Great Backyard Bird Count weekend.  I hope you see plenty of tits in your own backyard.  (Stop laughing, gutter mind!). 😜

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.
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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.

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

It’s January now, and I feel the opposing needs of my body’s evolutionary and cultural pulls:

  1.   Evolution pulls me to pack on insulating fat and sleep as much as possible to survive this cold, dark season, but
  2. Culture pulls me to burn off those holiday calories so that I can live a healthier and longer life.

Culture winds because it keeps me from having to buy (new) larger pants.

So, I was out on Sunday, dutifully braving the windy mid 30s temperatures (I know – in a month or so I’ll dream of temperatures that high), walking my dog.  Usually I don’t expect to see wildlife when I walk the dog because, well, he’s a giant furry predator.

But this Sunday, nature rewarded me for getting out to walk:

I made my first ever positive identification of an American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)!

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A male American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) standing on prey it has pinned to the ground. Image provided by Bill Bouton via Wikimedia Commons. (The original post on Wikimedia Commons lists this as a female kestrel, but after my research, I believe the photographer got it wrong.)

The dog and I were walking past a fallow corn field when a crow-sized bird swept overhead.  But it didn’t flap like a crow or hold its wings like a crow – or any of the other birds I’m used to seeing, for that matter – so I was drawn to watch it for a little while.

It took up an airborne stance much like a red-tailed hawk “kiting” (see my Hanging Rock post for more info on that); it faced into the wind and held its wings half contracted, using the wind to hold its body relatively still 50ish feet above the ground.  From this position, I know, it was surveying the entire field with its superior vision, looking for a furry little morsel to eat.

I watched for a minute more, trying desperately to pick out field marks from 100 yards away against a bright blue sky. (Oh, how I wished for the awesome new binoculars I got for Christmas.  I’m going to have to start wearing them everywhere – do you think I can get away with it if I call them a “statement necklace”?)  It was difficult, but I was able to make out a rusty red head, a many-banded flared tail, and sharp, angled wings.

Reluctantly, largely motivated by an antsy pooch and a seriously cold wind, I moved on.  By the time we passed back by the field, the kestrel was gone, but those few field marks and some research in my guidebooks helped me not only positively ID the kestrel, but also to fill in the rest of the bird’s story.

Kestrels may be the smallest of our falcons, but they’re fierce and hungry – a big predator in a small package.  They hunt from perches or in mid-air (what I witnessed), searching open fields for small rodents and insects to eat.  They drop down on their prey and pin it to the ground with their talons, eating it right there or carrying it back to a perch to consume.

This choice in hunting method and diet differentiates kestrels from the small hawks (accipiters, e.g. Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk) and the other falcons (e.g. Merlin, Peregrine Falcon) because those birds prefer an airborne, avian diet – snatching songbirds right out of the air.  You may see one or all of these species keeping a wary eye on the bird feeder in your yard.  Don’t fret; this is just the energy of your bird feed spreading up the food chain, keeping all of the birds alive in the cold.

Not that a kestrel won’t keep an eye on your feeder if it’s hungry; kestrels are often called “sparrow hawks” due to their taste for house sparrows.  I don’t see them at my feeder because they’d prefer not to land in my back yard, where the ground level is ruled by the aforementioned giant, furry predator.

I was also able to ID the kestrel I saw as a female, for three reasons:

  1.  It had a rufous head (males’ heads are slate gray);
  2. it had a many banded tail (males’ tails are mostly rufous with black edges); and
  3. it occupied an open field hunting territory.

Apparently, female kestrels move south into their winter range earlier than males, and so they get the best territories.  The males are relegated to scrubbier and more forested territories, where they have to compete with the the small hawks and falcons for part of their diet.

Kestrels have a lot of territory to choose from, though, as they make themselves at home in both city and country.  Their smaller size allows them to hunt fewer square miles and still stay well fed.  (Think of them as the daytime counterpart of the Eastern Screech Owl.)

With a little luck, a little willpower, and a lot of warm layers, I’ll walk this trail more often as the winter weeks go by and see this fierce falcon female again soon.

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Red-tailed Hawk (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

The most teeth of any mammal in North America.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Eastern Screech Owl

Skunk

Hawking the Road (Red-tailed Hawk, Common 10 Birds of Prey)

The only reason I tolerate long drives is because I can look at beautiful vistas and try to spot wildlife.

My particular favorite is looking for hawks in the barren trees at the side of the highway during holiday driving.

Whether I’m driving or riding shotgun, spotting hawks in the roadside trees is fairly easy; I just scan for lumpy branches.  Most of the time the lumps turn out to be squirrel nests or clumps of leaves caught in a crag, but maybe 1 out of 10 lumps is a hawk!

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A red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree. Check out that tail and those talons! Photo provided by MONGO via Wikimedia Commons.

The easiest, largest lump to find is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  They perch, still as statues, in the trees above the median, scanning the grassy area for a juicy little rodent that they can swoop down on and snatch up with their talons.

Red-tailed hawks, sitting nearly two feet tall and with a wing span over four feet, are the largest hawks in this area, beating out the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) by a few inches and the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus) by over a foot.

Red-tails, like most hawks, are not the large birds you see soaring in the sky most often; those are usually vultures.  Look for how the bird holds its wings – if they’re in a slight uptilt, forming a wide V, think vulture.  A lighter bird with wings held flat means you may be seeing a hawk.

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Red-tailed hawk in flight. They look like a brown lump when perched, but when they’re flying overhead you’ll not only a brown head on a mostly light colored body, except for that rufous tail, of course! Photo provided by Bear golden retriever via Wikimedia Commons.

Red-tails will take advantage of a thermal (rising column of warm air) to carry them up to great heights where they can survey a whole field for prey.  They’ll also use a mountain updraft to hunt via “kiting,” which I described in my Hanging Rock post.  Also, it must be noted that the springtime soaring and free-fall coitus of a mated pair is fairly spectacular.

In everyday life, though, hawks are watchers and swoopers as they go about the business of catching the little mammals that make up the large part of their diet, including voles, mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels.

Whether flying or perching, the red tail is this hawk’s most reliable identifying feature.  A rusty red that many birders describe as “rufous” colors their entire tail, though it can also look peach or orange if sunlight is pouring through it.

Though you’ll pass them fast at highway speeds, you’ll be surprised how much detail you can see in a perched hawk.  I even spot the little hawks (Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned) from the highway sometimes.

You’ll have to take the first few miles to let your eyes adjust to differentiating lumps while also not driving off the road, but after that a long drive can be hawk heaven!  Even the kiddos might pry their eyes from their tablets to look for a hawk or two; have the right side of the car compete against the left side for who can find the most hawks.  My best count yet was headed west on Route 66 in northern Virginia after Christmas a few years ago – I saw a hawk every mile for at least 17 miles!

This has been another #10minwri on the Common 10.  To learn more about Common 10 animals, check out:

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)