Foggy Morning on the Laurel Loop Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick Nuthatch Clip

Quick Red-bellied Woodpecker Clip

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

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Adventures in Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

acorn

tan

beige

caramel

walnut

maple syrup

copper

umber

russet

sepia

taupe

wheat

rust

auburn

otter

cardboard

mink

kraft paper

fawn

mahogany

cinnamon

football

clove

oatmeal

brown sugar

molasses

khaki

cafe au lait

terra cotta

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

Mushroom Mysteries & Fungus Fails

My Saturday hike at Flag Ponds was fungally fruitful.   

(Get the awesome pun??  Because mushrooms and other visible fungi are the fruiting parts of the main body, or mycelium, of the fungus.  My family says my mom-jokes are even worse when I explain them, whereas I think they’ve got real pun-tential.)

My mushroom identification skills, however, still leave much to be desired.  There are at least 10,000 different species of mushrooms/fungi in North America.  I can reliably identify about five.  And that’s just not going to cut it on an average hike.  

The stakes are even higher for mushroom foragers who intend to eat what they find.  A misidentified mushroom in your stomach could mean a trip to the emergency room.

When trying to identify a mushroom, amateur mycologists must note myriad details, beginning with:

  • The shape, texture, moisture level, and color of the cap (pileus),
  • The shape and color of the stalk and whether or not it has a “veil”,
  • Whether the underside of the cap (where the spores come from) is smooth or has gills, tubes, or teeth, and
  • What kind of spore print the cap makes.

I took no caps home to make spore prints.  Knowing that the visible mushroom is only the fruiting body of the larger mycelium, I didn’t mind plucking a few to get a better look at, and photo of, their underside – I figure this is no worse than picking a flower or leaf – but I draw the line at taking home pieces of nature from a nature park.  I couldn’t do it.

So, here are the mushrooms I found and the rudimentary identifications that I was able to make with the help of my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms and the wonderful MycoKey Fungus Identifier website.  Click on the photos to read the full captions.

I cannot identify either for sure.  Seriously, I got nuthin’.

 

Maybe in the parchment fungus family?  I so badly need a fungus friend to guide me.

 

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Finally, one I know!  This bright yellow, delicate, slimy beauty is witches’ butter.  It is edible, but used in soups rather than to butter bread.

 

Fail.

 

Just enough success to keep me going!

 

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Check out this convoluted beauty!  It sure looks like a Bladder Cup. . . only it’s not yellow.  And it’s not growing on manure.

The mushroom gods are, for sure, laughing at me now.

 

Getting lucky with commoners.

 

 

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So, I may not be able to identify them to genus and species, but I’ve observed enough to know that there are at least four different fungi in this square foot of rotting log:  the delicate, dark brown mushroom sticking up just above center, the Clinker polypore coating the wood in a dark brown/black char, the false-turkey-tail-or-possibly-other-parchment-fungus in the upper right quadrant, and the three cute cup fungi lined up on the center right.

If you, too, are prone to fungus fails, take heart in the following quote:

“Think like a queen.  A queen is not afraid to fail.  Failure is another steppingstone to greatness.” – Oprah Winfrey

I think I’ll go adjust my crown and forage for a few more fungus websites.

Pretty in Pink

So, as it turns out, even slime can be pretty.

On two recent hikes, first at the Deerfield Trail and then at the Gateway Trail, my eye was drawn to something startlingly pink among the many shades of brown in the autumn forest floor.

Pink?!

And not just one, but two different organisms with two different pinks.

I’ve done some research online and in my handy-dandy Audubon field guide to mushrooms, and I think these are what I found.

Wolf’s Milk Slime (Lycogala epidendrum)

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I made no adjustments to the lighting or color of this photograph. Note that the “cushions” of this slime mold can be light peachy pink (center), more intense coral pink (leftmost), or beige with a pink undertone (upper right).

These pink “cushions” are the sporangia stage of a plasmodial slime mold.  Both the  Mushroom Expert website and Audubon field guide report that they are filled with a pink paste.  (I didn’t poke them or cut them open in the field and now I wish that I had!)  The species is also called “toothpaste slime” because of this filling’s resemblance to pink toothpaste.

The slime mold produces the sporangia (cushions) when the environmental conditions change (become sunnier, drier) and it’s no longer a nice, wet place for a fungus to munch.  The sporangia distribute the “baby” slime mold cells, called spores.

Wolf’s Milk cushions are fairly common, usually found on large fallen logs, exactly as I found this specimen, usually May through November (ditto).

Their other, “plasmodial” stage, is really cool!  Plasmodial slimes are flowing, protoplasmic organisms that move and eat whatever is in their path.  They are the original inspiration for creepy movie creatures like “The Blob.”

Super cool video of a yellow plasmodial slime mold moving.

Science meets art meets slime mold video.

 

Hemitrichia calyculata ?

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Again, I have made no alteration to the color or lighting in this photograph.  These sporangia are just exactly that hot pink, and each little ball is, at most, the size of a pin head.

Patience.  A naturalist needs patience.  And plenty of time to spend on patience.

I photographed these slime mold sporangia (not that I knew what they were at the time) as I began the hike up the Gateway Trail a few weeks ago.

I snapped the picture and kept moving because 1) It was already mid-afternoon and I had no idea how long it would take me to climb the mountain and 2) the hike was doing double duty as exercise for the body and nature time for the soul, so I had to keep my heart rate up.

If only I could have sat and watched these little pinkies evolve, I might be able to better identify exactly which species of slime mold they are.  The slime molds often complete an entire life cycle (protoplasmic plasmodial stage to sporangia stage to spore distribution and seeming disappearance) in just one or two days.  I could, quite literally, have watched it change phases over just a few hours.

Alas, I did not, and my research leads me to the possibility that they are Hemitrichia calyculata (though other photographers more often describe those sporangia as orange), but not the certainty of it.  All I can say is that they are most likely of the Trichiidae family and the Hemitrichia genus within that family.

I sense, however, that these two little pink puzzles are the beginning of a long and interesting relationship between myself and mycology.  Flowers don’t bloom in the winter, but several species of fungus will grow mushrooms as long as the temperature is above freezing.

Winter can get pretty gray and bleak around here, so the prospect of pretty pink (or purple, or blue, or orange, or yellow, or red. . .) in the next few months, even if it’s “slime”, will keep me out and adventuring, looking in the leaf litter for little miracles.

Wonderful Web Resources for Fungi, Mushrooms, and Molds:

Special Note:  I am no mycologist, but even I know that you never, ever eat a wild mushroom without having a certified expert on hand to identify the species and ensure that the fungus isn’t deadly poisonous, because many of them are!

Hanging Out at Hanging Rock

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

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

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

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

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

The Drive

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

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

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

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

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

The Mountain

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

No, seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

And it is so, so, so worth it!

The View

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

All the Way Up – The Gateway Trail in Fall

I did it!

I hiked nearly 700 vertical feet over 1.4 miles to where the Gateway Trail ends at the crest of Brush Mountain.  (Plus a fairly flat .5 miles each way from the Heritage Park lower parking lot to the trail head, not that I’m counting.)

It was a lot of up.  It took me 51 minutes to get to the top.  I might have made it a few minutes faster but, as always, there were too many cool things to stop and see.

The very coolest was a 2-3″ burnt orange and brown butterfly that, despite the few soft freezes we’ve already had, was fluttering around the top third of the mountain.  It flew too fast for me to identify on the way up, but blessed me on the way down by landing on the side of a large pine tree where it was silhouetted against the sun.  No color was visible, but I didn’t need it – the curled and fluted edges of its wings were highlighted by the setting sun.  There are only two butterflies in this area with such elaborately shaped wings:  the Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis) and the Eastern Comma (Polygonia comma).  Both are found in open woods (which the forests on Brush Mountain really are, now that the undergrowth has died down and most of the leaves have fallen), both have a season that lasts through November, and both are shades of orange and brown.  Honestly, it could have been either one; and though I’d like to have a definite, positive ID, either way I’m overjoyed to have seen one (only my second since living here in the NRV).

That was the only moving wildlife I saw on the whole hike, though I’m not shocked that my big, clomping feet and my heavy breathing scared all of the other critters away.

I did hear a few things up on the mountain, though, the alarm calls of a songbird, letting all of its friends know that there was a dangerous, heavy-footed human about (as if they hadn’t heard all of that heavy breathing anyway); the chirping of crickets from up in the trees (snowy tree crickets?) and, best of all, the low, gravelly calls of ravens.

I have a thing for ravens.  I first noticed them and became aware that they lived in this area my first year out of college.  My husband and I rented a little country house off of Ironto Road.  My parents visited us there a few times and my mom and I used to watch the sunrise.  (This was well before I had my kiddo – when sunrise was still a non-offensive hour to awaken.)  She and I spotted “the biggest crows ever” feeding in the fields behind the house one sunrise.  I’ve been enchanted ever since.

Crows are noticeably huge-er than crows.  They’re incredibly intelligent. They act as excellent wild area janitors by cleaning up all of that troublesome dead meat leftover when an animal dies.  Not to mention that my favorite scary storyteller, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote a mind-melting poem about a raven.  I highly recommend both the poem and the bird.

I made it back to the car just as golden hour turned to dusk.  I left my stress and, truthfully, most of the thoughts in my brain, up on the mountain.  It’s big, it can handle the extra weight.

I came away lighter, carrying only a feeling of accomplishment and the following pictures on my phone.

Cows grazing leisurely greet me as I turn left from Meadowbrook Road to continue on to the trail head.

Cows grazing leisurely greet me as I turn left from Meadowbrook Road to continue on to the trail head.

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I love this little barn. It’s barn-colored, a rusty, brick red that seems welcoming and warm against the clear, chill blue of the autumn sky.

Though most of the deciduous trees are already bare, a few crimson leaved specimens highlight the mountain trails. Here is a young maple, showing off it's cranberry foliage. The red pigments in leaves (unlike the orange and yellow pigments) are manufactured only in the autumn as light decreases and temperatures turn cooler.

Though most of the deciduous trees are already bare, a few crimson leaved specimens highlight the mountain trails. Here is a young maple, showing off it’s cranberry foliage. The anthocyanins are the red pigments in leaves (unlike the orange and yellow pigments) that are are manufactured only in the autumn as light decreases and temperatures turn cooler.

I also love polkadots.  This maple leaf seems to have made its own cherry dots to decorate the background of orangey-yellow made by carotene and xanthophyll pigments that are there all year, hiding under the green of chlorophyll.

I also love polka dots. This maple leaf seems to have made its own cherry dots to decorate the background of orangey-yellow made by carotene and xanthophyll pigments that are there all year, hiding under the green of chlorophyll.

I much prefer the view from the top of Brush Mountain to any I've seen from a tall building.

I much prefer the view from the top of Brush Mountain to any I’ve seen from a tall building.

As I made my way from the trailhead back to the gravel parking lot, one more maple leaf found a way to stun me.  The reds, oranges, and yellows leap out from the dull gray gravel.  This was a better gift than receiving a medal for the hike.  Though, if anyone's offering, I wouldn't say no to a medal!

As I made my way from the trail head back to the gravel parking lot, one more maple leaf found a way to stun me. The reds, oranges, and yellows leap out from the dull gray gravel. This was a better gift than receiving a medal for the hike. Though, if anyone’s offering, I wouldn’t say no to a medal!

Hunting Salamanders at Glen Alton with my Peeps

I am not cool enough to use the word “peeps”.

I know this because I worry about the grammar and spelling of this slang word for “people”.  Still, I’m going to use it anyway, brazenly, because when I hang with my peeps they make me feel cool enough.

My peeps are not my family.  I love hanging with my family, but it’s a whole different wonderful feeling.  My peeps are my fellow Virgnia Master Naturalists.  (New River Valley Chapter, of course.)  These are the nicest, most knowledgeable-but-not-haughty-about-it, most enthusiastic nature nerds you’d ever want to meet.  My peeps.

I took the certification course in 2012-2013, and have kept up my certification with the required 40 hours of volunteer service (I do mine at the local nature center) and eight hours of continuing education every year.

As a part of that continuing education, I helped take the new trainees on their amphibians field trip to Glen Alton Farm.  There was a new teacher who taught us about and helped us search for salamanders in the woods just outside of the farm.

Another view from the main house.  The pond that you see is where we caught the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

Another view from the main house. The pond that you see is where we caught the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens).

I had searched these same woods for salamanders when I trained, but that field trip was in the spring, and this one was in late October.  My main educational take-away was this:  in the spring you can find a wide variety of salamanders hiding under logs on the forest floor (slimeys and duskies and red-backeds and more); after it’s gotten cold in the autumn, the only species hardy enough to still be found are the red-backeds.  All of the others have wisely burrowed into nooks and crannies in the soil to sleep off the winter.  This is a good move for a tasty morsel such as a salamander; the red-backeds we found on that 34 degree morning were ridiculously easy to catch.  If you could find one under whatever log you’d rolled over to check, the salamander was so cold (they’re ectotherms, so their body is the temperature of the surrounding environment) that it barely moved and you could just reach down and gingerly pick it up.  In spring’s warmer weather, they’re quick as lightning, diving under leaf litter and racing in a new direction in a flash.

Two red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) that we captured, sitting quite still in a plastic storage container, with my hand beneath to provide a solid background.  Under a log, these little guys look at first like a wriggling red  worm.

Two red-backed salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) that we captured, sitting quite still in a plastic storage container, with my hand beneath to provide a solid background. Under a log, these little guys look at first like a wriggling red worm.

So that explains another difference in the two salamander hunts – in spring we found a variety of species, but were only able to catch about a half-dozen of the quick little suckers.  In fall, we only found red-backeds, but were able to catch and observe about 25 of them.

This is the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) that our teacher was able to pluck out of the farm's pond.  Newts don't sleep for the winter because ponds only freezes on top; they're still swimming around (albeit slowly) and probably not thinking about how grateful they should be that ice floats.

This is the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) that our teacher was able to pluck out of the farm’s pond. Newts don’t sleep for the winter because ponds only freezes on top; they’re still swimming around (albeit slowly) and probably not thinking about how grateful they should be that ice floats.

If you haven’t caught a salamander yet, I highly recommend you go on a hunt next spring or summer.  Salamanders are so cool (both literally and figuratively) – check out these salamander facts:

  • Salamanders are amphibians, not reptiles.  Most are born from eggs in laid in fresh water and have gills when they’re young.  They lose the gills as they mature and go ashore to live the rest of their lives on land.  (Exceptions:  the Eastern Newt, which lives on land as a Red Eft for a short period, then returns to the water as an adult and the Hellbender, which is completely aquatic.)
  • Their skin is moist and must stay moist so that they can breathe through it; most species have no lungs.  (Exception:  the family of mole salamanders, which have lungs.)
  • Salamanders are adorably small, usually less than ten inches from tip of their blunt little noses to end of their tails, and the tail may make up more than half of that length.  (Exception:  the Hellbender, which can grow up to 16 inches.)
  • They have cute faces, with huge eyes that help them hunt for insects and arthropods in the low light of the forest floor’s leaf litter and decaying logs.
  • Their mouths are too small to worry about a bite.
  • They must be handled gently and placed back under the leaf litter after a few minutes so their skin doesn’t dry out.

After our salamanders were placed back under their logs and tucked in for the winter (any log rolled over must always be put back, or you’ve just destroyed a habitat), we continued our walk down the trail, chatting about nature and life and all manner of good things on a bright and crisp fall morning.

Getting to walk this trail with like-minded people who also stop every few yards to look at something interesting was just plain awesome.

Getting to walk this trail with like-minded people who also stop every few yards to look at something interesting was just plain awesome.

Time with my nature peeps is the best.

The trail continues beyond this beautiful old farm building, but we nature nerds walk so slow that we had to turn around and head back toward our cars at this point.  Someday, though, I'll bring my family peeps and we'll keep on walking.

The trail continues beyond this beautiful old farm building, but we nature nerds walk so slow that we had to turn around and head back toward our cars at this point. Someday, though, I’ll bring my family peeps and we’ll keep on walking.

Gardner vs. Naturalist

Well, the sun is back out in Blacksburg and we are almost thoroughly dried from the floods.

The town will begin collecting autumn yard waste tomorrow morning, so I spent a good portion of the afternoon trimming branches and cutting stems of overgrown plants in my yard.

I keep a very beautiful, but very messy garden. I like to plant my perennials so close together that it’s difficult to see the weeds growing up between them.  The only downside to this is that by the end of the season, my busy garden is full of brown seed heads, spent daylily stems, and weeds that I thought were pretty enough to let grow.

Meanwhile, only the asters, mums, and goldenrods are still blooming. The garden is more messy than pretty by a longshot.

And this is when the gardener in my brain wrestles with the naturalist.

Messy gardens are good for wildlife.
I have to repeat that mantra to myself a lot throughout the fall.

These past few weeks, though, the wild world has been helping me out by actually showing up to take advantage of my messy garden.
Here are some pictures of the things that have helped the naturalist and the gardener get along:


This picture shows the pokeweed that has grown huge in my corner garden. I find the fuchsia stems and inky purple berries quite attractive. But, there’s no doubt that most of my neighbors consider this poisonous plant a weed.  And, as the season goes on, the large leaves turn yellow and droop and entirely unattractive manner.  I was on the verge of cutting the whole thing down when I arrived home from a walk and spotted my very first cedar waxwing gorging itself on the berries.  The pokeweed stays.


These are the spiky brown seed heads of my purple coneflowers. The stems and leaves are equally brown and crispy. The gardener in me itches to grab the pruners and remove the unsightly, unverdant lot of them.  But then every morning when I first open our front door, I am treated to the startled flight of a small flock of bright yellow American goldfinches. They wake well before I do and feast on coneflower seeds.  So, if I have to put up with brown in order to get a scattering of gold every morning, the coneflower seed heads stay.


My zinnias didn’t come in well this year.  I think I stored last year’s seeds incorrectly.  Where usually they are a gorgeous green mass of leaves topped by impossibly large flowers that look like fireworks, this year they are leggy and not blooming so well, as you can see in the picture. But, when I am stuck folding laundry, I often look out the window because something has zipped through my peripheral vision and I spot  the ruby-throated hummingbirds that are sipping sweet zinnia nectar to fuel their little bodies over the long migration south.  And, just this last week, Monarch butterflies are using the zinnias has pitstops on their southward migration as well.  The zinnias stay.

The naturalist wins.

No doubt the gardener will get some more trimming done after the first killing frost, but the seed heads will stay until every seed has gone into a goldfinch tummy.
And, in the spring, all the branches and stems that I didn’t get collected by the town’s second fall brush collection and, therefore, are piled in an out of the way corner will make a wonderful hiding spot for a mama Eastern cottontail and her soft, sweet, baby bunnies.

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.