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

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.

 

Redhead, Laguna Madre Nature Trail, South Padre Island, Texas

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.

Snow Day in Blacksburg

Friday, January 22 at about 4pm.  Wind blowing light, dry, sharp snow against my frozen cheeks.  

Cheers of children (ages 5-21) sledding down a nearby hill; they’re too young to feel the cold.  

Every other  animal in its right mind is hunkered down or huddled up, warmer with friends or making life under the snow.

The sun sank quickly beneath the horizon and behind the clouds, turning a world of white and grey to an infinite blue.
  

    

   

   

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

You know how parents do not have a favorite child?

Well, I do not have a favorite bird.  I love them all equally.

Except . . . well, I may have a little extra love for the chickadee.

My mother nicknamed me Dee when I was born, and the name seriously stuck.  Not only do all of the friends I grew up with still call me Dee, but all of the kids I work with at the nature center know me as “Ms. Dee”.

And you kind of have to love a bird that calls your name:

“Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!  Chick-a-da-dee-dee-dee!”

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This Carolina chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) was photographed by Dan Pancamo and provided via Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to this obviously superlative call, chickadees are also incredibly brave little birds, a trait that I both admire and aspire to.

At just 4.5 and 5.5 inches from beak to tail, respectively – we get both Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) here and I’ve spent exactly zero time learning to tell them apart, which I’m surprisingly okay with – they are among the smallest of the common songbirds.  So, you might expect them to be shy or timid, but the opposite is true.

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This black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) was photographed by Minette Layne and provided via Wikimedia Commons. The guide books note that the black-capped has buff colored sides whereas the Carolina chickadee’s sides are all very light gray. I must take my fancy new binocs up to my feeder watching chair and see if I can tell which visit my feeder.

They’re often first to the backyard feeder, happy to claim their place among the bigger birds and, seemingly, much less bothered by humans.

On my recent owling walk with the NRV bird club, chickadees nearly surrounded us along the length of the Deerfield Trail.  They sat boldly on low branches, checking out our oddly large eyes (read:  binoculars) with friendly curiosity.

They must have confidence in their rapid wing beats and acrobatic flight.  They can afford to be brave and inquisitive because they know they can be gone in a heartbeat if they sense danger.

I love to watch them in my backyard, flitting back and forth from our yellow birch tree to the hanging feeder, cracking one big black oil sunflower seed at a time with their little, determined beaks.

Just thinking of them makes me smile.

 

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)

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)

 

 

 

 

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)

Boo Hoot Hoot

I blew it.

Yesterday was my owling-with-experts opportunity and, despite my best intentions, I totally blew it.

I was so prepared.  I had layers upon layers of clothes all laid out the night before, my thermoses ready to fill with hot coffee, and even got myself to sleep before midnight with my alarm set for 4:45 a.m. – plenty of time to get dressed and drive to the meeting spot in Christiansburg by 5:20 a.m., the appointed meeting time.

And at 4:45 a.m., I hit the snooze button.  Apparently, I also hit it at 4:54 a.m., 5:03 a.m., and 5:12 a.m..

I woke with a start at 5:17 a.m. – panic!

I immediately sent a bleary-eyed email to my Christmas Bird Count circle coordinator:  “Overslept!  Be there ASSAP!”

The misspelling of ASAP could have been just a typo, but I think it’s more Freudian than that – I truly felt like a jackass.

I dressed and brushed and brewed at lightning speed (accidentally waking my daughter with my heavy, booted footsteps in the process – I kissed her head and sent her to take the warm spot I’d left in my bed), gathered my things and rushed to the car.  I paused only long enough to let my eyes adjust to the dark of a moonless morning, which was necessary to prevent me from falling down my own front steps.

I wasn’t fast enough, though – I didn’t arrive at the meeting spot until 5:42 a.m., 22 minutes late.  There was no one there.  I didn’t blame them – you don’t stand around waiting in 23 degree weather, you get going.  They had gotten gone.

I was crestfallen.  I made two calls to see if I could get in touch with someone who knew where they’d gone, but the numbers I could find were all home phones and I could only leave messages.

I was home and asleep almost exactly an hour after I’d woken up.

When I woke again hours later and well after sunup, I was still a little sad, but I’m talking myself out of it.

That’s the thing about nature – there are always going to be missed opportunities.  Whether it’s not being quick enough with the camera to capture the critter you see or having two weeks of rain squelch any hiking plans at the beak of autumn colors or being too friendly with the snooze button – there are always going to be plenty of missed moments.

The only way to keep your chin up is to know that, at least where nature is concerned, the season will roll around again, and the next opportunity may be different, but it will come.

I will see an owl this year, as I said in my previous post . . . just maybe not this calendar year.  But I’ve got 366 days (leap year!) and a whole lap around the sun to make it happen.

New opportunities are always just around the bend.  Nature is just cool like that.

Eastern Screech Owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

This year, so help me, I’m going to see an owl.

I haven’t seen one since we moved here from Louisiana.  (There I saw a barred owl sleeping on a tree branch while I waited in the pickup line at my daughter’s school.)

It’s not that we don’t have owls here – we have plenty!  I’m just a very diurnal creature, unwilling to leave my cozy bed in the wee hours to go looking for very nocturnal owls.

But, this time, I’m going to do it!  I’ve just signed up to be a part of this year’s local Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, December 19.  A fellow master naturalist and expert-level bird watcher talked me into it.

I’ve never participated in a Christmas Bird Count before because they start so early in the morning.  Voluntarily getting up and out of the house to meet the birding group by 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday in December???  No thank you.

But to see owls, I’m going to make the sacrifice:  I’ll meet my group not at 8:00 a.m., but (and here’s where I wish I was about to say 8:00 p.m.) at 5:15 a.m.! 

In my (only mostly joking) opinion, 5:15 a.m. shouldn’t even be an actual time, legally.  If not legally, then at least morally.  I’m surprised the presidential candidates haven’t weighed in on this crucial issue.

At 5:15 a.m. on that Saturday, I can guarantee that I will come prepared, dressed in many layers and with two full thermoses of piping hot, creamy, sweet coffee.  I cannot, however, guarantee that I’ll be willing to share any of that coffee.

There are no guarantees that we’ll see owls (though going with experienced birders who are likely to lead me to some is 90% of my motivation to participate), but if we do, it will be one of the four owls native to Virginia:

Good Morning Sunshine

A barn owl that I photographed in its enclosure at a zoo in Florida a few years ago. I sell this image as a blank note card entitled “Good Morning, Sunshine” in my Etsy shop.

  1. Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)
  2. Barred Owl (Strix varia)
  3. Barn Owl (Tyto alba)
  4. Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio)

It’s this last one, the Eastern Screech Owl, that I’m most hoping to see.  The first three are big and impressive and so often used in birds of prey demonstrations and as zoo specimens that I’ve actually met them all before.

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See? It is adorable! This rufous morph Eastern screech owl (Megascops asio) was photographed by Bill Waller and provided via Wikimedia Commons. Humans just love big eyes, and the Mighty Mite has champion peepers, which is probably the reason for its genus name “megascops”, which means “big eyes”. “Asio” means horned owl, and our little buddy here does have those classic owl feather tufts that look like horns.

Not so with the “Mighty Mite”; at a Lilliputian 9 inches tall, this stealthy, nocturnal hunter is less than half the other owls’ size and more than twice their cuteness.  They are absolutely adorable, though probably not if you’re a mouse or earthworm or tadpole, which are all part of the owl’s diet.  (To learn more about any owl’s diet, try dissecting an owl pellet – the little ball of indigestible fur, feathers, and bones that they regurgitate after eating.)

These are cavity-nesting owls, small enough to make a home in a tree cavity that’s not much larger than they are.  In the wild they choose wooded areas to live in and they prefer to be near water.  Eastern screech owls will also happily move in to an owl box put up by a homeowner and help rid the property of insect and rodent pests for free!  These owls can be fairly common even in suburban areas and small towns (there are several living in downtown Blacksburg) as long as there are trees in which to roost!

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Here’s a photo of the grey morph of the Eastern screech owl, showing off those “horns.” Photo provided by Wolfgang Wanderer via Wikimedia Commons.

What the Eastern screech owl won’t do for you, unfortunately, is screech.  Or maybe that’s fortunate, especially if they’re living in your neighborhood!  Screech owls’ calls are better described as whinnies or ghostly trills.  Listen to their calls at their All About Birds webpage.

The screech for which they are misnamed was probably that of a barn owl, another species which doesn’t mind being around humans as long as there are rodents around to catch.  (Where there are barns, there’s generally stored grain or hay, which rodents come in to eat and then are, in turn, eaten by the barn owl.)  Hear the barn owl’s screeching scream call at its All About Birds webpage.

It’s good to be able to differentiate the calls, too, because a birder is much more likely to hear a screech owl than see one; their brown, grey, and white plumage pattern gives them excellent camouflage against tree bark.

Megascops_asio_Kerrville_2

Now imagine this fellow not leaning out of the tree cavity and the cavity 10 feet off of the ground. Practically impossible to see. I’ve got my hopes pinned on a flash from those bright yellow, reflective “megascops”.

But I’m going to see one.  Why else would I get up and out by 5:15 a.m.???

 

Another #10minwri on the Common 10.  This one actually turned into a #20minwri, but I was having too much fun to stop in the middle!

The Best Birthday Gifts Ever

Yesterday was bittersweet.  I have to drive out to Claytor Lake and deflate my kayaks.

That’s right, I said “deflate” and “kayaks”.

This August, on my 38th and best birthday ever, I was given two inflatable kayaks!  I have wanted a kayak for at least two decades.  On this birthday, not only did I receive a one person kayak from my parents, but my hubby also gave me a two person kayak.

This is the bow of the Green Darner as I paddled into Claytor Lake's Twin Hollow on my birthday. No more than five minutes after this shot, I was video chatting with my parents and got to share with them the scene of a mink swimming up to and around my kayak. As I said: Best. Birthday. Ever!

This is the bow of the Green Darner as I paddled into Claytor Lake’s Twin Hollow on my birthday. No more than five minutes after this shot, I was video chatting with my parents and got to share with them the scene of a mink swimming up to and around my kayak. As I said: Best. Birthday. Ever!

I was so happy that I could barely keep my feet on the ground.  I walked around all day saying “Hey, you know what? . . . I have two kayaks!” to the family I was with, who a) knew that already, because they watched me open and inflate them, and b) couldn’t yell at me for bragging because it was my birthday.

Besides, if they did get sick of me, I’d just paddle away . . . in one of my two new kayaks!

My nine year old daughter and her friend adventuring in the two person kayak, the

My nine year old daughter and her friend adventuring in the two person kayak, the “Goldfinch”.

The Intex brand heavy-duty inflatable kayaks came with their own pumps, carrying cases, and easy-assembly paddles.  They were a third or less the cost of a traditional kayak.

I was able to easily inflate and assemble the kayaks.  I think the single person took 15 minutes, and the double (which I did second, and therefore more easily) took maybe 12.

I was on the water in my new kayak (well, one of two, did I mention I have two?) in less than 30 minutes!

The bow of the Green Darner pointed out to the main body of Claytor Lake. I

The bow of the Green Darner pointed out to the main body of Claytor Lake. (I “waterproofed” my phone by putting it in a ziptop plastic bag with a few of those inflated packaging cushions.)

Kayaking is awesome.

Not that I’m really great at it; I like kayaking on slow, flat water (hello, Claytor Lake).  I’m not interested in rapids, nor would I take my precious inflatables where there are mean, sharp rocks that might damage them.  I like the peacefulness of a one-person boat.  The ability to choose my own speed and direction.  The secret coves I can get into because of the boat’s tiny, inch-deep draft.

I’m in it for the freedom, for the quiet, and, of course, for the wildlife!  From my kayak, I’ve gotten closer to turtles, dragonflies, damselflies, great blue heron, schools of shiners, and even mink, than I thought possible.

And the half dozen trips I’ve made did not disappoint.  Check out these photos of lake critters:

What's that, attached to that log? Is it frog eggs? Is it fish eggs? Nope. This is a freshwater bryozoan colony. It's an amazing community of microscopic creatures.

What’s that, attached to that log? Is it frog eggs? Is it fish eggs? Nope. This is a freshwater bryozoan colony. It’s an amazing community of microscopic creatures.

From the middle of summer to the first freeze, the lake air is filled with dragonflies and damselflies fulfilling their biological duties. They'll land just about anywhere, including the arms of a swimmer, in order to have a stable platform for their love nest. Here we see two future parents who have alighted on my kayak's bow.

From the middle of summer to the first freeze, the lake air is filled with dragonflies and damselflies fulfilling their biological duties. They’ll land just about anywhere, including the arms of a swimmer, in order to have a stable platform for their love nest. Here we see two future damselfly parents who have alighted on my kayak’s bow.

If you blow this photo up to full size, you'll see that the rock in the center of this little lake-edge grotto is covered with future damselfly parents.

If you blow this photo up to full size, you’ll see that the rock just to the right of center of this little lake-edge grotto is covered with future damselfly parents.

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This turtle was basking in Crawfish Hollow. Based on my research at the Virginia Herpetological Society website, I think this is an Eastern river cooter (Pseudemys concinna concinna), but I must admit that my turtle identification skills are just beginner level. The thing with turtles is that every time you approach one in the wild to get a better look at it, they slide right into the water to avoid the big, scary predator stalking toward them. I have great hopes, though, because I’ve gotten closer to turtles on the kayak (well, both kayaks – did I tell you that I have two?) than I ever could on foot.

Another turtle basking on a log in the gathered flotsam at the back of Twin Hollow. There were many turtles there but, unfortunately, they were far outnumbered by pieces of litter.

Another two turtles basking on a logs in the gathered flotsam at the back of Twin Hollow.  I’m glad that I already gave the disclaimer about my beginner turtle identification skills, because these have me stumped.  They’re far more domed than the Eastern river cooter and the closer one has an awful lot of red on its neck.   More frustrating than that, though, is that there were many turtles there but, unfortunately, they were far outnumbered by pieces of litter.

Now this turtle I know! It's a hatchling (baby) snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). This turtle is easily identified even at a distance by its long, long tail. I was luckily enough to be able to gently lift it out of the water with my paddle.

Now this turtle I know! It’s a hatchling (baby) snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina). This turtle is easily identified even at a distance by its long, long tail. I was luckily enough to be able to gently lift it out of the water with my paddle.

This is the largest size snapping turtle you're likely to ever see me handling. Its name is apt, and these turtles at adult size (8-14

This is the largest size snapping turtle you’re likely to ever see me handling. Its name is apt, and these turtles at adult size (8-14″) would easily snap off a misplaced human finger. But this little one is just too cute!

If you, too, would like to see lake critters close up, I highly recommend a kayak.  Or two.

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!