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.

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Cloud Puzzle

They ain’t all gonna be easy.

Here’s my first little puzzle, a set of clouds headed at us from the west about a week ago:

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At least two different cloud types, possibly at two different heights?

 

The lower layer of clouds here – the part nearest the trees in the picture – looks like light gray icing smoothed over an upside down cake.  (Side note:  for the world’s best gray icing, see Steel Magnolias.)  It covers a large portion of the sky like a blanket, and this makes me think it’s some form of stratus cloud(s).

For those who aren’t total word nerds like myself, stratus (plural: strata) comes from the Latin for “a spreading” and refers generally to something spread out in a horizontal layer.  This bottom set of clouds definitely seems spread out, though the base isn’t completely uniform.

I’m guessing it’s stratocumulus, because perhaps the texture of the base indicates the “clumpy”-ness that The Cloud Collector’s Handbook talks about.  Also, stratocumulus are among the most common types of clouds, and as a naturalist, I know to guess that something new is the common thing, rather than a rare exotic.

Here I can’t help but quote the wise Dr. Theodore Woodward, of the Maryland (my new state!) University School of Medicine, who taught his students “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”

I think this horse is stratocumulus.

As for the awesome, diagnoal stripes of clouds in the upper portion of the photo, I’m going to be a little bit brave in identifying them as “undulatus”.  Six of the ten main cloud types have undulatus varieties.  Undulatus means exactly what you think it does – undulating like ripples or waves.

These undulations are often found at the upper edge of a set of clouds where the atmosphere is moving in a different direction.

I love what the Handbook’s author, Gavin Pretor-Pinney, says about undulatus clouds:

“Their presence is a reminder, to any who might forget, that the atmosphere around us is just as much as an ocean as the sea below.”

 

 

 

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)

First Day Hike

Happy New Year to me – today I won at hiking.

I know what you’re saying – hiking is not a competitive sport.  Read on and find out – today I got the win in a big way.

My daughter, Abbey, and I drove thirty minutes down to Hiwassee, Virginia to participate in the annual Virginia State Parks First Day Hike along a section of the New River Trail State Park.

The day was gray and colder than it’s been in weeks.  I was a little surprised that the nine-year-old wanted to go, but she hopped in the car with me enthusiastically.

This was a tough hike to sell to a kid – three miles round trip without a mountaintop view at the end, in weather far too cold to play in any trailside streams, and there was no guaranteed (or even promised) wildlife.  Not much incentive.

Still, we arrived happily (if unusually, for me, anyway) on time, though most of the other 70ish hikers had raced ahead while we were parking.  Abbey and I met our hosts at the end of the parking lot and were advised that we could walk down the New River Trail for a mile or so to the head of the new side trail the group would hike, or wait in the parking lot for the van to come back and take its next load of passengers.

It was 32 degrees and windy.  I chose walking to warm us both up.

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This beautiful little stream only has another 100 yards to go before it will join the New River.

It really was a full mile.  She was bored after the first half mile and the “how much longer” question was posed in a variety of ways.  I answered noncommittally, buying time.

Finally we found the state-vehicle-white-with-blue-license-plate van and a private property gate open allowing us access to an uphill gravel trail.  Obviously the last load of van riders beat us to the trailhead.  I had no idea how far behind we were, but catching up meant keeping a steady pace uphill while also keeping Abbey engaged looking for tracks in the wet, red clay at the sides of the gravel road.

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Deer track! There were plenty of these scattered all along the length of the trail.

And so we went, spotting deer tracks and dog tracks, and deer, coyote, and raccoon scat.

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Based on my Internet research, I feel fairly sure in my identification of this scat as coyote scat. Check out all the fur in it! If you want to argue for bobcat or fox, though, let me know in the comments.

We were maybe five minutes past the gate when we heard a loud rustling in the woods between us and a meadow we were passing.  We both stopped.

“What was that,” Abbey asked incredulously.

“Probably just some deer” I replied, having gotten my hopes up for spotting other large mammals one too many times.

“Sounds bigger than a deer,” she said, confident.  “I think it’s a bear.”

“No, I bet it’s just several deer,” I said, as if seeing a herd of white-tailed deer up close weren’t particularly cool.  (For the record, a close encounter with a herd from inside our cabin in the Grayson Highlands sent me over the moon a couple of weeks ago.)

And the the rustling crash came again, about 50 feet behind us.  We turned around just in time to see a full-grown black bear (Ursus americanus) sow run across the wide trail.  We were frozen with our mouths hanging open, staring at the empty space where the bear just been, when what came to fill that space but a little bear cub running to catch up with mama!

Oh!  My brain was reeling.  “I just saw mama bear and baby bear in the wild!” I was completely exhilarated.

And that’s when cub number two followed the family across the road.

Two cubs!  Lucky us, I thought, we actually got to see a mama with her twins!

Then cub number three and, seconds later, cub number four ran by.

Four cubs.

Five bears.

Holy crap!!!

We waited silently to be sure the fourth cub was the last, then we calmly resumed hiking uphill . . . smiling like birthday kids with cake and letting our thoroughly blown minds settle back into working order.

Holeeeeeee crap!!!

I had only ever seen a black bear in the wild once before.  It was from inside a state vehicle the summer I worked for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, seventeen years ago.

These bears were no more than 20 yards away from us.  The big group of hikers must have scared the bears out of crossing, and when we last two, fairly non-threatening humans passed, Mama Bear felt safe enough to gather the cubs and run.

Did I mention holy crap?!

(This is where a picture of the black bears would go if I’d had the time or brain to take my camera out.  I did not.)

We caught up with the main group about 15 minutes later, spurred to finish the end of the (very, very uphill) hike just so we could share our amazing bear experience.

When we reached the end of the trail, we learned all about the Hoover Color Corporation, whose recently donated former mining site we had been hiking.  We stared across a man made canyon and over at a wall of Virginia clay in every shade of yellow, orange, and red.

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Check out those reds, oranges, and yellows! Clay colored by the iron particles within it. Also, for perspective, those are full sized (40+ feet) trees that have fallen down the hill on the right side of the photo.

Hoover Color took the site over in the early 20th century from an iron ore mining company, and made its money selling pigments straight from that ferrous clay.

Hoover Color is, to this day, the largest provider of pigments such as ocher, umber, and sienna.  Only now they don’t need to mine the clay; they can extract their pigments while simultaneously cleaning up acid mine tailing and waste.  That’s why they’ve donated the old mining land.  Now that’s a company doing right by Mother Nature.

Yes, that company is excellent, but they didn’t win the hike.

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A gorgeous, gray view of Draper Mountain in the distance, seen from the farthest point of the hike.

Abbey and I won that hike.  We may have been last up the hill, but we were the only ones who saw bears!

We finally caught up to the Department of Conservation and Recreation ranger as the hike ended, and immediately shared the joy of our sighting.  He was pleased, but not surprised (which is exactly how you want a ranger to react).

It’s been so warm these past few months that the black bears haven’t begun to den up and sleep for the winter.

“But four cubs?” I asked.  I thought bears could only have single cubs or twins.

The ranger replied that sow bears will adopt cubs who’ve lost their family, so this sow was likely caring for her own twins as well as somebear else’s.  Wow.  Maybe she wins.

Still I don’t mind taking second place to that mama bear, because if the first day of January was this incredible, 2016 is gonna be a helluva year!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

American Kestrel (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

Chickadee (Common 10 Songbirds)

Eastern Screech-owl (Common 10 Birds of Prey)

White-tailed Deer (Common 10 Mammals)

Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (Common 10 Insects)

Skunk (Common 10 Mammals)

Black Bears (Common 10 Mammals)

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.

Grayson Highlands State Park in Pictures

GHSP - Sugarland Overlook

The view east-northeast from the Sugarland Overlook just off of the main park road.  The overlook gets its name from the many sugar maple (Acer saccharum) trees found on the slope, which can be tapped for sweet sap that’s boiled down to make pure maple syrup.  The mountains in the far distance on the right are part of the Blue Ridge.

GHSP - ice columns

A huge section of needle ice found at the beginning of the Rhododendron Trail and enthusiastically flipped over by my husband and daughter.  These are actually ice columns (“needles”) that have pushed up a layer of soil.  My family was inspired to turn them over to get a better look at these hundreds of miniature ice stalagmites.  Needle ice forms when the ground temperature is above freezing, but the air at the ground surface is below freezing.  Capillary action in the soil pulls water to the surface (or within a centimeter or so of the surface, in this case) where it freezes.  As the process continues, more and more water is pulled up and frozen, growing upward until it either lifts soil particles or raises a section of soil altogether, as it’s done here.

GHSP - frost formations

Here we see another batch of ice needles, but these have either penetrated through the soil or been rearranged by other hikers.  Note the interesting curves; to see even more amazing ice formations, search the Internet for images of “hoarfrost” and “frost flowers.”

Seven Layer Mountains

I count seven “layers” of ridges fading into the distance.  This kind of vista is one of my favorite things about the Virginia Appalachians.  This shot was taken looking southwest from the Rhododendron Trail; somewhere out there is the Virginia/Tennessee/North Carolina border.

GHSP - our first pony

This is the first pony we saw, resting in the sunshine about 50 yards off of and not even a quarter mile up the trail.  We were lucky to find several ponies; there are no guarantees that you’ll see part of the 100+ member herd.

GHSP - three ponies

Can you see all three ponies?  There’s a black coffee colored pony with a platinum blonde mane on the left, a milk chocolate and cream pony in the middle, and a dark chocolate pony on the right.  They stand about 4 feet tall at the shoulder, though we did see one or two who were a bit larger.

GHSP Pony 1

The ponies didn’t seem to mind us getting up close and personal, though park signs warn that they will bite and/or kick if “harassed.”  We followed general rules for safe behavior around horses:  don’t stand behind them or approach quickly from behind, keep hands and fingers away from their faces, don’t touch them in any way that you wouldn’t want to be touched.

GHSP - rockstar pony

I was incredibly reluctant to let our daughter touch them at all, but in the end, the ponies paid no attention to her careful, gentle petting.  This rockstar pony was the first she touched and the only one I touched.  Her coat was incredibly thick and furry, good for the formidable winters atop the highest mountains in Virginia.  (In fact, Virginia’s two highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are visible from the park.)

GHSP - big pinnacle and ponies

Here are two more ponies we watched, captured with the “Big Pinnacle” peak in the background.  The herd is managed by the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association, who sees to necessary veterinary care for the animals and keeps the herd size steady with annual pony auctions in the fall.

GHSP - waterfall

We hiked only one other trail in the park on this visit, but it was the perfect one:  the Cabin Creek Trail.  The trail is a 1.8 mile spur and loop that leads down to (what else?) Cabin Creek and upstream where a series of small falls leads up to this 25 foot cascade.  We sat happily on huge boulders in the middle of the stream watching this falls and dreaming about coming back to the park in summer, when we might dare to wade and even (gasp!) swim in these frigid, crystalline mountain waters.