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.

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!

Deerfield Trail – Early Autumn.

The Deerfield Trail is a small wonder of the New River Valley nature scene.

A good friend of mine tipped me off to its existence early this spring, when she and her family walked the trail at dusk in order to hear the woodcocks “peenting” their mating song.

I didn’t get out there fast enough (or at the right time of evening) to catch the woodcocks’ serenade, but I have walked the trail several times this spring and summer and, most recently, last week, so it’s one I can highly recommend, particularly for families with young children.

This was the scene from the trailhead.  Note the large pine tree on the left; it's gorgeous but it's a mystery I still need to solve.  It has three, twisted 3-inch needles per bundle, and short, fat, stubby cones.  That doesn't fit what I can find in my books and on line.  I guess I'll just have to take another walk soon.

This was the scene from the trailhead. Note the large pine tree on the left; it’s gorgeous but it’s a mystery I still need to solve. It has three, twisted 3-inch needles per bundle, and short, fat, stubby cones. That doesn’t fit what I can find in my books and on line. I guess I’ll just have to take another walk soon.

Here are the Deerfield Trail’s highlights:

  • It’s only a five minute drive off of Route 460 via Tom’s Creek Road.
  • There’s plenty of parking.
  • The entire trail is both wide and paved; less tripping hazard for little feet and thoroughly stroller-friendly.
  • It’s only .7 miles long, one way, and there’s very little incline.
  • Around the half mile mark, there’s a wonderful grassy area complete with big, shady sycamore trees and at least two benches, right on the banks of Tom’s Creek.
  • This area of Tom’s Creek (as long as it’s not raining upstream) is nice and shallow, perfect for exploring and splashing.
  • In addition to the creek, this trail also features open meadow and woodland habitats, and more habitats means a greater variety of species to see.
  • Wildlife I’ve seen on this trail include:
    • Songbirds (cardinals, blue jays, Eastern towhees, robins, etc.)
    • Woodpeckers
    • Great Blue Heron
    • Canada Geese
    • Mink (playing in the farm pond)
    • Squirrels
    • Chipmunks
  • Speaking of wildlife, dogs are welcome as long as they’re on leash.
  • This trail has lots of great interpretive signage, too, provided by a local Girl Scout troop when the trail was first built and designed to encourage visitors to use all of their senses to experience nature along the way.  Easy reading for elementary students, these signs are full of wonderful information.
Another cool sight near the trailhead were these spent blossoms of Eastern Virgin's Bower (Clematis virginiana).  The blossoms are a gorgeous veil of delicate, lacy white, which is beautiful enough, but after the bloom is done you see these cool, twisted mop tops.  They remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax.  So cool.

Another cool sight near the trailhead were these spent blossoms of Eastern Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana). The blossoms themselves are a gorgeous veil of delicate, lacy white, which is beautiful enough, but after the bloom is done you see these cool, twisted mop tops. They remind me of the Truffula Trees from Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. So cool.

During my walk last week I enjoyed watching the progression of fall on the trail.  Palest purple asters (Aster spp.) and bright gold wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) were both in bloom, as well as a few goldenrod and some surprising pink gaura (Gaura spp.).  The blossoms of Queen Anne’s Lace were just finishing their bloom, browning, and curving upward and inward, sort of like an umbrella that’s been blown inside out.

It's my contention that there aren't enough words to describe the many shades and tints of purple. (Violet, royal, lavender, orchid, and lilac aren't cutting it.) I hereby nominate a new name:  pale aster - a purple so near to white that you have to look twice.

It’s my contention that there aren’t enough words to describe the many shades and tints of purple. (Violet, royal, lavender, orchid, and lilac aren’t cutting it.) I hereby nominate a new name: pale aster – a purple so near to white that you have to look twice.

The black walnut trees along the trail had dropped plenty of baseball-sized, bright green fruit on the ground.  (Even that hard nut is protected by at least a half inch of dense material inside a tough, leathery husk.)

As the trail progresses, you head slightly uphill and past a farm pond (where I saw a mink splashing this spring and two Canada geese nesting this summer).  This is the view of the meadow to the left of the trail and the mountain that grows up on the far side of Tom's Creek.

As the trail progresses, you head slightly uphill and past a farm pond (where I saw a mink splashing this spring and two Canada geese nesting this summer). This is the view of the meadow to the left of the trail and the mountain that grows up on the far side of Tom’s Creek.  In the foreground, a bluebird box is being nicely camouflaged by this season’s now-leafless growth of vines.

As the trail crossed Tom’s Creek, I saw the evidence of the recent floods:  grass and wildflowers still flattened in the direction of the floodwaters, bent permanently by the sheer force of the rush.  The banks of the creek were obviously significantly eroded, scrubbed sheer and concave by the power of so much water headed down even this gentle slope.  There’s a lot of impermeable surface – pavement, roofs, sidewalks, etc. – in the Tom’s Creek watershed, so even a moderate rain can generate a fairly large flash flood.

This photo shows Tom's Creek just downstream from where it flows beneath the trail.  Note the left side of the creek (outside of a slight curve) and how its sides are so heavily eroded by the recent flood that grass which had been growing on flat ground just weeks ago is now hanging down over the creek, the land literally ripped from beneath its roots.

This photo shows Tom’s Creek just downstream from where it flows beneath the trail. Note the left side of the creek (outside of a slight curve) and how its sides are so heavily scoured by the recent flood that grass which had been growing on flat ground just weeks ago is now hanging down over the creek, the land literally ripped from beneath its roots.

Then, following the trail into the woods, my footsteps became noisy as I crunched through drifts of fallen leaves.  It was my first autumn leaf shuffle, and in some spots the leaf litter was deep enough to kick, Rockettes-style, into the air.  Which, of course, I did, because I had the trail all to myself.  Well, I was away from other humans, at least; there were plenty of obvious animal trails visible in the thinning undergrowth and lots of skittering and rustling in my peripheral vision.

One of my favorite things about autumn is a path covered with colorful and/or crunchy leaves.  It does make it significantly harder to see any wildlife, though.  Clumsy, stomping human feet are loud enough without crackling leaves to make it worse.

One of my favorite things about autumn is a path covered with colorful and/or crunchy leaves. It does make it significantly harder to see any wildlife, though. Clumsy, stomping human feet are loud enough without crackling leaves to make it worse.

The great thing about a straight (non-loop) trail is that, if you pay attention, you see lots of things on the way out that you missed on the way in.  Here are some more great autumn wildflowers that caught my eye:

This is the developing seedhead of Spotted  Joe Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), a common autumn sight in moist meadows and at  stream edges.

This is the developing seedhead of Spotted Joe Pyeweed (Eupatorium maculatum), a common autumn sight in moist meadows and at stream edges.

The only thistle blossom I found on the whole trail.  It's my second nomination for a new shade of purple.

The only thistle blossom I found on the whole trail. It’s my second nomination for a new shade of purple.  Check out the little yellow and black fly coming in for a landing at nine o’clock.  Many small flies have found success in the natural selection game because their coloring resembles that of bees and, thus, predators think twice before eating them.

This is not thistle, but rather Spotted Knapweed (Centaureas maculosa).  It's a non-native, invasive species introduced from Europe.  So widely has it spread, though, that it's likely here to stay.  Enlarge the picture to get a good view of the small metallic blue beetle (at 12 o'clock) and pollinating fly (in the center) that are making use of the flower's nectar and pollen.

This is not thistle, but rather Spotted Knapweed (Centaureas maculosa). It’s a non-native, invasive species introduced from Europe. So widely has it spread, though, that it’s likely here to stay. Enlarge the picture to get a good view of the small metallic blue beetle (at 12 o’clock) and pollinating fly (in the center) that are making use of the flower’s nectar and pollen.

This milkweed pod has ripened, turned brown, and burst open to reveal the feathery white seeds inside.  These seeds are dispersed by wind, and look like giant, spherical snowflakes floating through the autumn breeze.  As a kid, I believed that if you caught one, you could make a wish on it.  Now all my milkweed wishes are for monarch caterpillars next year, and so far they've all come true.

This milkweed pod has ripened, turned brown, and burst open to reveal the feathery white seeds inside. These seeds are dispersed by wind, and look like giant, spherical snowflakes floating through the autumn breeze.  As a kid, I called them “fairy seeds” and believed that if you caught one, you could make a wish on it.  Now all my milkweed wishes are for monarch caterpillars next year, and so far they’ve all come true.

As I inserted these last pictures into the post, an overall takeaway occurred to me:  the most noted wildflowers and seedheads of early fall are (generally) members of the Aster family (e.g.: Joe Pye, Aster, Thistle, Goldenrod, Ironweed, and Coreopsis) and the Milkweed family (e.g.: Common Milkweed, Butterflyweed, and Swamp Milkweed).

This is, no doubt, a general rule that should have occurred to me before, but I don’t mind figuring it out again by looking closely at each of these gorgeous flowers and then backing out to the bigger picture.  Just one more reason I love to hike.

To learn a bit more about some of the New River Valley’s other hiking trails, check out my earlier blog posts, Gooooooing Up – The Gateway Trail and A Walk in the Ellet Valley Recreational Area.

Gooooooing Up – The Gateway Trail

“So, Mom, when are we leaving for our hike?”

This is an underrated advantage of having children:  they remind you that weekends aren’t just for house and garden chores, but for doing those things you want to do “if you have time”.

And we had time.  But just barely.  It was already 5:30 p.m. on Sunday and it’s getting dark around 8:00 p.m. now (Hallelujah!  I love long days!) and I knew the Gateway Trail was at least a mile long.  Well, I thought, even if we walk as slow as two miles per hour, a snail’s pace compared to our flatland clip of 3.5 to 4 mph, we’d be up and back in less than two hours.

Excitement and hope are often enablers of temporary amnesia and wishful thinking.

Still, we had to move quick if we were going to make it, so I (self-sacrificing mother that I am) skipped the shower that I badly needed and settled for an extra couple of swipes of deodorant.  Clinical strength deodorant.

We kissed the hubby/daddy goodbye, grabbed our shoes and my hiking pack and were out the door in under ten minutes.  We arrived at the trail head in another ten. (Or less – have I  mentioned that there are trails everywhere near Blacksburg and that it is the best place on Earth?)

The entrance to Gateway Park (before you reach through the actual trailhead) is a gentle stroll through an idyllic country scene.

The entrance to Gateway Park (before you reach through the actual trailhead) is a gentle stroll through an idyllic country scene.

The trail begins across Meadowbrook Road from the lower parking lot of Heritage Park.  On nice flat ground.  It rolls through a deep green field and past a bucolic old barn.  A tiny stream that burbles along to the right of the trail feeds buttercups and sweet-smelling grass.  In this place, with the golden light of afternoon sun warming your cheeks, there could be nothing wrong with the world.

And then you reach the trailhead, and realize that this hike is about to get real.

After all, this trail leads up the side of Brush Mountain.  Mountain.  And that’s what we wanted, right – to see spring in reverse, to see how it climbs the mountain slowly?  Right!

And so we, too, climbed the mountain.  Slowly.

My daughter is actually a great hiking partner.  She has no trouble keeping up with me, largely due to the fact that she is 60ish pounds and maybe 5% body fat and I am . . . not.  She also has the tremendous grace to be interested in nature and stop often to look at something or another.  Not only does this save my heart and lungs from explosion, but it gives me a chance to hear one of my favorite sentences:

“Mom, come look at what I found!”

Between her stops, my photo ops, and our mutual stops to drain the large canteen we had brought, we were hiking at nowhere near two miles an hour.  And the trail is 1.4 miles long, not one mile.  Our slow speed didn’t bother me, though, except maybe when trail runners both younger and older than I passed us like white-tailed dear loping by errant, distracted turtles.

But we turtles saw great stuff:

As the incline starts to get steeper we see a little waterfall in the brook next to the trail.

As the incline starts to get steeper we see a little waterfall in the brook next to the trail.

Wild geranium

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) blooms here and there on the forest floor.

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Had we hiked just a little faster I might have missed this wild iris, called “blue flag” (Iris virginica L.).

And just a few inches from  the blue flag posed this pretty little smooth Solomon's seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

And just a few inches from the blue flag posed this pretty little smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum).

The mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) are already in bud!  I'm mentally planning future hikes to make sure I see the blossoms.

The mountain laurels (Kalmia latifolia) are already in bud! I’m mentally planning future hikes to make sure I see the blossoms.  As for the tiny, green beetle, I don’t know its name yet, but I’m working on it!

Abbey called my attention to this pine that looks a little bit like a friendly monster.  Beyond its dead branch "arms" I can see the tiny, lacy new leaves of a deciduous tree.  The leaves at ground level are already as big as my palm.

Abbey called my attention to this pine that looks a little bit like a friendly monster. Beyond its dead branch “arms” I can see the tiny, lacy new leaves of a deciduous tree. The leaves at ground level are already as big as my palm.

This view from not-quite-the-top of the mountain shows that we've hiked high enough to be nearly level with surrounding ridges.

This view from not-quite-the-top of the mountain shows that we’ve hiked high enough to be nearly level with surrounding ridges.

We didn’t make it to the end of the trail, of course.  Abbey tuckered out after an hour of hiking, and I was A-OK with that!  Just after we turned back, we ran into a fellow Master Naturalist friend of mine who commented “Isn’t this trail great?  You can burn over 600 calories in an hour and a half!”

From that I made two mental notes:

  1. The next time I hike this trail, I’ll allot two hours for the journey up to cover climb time plus photo and rest time, and
  2. When I get home, I’m having dessert!

The hike back down went much more quickly, of course, we were back to the trail head in under 45 minutes.  There we had just enough sunlight left to count the lines on the topographic trail map to find that we hiked about a mile of trail and gained over 700 vertical feet.  We were quite pleased with ourselves.

I did achieve my hope from my previous post; I saw a few maple trees still in blossom and I watched the leaf sizes shrink down and the canopy open up.  More than that, though, I just had a great hike with my daughter, my favorite hiking buddy.