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.

 

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

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

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!

 

 

Opossum (Common 10 Nocturnal Animals)

The most teeth of any mammal in North America.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Eastern Screech Owl

Skunk

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.

 

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.

EasternScreechOwlBillWaller

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!

800px-Eastern_Screech_Owl

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!