Monday, December 8, 2008

Mystery Solved: Pulcherricium caeruleum

Thanks to Pam for searching the internet to find a couple of websites that identify my blue mold I wrote and pasted photos of in my previous post. It's Pulcherricium caeruleum, a blue fungus that grows underneath logs. According to this University of Wisconsin website, this fungi is one of over 100 fungi species that live on the underside of logs. Pulcherricuym means "most beautiful" and caeruleum means "blue." Actually, when I first looked at the color, I thought it reminded me of a watercolor pigment which is named "Cerrulean Blue." Another website she listed had a photo almost exactly like mine, not too surprising since the fungus was also on a poplar log.

This is why I appreciate the nature blog community so much. Nina identified an unknown shrub in an earlier post. It was Japanese barberry, an alien shrub. Earlier this year, Owlman identified a bird's nest as probably made by a chipping sparrow. That led me to my field guide to confirm it. Posting and reading posts help me to learn more about the natural world around me. Thanks to all of you.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Electric Blue Mold or Lichen?

The other day I went up in the woods looking for kindling for the woodstove and found this small poplar log (about 4 inches in diameter). When I turned it over, I was surprised to see this brightly-colored blue mold.

Here's another view of the log. Not sure if it's a lichen, algae or mold.

And another close up showing some other lichen and white mold.

Maybe there are some fungi experts out there who can help identify it. For now, I will enjoy the lovely color.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thanks to June for the Butterfly Award

Thanks to June for giving my blog the Butterfly Award above. Awardees must pass the award along to a new list. So, I created a blog roll on the sidebar that has my list of nominees. You can access their latest posts there. I have annotated the list below:

Nature Remains
Lovely photography and prose about nature.

Dawn's Bloggy Blog
A couple are motorhoming their way across America looking for a place to settle. Fascinating and makes one want to take off right now!

Nature Tales and Camera Trails
Great photos of birds and wit from this New Brunswick blogger.

Monarch's Nature Blog
The mother of all nature blogs--the one that first inspired me to do my own blog. Great photos from a field biologist from upstate New York.

Mountain Naturalist
While there are infrequent posts, it's worth the wait to read some great posts by our most renowned local naturalists in southwest Virginia.

Mary's View
I love the photos and reading about the posts from this North Carolinan blogger.

Let's Paint Nature
The Chicago Nature Lady teaches how to do watercolor painting of nature step by step.

A Passion for Nature
I have learned a great deal about natural phenonmena from this naturalist from New York. She truly has a passion for nature.

A Little Piece of Me
Lots of great photos and views from my fellow southwest Virginian nature blogger.

Open Salon Latest Post
This really isn't a blog but a collection of them. Click on "home" to get their front page which lists the editor's choices for best posts for the day.

Now, these bloggers should pass on the award by following these rules I got from June:

1. Put the logo on your blog, you can right-click and copy it from above.
2. Add a link to the person who awarded you
3. Nominate other blogs for this award (about 10).
4. Add links to those blogs (I did this thru blog roll on sidebar).
5. Leave a message for your nominees on their blogs (have to do this yet!:)
6. Give a reason why you consider their blogs cool.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unknown Shrub, Witch-hazel

Can you identify this shrub for me?

For years, I have admired this nicely formed shrub that grows at the edge of the woods and pastures. It receives only partial sun and typically is 2-3 feet tall.

Photo: November 5, 2008

The leaves turn a pretty red-orange and have an interesting shape.

Photo: November 5, 2008

On another shrub, the leaves were almost gone so the berries were more prominent. The red berries are very similar to spicebush but are in these drooping clusters. Birds will eat these berries before those of the spicebush. When I checked today, the berries and leaves were gone.

Can you identify this shrub?

Photo: November 5, 2008

As I walked back up our road, I noticed that the Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) tree was blooming. The yellow flowers are not very conspicuous as you can see in this photo.

Photo: November 12, 2008

The Witch-hazel is an understory tree that is fairly common in our woods and a favorite of the Wood Thrush bird for their nests. The leaves are aromatic and can be used to make astringent lotions. Some old timers use the forked branch of the Witch-hazel branch to detect underground water.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Walnuts everywhere

We have Black Walnut trees on the front and back of our land. I have never collected the walnuts but am seriously thinking about doing so this year because there are so many.

October 11, 2008

This tree on top of a pasture seemed to have the most walnuts. It gets plenty of sun but is not in a moist area which most experts say it needs.

September 22, 2008

I took this picture of two walnut trees in a foggy pasture last month. Most farmers do not clear walnut trees when they clear land for pasture. The reason may be that the trees are worth a lot for timber. Many people collect the walnuts to sell them so that may be another good reason for keeping the trees.

I have been remiss in posting to this blog but that's because I have been writing feverishly on my political blog (see profile). Hopefully, after the election, I will get back to posting once a week.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Milkweed Tussock, Spicebush Berries

The last day of summer is beautiful--sunny with temperatures in the 70s. Yesterday, I went looking for caterpillars and found just one.

Sept. 19, 2008

This Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillar is one of the prettiest I have seen. That almost makes up for not seeing any Monarch caterpillars this year. The yellow color of the milkweed leaf owes much to the relative dryness of September. We have had very little rain for two months. The only rain we have had came from the remnants of Hurricane Fay who gave us 2 inches while all the other hurricanes passed us by.

Sept. 19, 2008

Berries of the Spice Bush shrub have turned red while leaves are already turning yellow. These berries hold on for most of the winter. I guess the birds find better tasting food before they turn to these. Last spring, I wrote about the flowers of the Spice Bush on my blog.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Today, I drained the water in our wood-fired redwood hot tub and found a nice surprise.

Five-lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) was easy to identify because this one is a juvenile. In this stage, they have bright blue tails and the five lines are quite prominent. Actually, the blue seemed brighter to me than this photo indicates. As the skink ages, the lines are less conspicuous and the tail turns a dull gray.

I caught the skink with a minnow net (after much frustration trying to catch with my hands) and transferred him to our waterfall. After posing for a minute, he or she quickly disappeared into the rocks, a more preferred habitat for this lizard than the water. Then, I got out my field guide and quickly learned that I shouldn't have tried to catch him with my hands since they bite. And, the tail will break off easily.

This skink is terrestial, preferring moist habitats like piles of rocks or damp wood piles. This might explain why he was in the hot tub--it is moist and was only about half full at the time. There were lots of mosquito larvae and other aquatic insects--maybe he was feasting on them.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Surprise Tree

A mysterious tree grew up at the edge of the driveway. We had cut down two oak trees in the area because they were interfering with the satellite service. Also, we worry about trees falling on the house, guess that's what we get for living in the woods. Anyway, I planted a couple of rhododendrons and let blackberries and whatever wanted to grow up there. Last year, I noticed an unusual tree among the blackberry briars. The leaves were very long, lanceolate and the flowers were pink.

It was a peach tree, probably planted accidentally by my husband who likes to throw peach pits off the front porch and into the woods. The lovely blossoms froze unfortunately so there was no crop last year. Nevertheless, I watered the tree during the drought last summer, fertilized with compost periodically, and cleared the briars from the base.

This spring, the tree grew by leaps and bounds and was covered with beautiful pink blossoms. Twelve fruits grew slowly but eventually ripened. Today I picked them all!

I got out a bigger ladder to get the ones at the top.

I had to admire my free peaches, perfectly shaped and colored. Now, I understand why the artist Paul Cezanne painted them so much.

The texture and colors are almost like a watercolor (hope Chris is reading this).

I promised my husband I would bake a peach custard pie in exchange for his excellent horticultural skills so I better close and get to work!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Giant Swallowtails and the end of summer

The end of the summer seems to be coming fast. Already, the nights are getting cool which is a blessing. Katydids and crickets still make their lovely sounds, drowning out most other sounds. The butterflies are still going strong--tiger swallowtails, fritillaries, crescents, skippers and more.

August 3, 2008

This Giant Swallowtail is the largest butterfly on our land, here feeding on the butterfly bush (not native but great for butterflies). The caterpillar resembles bird poo so now that I know that, I may be able to identify it on ash trees which would be its host around here. When provoked, it sends out orange "horns" so the caterpillar is called "Orange Dog" in Florida where it is considered a pest on citrus trees.

The other day, I saw a Pipevine Swallowtail on the ground. I reached for it and abruptly stopped. The poor butterfly was being stung by a wasp. I watched while the wasp repeatedly stung the butterfly and then devoured its head all within a matter of minutes! Later in the day, I saw the same thing happening to another Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly. I know the butterflies were on their last days but still I felt so sorry for them.

August 8, 2008

Where are the Monarch caterpillars this year? All I have found are other insects on the leaves (see photo above). I have only seen one Monarch butterfly as well.

July 22, 2008

Last month, I spotted this moth. He would have been well camouflaged on leaf litter but stood out well on the Rhododendron. The moth was almost as large as the Regal Moth I had posted earlier--at least two to three inches. Hopefully, someone can identify for me.

August 8, 2008

This Rose Pink (Sabatia dodecandra) is one of my favorite flowers of late summer. The plant grows to about one feet in our old pastures and flowers until early September. I tried transplanting it to the house but it did not survive so I will try collecting the seeds.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Berry Good Summer

Nature has provided a bounty of blackberries this year as if to comfort us for the high food and gas prices. I have seen families picking them on the side of the road, taking advantage of the free wild food.

Photo: July 27, 2008

I picked them every few days when they started to ripen in early July (stashing a quart of them in the freezer a few minutes before we left on vacation on July 9). Since we returned July 19, I have been picking them every other day, using mostly for ice cream sauces and cobblers. I plan to make jelly soon to use the bounty I have stored in the fridge.

Photo: July 27, 2008

I don't worry about collecting them all because some fall while I pick them, letting whoever might come along (turtles, mice?) to feast as well. It is also impossible to get to many of the remote briars. So, the birds (Cardinals, Turkeys, Towhees) and insects (wasps, ants, bees) have plenty to eat.

Blackberries grow best in disturbed ground such as the edge of our field that was brushhogged two years ago. In our yard, I am letting the blackberries fill in at the edge of the lawn so we don't have to mow quite as much.

July 27, 2008

This Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) grew along with the blackberries in one patch. Like others in the mint family (bee balms, many herbs), it has a square stem.

Photo: July 22, 2008

I fed some berries to this Box Turtle I found in the yard who seemed appreciative as he went on his way. I put the berries in front of him and left alone and he and the berries were gone about a half hour later.

Photo: July 22, 2008

Later that same day, I found two more turtles in the yard. I am hoping to keep track of these over the years by taking their pictures. Each one seems to differ in size, color, and pattern so maybe I should name them too to help me remember.

I had worried about Box Turtles when I read a newspaper article that reported they were threatened and will probably go extinct someday because of loss of habitat. These turtles, however, looked healthy so I felt good about them. As long as it rains (not a given since we had the drought last year), these turtles should continue to prosper around here.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Regal Moth, Mountain Lake Elderhostel

On a stormy day at Mountain Lake Hotel, I am demonstrating how to do a post on my nature blog as part of my presentation on nature journals to the Elderhostel "Natural History of Appalachia's Mountain Lake."

Photo: June 26, 2008

Yesterday, my husband found a Regal Moth (Citheronia regalis) at the bottom of the driveway. He thought it was dying so he brought it up to the house. I was amazed at the size and beauty of this moth and wanted to learn more (which I did from Wikipedia).

I learned that the caterpillars prefer to eat the leaves of hickory and black walnut trees. The bottom of our driveway is also the bottom of Rye Valley so it has the moist soil that walnut trees prefer. So, I am not surprised that the Regal Moth likes it here since there are many black walnut and hickory trees.

Photo: June 26, 2008

I let the moth climb onto the insect screen where she would be safe from my cat. I think she is a female since she doesn't have any antennae which the male has. Later during the day, the moth started pumping her wings, perhaps to release pheromones that the male detects through "its large, plumose antennae."

That evening, I reluctantly decided I shouldn't keep her since I didn't think she was dying. I put her on a hickory tree close to our house. The next morning, she was gone. I am hoping she will lay eggs during her brief life (only one week). The eggs will hatch in about a week to 10 days, with the small caterpillars feasting at night on our many hickories. As the caterpillars age and become larger, they will feed during the day. The large caterpillar's common name is the "Hickory Horned Devil"--referring to the huge red horns on their heads but the caterpillar is harmless and can be handled. The caterpillar will pupate and then reside in the soil over winter, hopefully to emerge next summer if the weather is just right, somewhat hot and humid as it has been lately.

The Regal Moth has become rare further north which may be related to the use of pesticides to control the Gypsy Moth. I found this disturbing. I see the helicopters spraying pesticide on the mountains, including Mountain Lake. It doesn't seem to be doing much good--the Gypsy Moths march on. I am still hoping they won't reach our land because we are surrounded somewhat by farm pastures and the female Gypsy Moth doesn't fly so their spread is mostly tree by tree. If they do come, I don't think I want to have pesticides sprayed on our land. Perhaps the Gypsy Moths will only eat the oaks and not the hickories and walnuts so they can be left for the beautiful Regal Moth. At least, by not spraying, the Regal and other native moths that have caterpillars at the same time as the gypsies would have a chance.

Note: Information for this post came from the Regal Moth page on Wikipedia .

View from the porch of Mountain Lake Hotel June 28, 2008

After my presentation, I learned that the British reality show "Dirty Dancing" was taping the semi-finals competition that afternoon. Some last minute audience cancellations allowed me to go! I was glad I did. The "Johnny and Baby" dancers were great. Also, it was very interesting to see how they produce a television show. The show filmed here last year and was a top hit in Great Britain so they returned this summer. Too bad we don't get British TV but the rumor is that MTV will produce the series here for a US audience so that's exciting. I know this has nothing to do with nature but I wanted to share my exciting day!

Note: see my post Dirty Dancing Hotel and Nature for more information about Mountain Lake Hotel where Dirty Dancing was filmed.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Zebra Swallowtail, Wood Thrush, and Hummer

The weather has been sunny, warm (80s) during the day but cool at night fortunately. The Butterfly Weed (or sometimes called orange milkweed) is still attracting lots of butterflies.

Photo: June 21, 2008

Yesterday I was delighted to see this Zebra Swallowtail (Eurytides marcellus) on the butterfly weed. It is not very common because the caterpillar only feeds on the Pawpaw tree. I think I have seen only a couple of these trees on our land.

Photo: June 21, 2008

Here, a Pipevine Swallowtail feeds with the Zebra Swallowtail. I also saw a Tiger Swallowtail this morning along with the numerous Fritillaries.

The easiest way to grow Butterfly Weed is to find a good stand of them in the wild (along roadsides and old fields). Late in July and early August, you can collect a seed pod which has hundreds of seeds. Plant these in average soil (not too rich or wet) and they should come up next year.

Photo: June 17, 2008

I spotted another Wood Thrush nest only about 50 feet up the driveway from the previous one from the post My Promise to Wood Thrushes. That nest is empty now but at the time of the photo, there were a couple of birds in the nest, ready to fledge.

Photo: June 19, 2008

I caught this hummer in flight as she fought with the others for a place at the feeder. I have been filling up the feeder once a day because the hummers are sucking it dry. Previously, there was a lull at the feeders of about two weeks when the Japanese honeysuckle was in bloom.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Butterfly Weed, Butterflies, and Scary Caterpillars

The past two weeks have been hot and sticky with the exception of the last couple of days. A cool front today should really make a nice day. Rain has been intermittent but very light--we could use more.

Every year, I look forward to seeing the Butterfly Weed bloom. The ones in my yard bloom first followed by those along the road side and in my old pasture.

Photo: June 15, 2008

This photograph shows why it is named Butterfly Weed! In the same family as Common Milkweed, this plant blooms for almost a month attracting many butterflies (as well as caterpillars). Right now, there seems to be an abundance of Great Spangled Fritillary. This butterfly caterpillar feeds on violets which were also in abundance this year.

Photo: June 15, 2008

Later during the day, I counted 9 butterflies on the plant when it was in the shade. Several flew away before I could take this shot.

Photo: May 29, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed another group of butterflies--Black and Tiger Swallowtails feasting on donkey manure after a rain. Of course, most flew off before I could get this picture. I didn't post it then thinking donkey manure and butterflies aren't that much for a post.

Recently, a group of caterpillars caught my attention because of their fierce appearance. I haven't been able to identify the tree they are on. The tree was part of a group of seedlings (10 of which only 3 survived) received from the Arbor Day Foundation.

Photo: June 11, 2008

They were feeding together for awhile. A few minutes later (I confess I touched a couple with a twig), they moved in single file down the tree to another leaf where they fed. They didn't eat very many leaves so I left them alone.

Photo: June 15, 2008

Four days later, I noticed only one caterpillar on the tree--a little bigger and the branched spines a little longer. My best guess is that these are Buck Moth (Hermileuca maia) caterpillars. The government publication Caterpillars of Eastern Forests states that they are "gregarious in early instars" so that might explain why I saw them in a group first. Good thing I didn't touch them with my fingers because the guide warns that "Spines inflict painful sting followed by swelling." The guide also states they prefer oaks but will feed on a variety of shrubs and trees.

If anyone has a better idea of what these caterpillars are, let me know.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

My Promise to Wood Thrushes

The weather has been intermittently rainy for the past week. As I walked down our driveway this morning, the woods were steamy as the temperature began to climb quickly.

Almost every day, I look for wood thrush nests.

Photo: June 4, 2008

This nest looks very much like what a Wood Thrush would make. It's new this year but I have not seen any bird on the nest. The nest is right next to the driveway and very exposed so I am wondering if the Wood Thrush changed his mind.

Photo: May 29, 2008

About 25 feet from this nest is this one where a female Wood Thrush has been incubating the eggs for over a week now. This nest is well hidden in a Witch Hazel, a common understory tree here. One evening I saw the male sitting right next to the female on the nest, perfectly still as I approached (the photo came out too blurry to post). Could the male have built the empty nest as a decoy?

While I was photographing the empty nest above, a couple of birds landed on a branch nearby. I first thought they were goldfinches but no, they were a pair of Hooded Warblers! I thought I had seen them before but this time, I knew for sure that's what they were. They called but then left after a minute before I could photograph them. I don't think they were the ones that made the empty nest. I also have seen the Worm-eating Warbler near this same spot.

The Wood Thrush on the nest looks so innocent and fragile that I want to protect her from the Blue Jays who might steal her eggs or the Cow Bird who might lay an egg in her nest. The baby cowbird would muscle out the others.

My husband and I have probably done the best to protect wood thrushes and other forest-dwelling birds by putting a conservation easement on our land.

Every time I pass by our easement sign, I remember that this land (79 acres of the 83 we own) is protected forever from development which poses the most threats to wildlife. The warblers, ovenbirds, tanagers, and barred owls will always have a home here. So too does the box turtle which probably is the most threatened on our land. To be sure, we benefit from the easement as well. We received tax credits and we still can enjoy our land until the time when we must move someday--hopefully not anytime soon. But, I am most comforted to know that wildlife will always have a home on this Appalachian mountain long after I am gone.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dirty Dancing Hotel & Nature

Yesterday, I led 70 first graders (in 3 separate groups) on a short hike on one of Mountain Lake Hotel's trails. We scared most of the birds away but did get a good look at a robin's nest with the panicked mother nearby and a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak. Warblers scattered before we were able to identify or even see them really. The kids also examined several holes and had some pretty exotic ideas of what animal might live in them (dinosaurs, boa constrictor snakes!) instead of the probable chipmunk (small hole) or ground hog (large hole).

Mountain Lake Hotel's elevation is about 4000 feet, almost 2000 feet higher than where I live. Consequently, I can see early spring again as the trees were just beginning to leaf out. Along the trail, we saw a few flowers.

Photo: May 21, 2008

This Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatrum) bloomed in the dappled sunlight. I only find this flower on Mountain Lake's and the Cascades Trails in this area.

After the school children left in the afternoon, I strolled around the grounds. I saw Dark-Eyed Juncos which stay here year round while others have left my place a couple of weeks ago. Barn Swallows swooped across the man-made wetlands area and back to their nests on the porch of the hotel.

Photo: May 21, 2008
The hotel was the location for one of my favorite movies, Dirty Dancing. This view is similar to the first shot of the hotel in the movie.

Photo: May 21, 2008

The gazebo was built for the movie (scene where Baby went to get Johnny to help Penny). It is popular for weddings in the spring and summer. The first graders played a camouflage game here. In the background, you can see the greatly diminished lake. The natural lake is fed by several springs but holes in the bottom drain it. Most times the lake is up due to ample moisture. But, the lake has not recovered from the severe drought even with the recent rains.

Photo: May 20, 2008

Back at home, blackberries are blooming while the shrub is just beginning to leaf out at Mountain Lake. If the rain keeps up, we should have lots of blackberries in July.

Photo: May 20, 2008

The Yellow Poplar trees are also blooming, mostly at the top of the trees. The large flower--3 inches across-almost looks tropical. I didn't see any poplars at Mountain Lake while this is the most common tree we have here on our land.

My nature hike was part of the environmental education programs of Mountain Lake Conservancy which is dedicated to educating people about nature using the lands around Mountain Lake Hotel.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

More Spring Wildflowers

We received another inch of rain since my last post. The trees have filled in completely around our house so we cannot see a view of Walker Mountain. The rain has spawned a fresh crop of ticks, making it risky to go into the woods. I braved it anyway the other day to take some photos of the late spring wildflowers.

Photo: May 13, 2008

This Hoary Puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) is a small plant--no more than 12 inches high. It grows in a stand of Eastern Cedar trees, catching only a couple of hours of sun a day. The flowers are about 1/2" in diameter but with several in a cluster are quite showy against the dark green of the cedar trees. The soil is quite poor and the only other flower there is the columbine.

Photo: May 13, 2008

Wild Stonecrop (Sedum ternatum) is a native sedum that grows in many areas of the woods. I transplanted it once and put it on a sunny, rocky slope. It dried up and died soon after but I was transplanted stonecrop by accident later. I had transplanted a clump of Christmas fern to plant near our house. To my delight, Wild Stonecrop sprouted between the rocks I had placed around the fern.

Photo: May 14, 2008

This close-up photo shows the tiny 1/4-inch flowers. The white flowers against the darkening forest floor remind me of stars twinkling in the night sky.

Speaking of transplanting wildflowers, I have had the most success with geraniums.

Photo: May 13, 2008

The Wild Geranium (Gernanium maculatum) has been blooming for several weeks. I transplanted one plant many years ago and the geraniums have spread to make a 100 square-foot flower bed in a semi-shaded area (as shown in photo). According to Leonard Adkins in Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, the dark lines on the petals of the geranium have an important role in germination.
If you were a bee, these lines would be even more pronounced due to your ability to see ultraviolet light, and would direct you to land on the plant's reproductive parts, to deposit he pollen you picked up from the previous plant you visited, and thus insure the propagation of the species. (p. 158)
Adkins notes that the pollen is blue, rather than the more common yellow. So, the Wild Geranium is a lot more interesting than at first glance!