Tuesday, December 11, 2007

73 degrees!

It is 73 degrees this afternoon and been almost that warm the last two days. I know you cannot cite a few warm days in December and say it's because of global warming. Yet, do you ever remember a December that warm? It's setting records everywhere around here.

The warmth prompted me to go on a long hike over our land to see what's up.

This Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus) was tricked into growing with the warm weather. These leaves usually show up in late February or early March. The yellow flowers do not appear until May.

The ground cedar (Lycopodium complenatum) is evergreen, providing lots of green during winter.

According to Bernd Heinrich in The Trees in My Forest, these lycopods do not send up strobili or "clubs" until spring. Thanks to Tom for correcting me on my first posting--"the fruiting part of the lycopodium is green when it is fresh - those are gone by."

The ground cedar grows on the ground just like its name but these are the tallest ones I've seen. Heinrich has an interesting discussion of how these lycopods save precious energy by not investing in an elaborate support structure like the tree. They take advantage of the sunlight in the winter if they are not under the snow or fallen leaves.

Ground cedar or running cedar as the locals call it carpets the ground on this slope on the way to our back pastures.

I found this old bucket, or part of it anyway, in the pasture. I wonder how old it is and who used it?

In the back pasture, donkeys were looking for a sweet handout. Our neighbor keeps several donkeys on our land (in exchange he maintains some fences and roads). He started raising them a few years ago. He says they are good to scare off the coyotes so he often keeps them together with his cows, especially when it's calving time.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

First Snow!

We received about 2 inches of snow this morning. I snapped a couple of pictures before it started melting.

This Northern Carrdinal ate the berries of the burning bush while waiting her turn at the feeder.

That's Walker Mountain behind all the trees.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


The deer regular firearms season is over so I can venture outside without the fear of being shot. Too bad, though, it's a dreary, cloudy day. Temperatures are in the 40s--not too bad since it is supposed to get colder soon. Luckily, I still have my birds at the feeder and around our yard which I can photograph from the house.

Dark-eyed Juncos or snowbirds as many people call them returned from the north about a month ago. Usually, I see one or two first, maybe like scouts, before I see a flock of 10-20 of them feeding on the ground. In higher elevations around here, particularly on Salt Pond Mountain, they stay all year round. In fact, these birds have evolved slightly differently with dark beaks rather than the whitish-pink beaks of the typical Junco.

I took this picture on Friday when it was still sunny. These birds, along with the Carolina Chickadees, eat the berries of this Burning Bush shrub all winter. The shrub is not native here but I don't have the heart to pull it out since the birds use it for cover and eat the berries.

I liked the way this one was looking at me as I was taking his picture.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Late Fall Arrives

Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees except for the oaks. This was a problem for most of November because our sun room faces the woods. But since last week, the oak leaves finally fell from the big trees, allowing the sunlight to heat the room.

Still, the small oak trees retain their leaves which appear red when the sunlight shines through them.

My nature activities have centered on watching birds at the feeder. One of the most common is the American Goldfinch which number in the dozens. Luckily, they also feed on the seeds of the Sourwood trees so they do not rely totally on our feeders.

Here, the American Goldfinch flies to the feeder. At the bottom is another goldfinch and a Carolina Chickadee. At the top, the White-Breasted Nuthatch walks down the feeder.

The goldfinches share the feeder with two female Purple Finches. These finches returned in October from wherever they spent the summer.

Mourning Doves and several Northern Cardinals feed on the ground below the feeders. Along with these year-round residents, dark-eyed juncoes and a variety of sparrows feed.

A Fox Sparrow, rare visitor for us, feeds with a couple of goldfinches.

More common is the Northern Cardinal and the White-Throated Sparrow.

The many birds at the feeders attract birds of prey. Once, I heard a ruckus from the Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmouses outside. When I looked I saw the Sharp-Shinned Hawk on the ground with a Northern Cardinal in its talons.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sourwoods, Maples and Milkweed Bugs

Fall finally arrived in late October. Some of the trees show evidence of drought but I still find quite a bit of color.

The foliage of Sourwood trees first turns orange and then maroon--true Hokie colors (I was a professor at Virginia Tech and longtime football fan). Some trees started turning early in September, with their leaves already dropped.

But, those in the forest, tucked under the hickory and oak trees are in full color this past week (photo October 20)

Most sourwood trees have turned maroon by the end of October (photo October 27).

The sourwood trees bloom in late June through the end of July. Last month, I bought sourwood honey from a local beekeeper about 5 miles from where we live. I wondered if some of his bees came to our land to collect nectar this summer.

For a long time, I tried to identify the maple trees on our land. Finally, I collected leaves of two different trees and laid them side by side.

The red maple, on the left, has coarsely toothed edges while the sugar maple, on the right, has smooth edges. Now, I can distinguish them easily and realize we have a lot more sugar maples than red maples.

I have enjoyed watching milkweed bugs which I never noticed until Suzie Leslie, master naturalist, brought them to my attention recently.

First, they're small bright orange spots on the milkweed pods (photo taken September 22).

The bugs molt several times to become large milkweed bugs in late October.

Milkweed bugs eat the seeds which by this time are ready to take flight when a good breeze comes along.

Nature is a great source for inspiration--like this pattern of milkweed seeds which would make a great design for a printed fabric or embroidery.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

My Big Tree

Once again, it is sunny, a little warmer than last week (making it to 80 degrees), with cool nights. That would be great except that it is still dry. We have had only about 7 inches of rain all year. It’s saddens me to see the leaves wilt rather than turn their beautiful fall colors.

Last week, I participated in a “Big Tree” training session conducted by Jeff Kirwan, extension forester, and head of the Virginia Big Tree Program. Also attending was a master naturalist from another county and a forester from Blacksburg. Our first task was to find a large blue spruce that was measured in 1987. Jeff had a photo and some directions—about 2 miles east of Pembroke. The photo showed a brick chimney and the report mentioned an abandoned brick house. I remembered the house which had been demolished because it had burned in the 90s. The house was reportedly shot up by Union soldiers as they retreated over Salt Pond Mountain, now most famous for Mountain Lake Hotel where “Dirty Dancing” was filmed.

We found the spruce quickly and set about measuring the circumference (82”) and crown spread (28’) with a measuring tape. We then walked 100 feet from the tree to calculate the height (84’) with a cool instrument called a clinometer.

We used the following formula to determine the tree's total points:

Trunk Circumference + Height + ¼ Average Crown Spread = Total Points

The blue spruce (Picea pungens) comes in at 173 points—a state champion! My photo was used on the Big Tree’s website: http://www.cnr.vt.edu/4h/bigtree/

Perhaps because I am listed as the contact person, I feel a strong connection to this tree. I know it’s not native and it’s not really that pretty (especially with the brown foliage in front which was sprayed with herbicide by the highway department). Nonetheless, I feel responsible and hope that the landowners and Giles County will work to protect this state champion.

After our blue spruce finding, we hiked the Cascades trail. I bailed out before Jeff and Keith found the other 2 trees on our list. On the hike back, I spotted a bird that was new to me, a Blackburnian Warbler.

Gypsy moth egg masses were on almost every oak tree. I am still hoping our woods (only about 5 miles away) will escape the relentless assault of these alien insects brought here by a well-meaning American entomologist over a century ago.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Almost Fall

A welcome 1/2 inch of rain came last Thursday, but since then, skies have been sunny. So, it's dry again. Yesterday, I took advantage of another cool, sunny day to go on a walk on our many old logging trails.

During this dry spell, I noticed that the Great Lobelia plants have not wilted although they seem to have stayed mostly near the bottom of Rye Valley. Using their their long taproots, the Great Lobelia plants reach an ample supply of water, even in drought conditions.

Some of the leaves of the dogwoods are turning brown rather than maroon this year. Sassafras trees are faring better, with leaves a beautiful orange as you can see in the picture above.

I haven't seen too many caterpillars but butterflies are still in abundance. For several days, I saw a Painted Lady in the yard. Pearl Crescents are everywhere along with Spicebush Swallowtails.

This Great Spangled Fritillary was easy to photograph.

I keep noticing what I thought was a white, fast-flying damsel fly in the old pastures. Finally, I was able to catch up with one on a leaf....

To my surprise, it was a katydid.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A goldenrod community

It's 67 degrees at 10:30 a.m. on a cloudy, thankfully rainy, day in Virginia.

Earlier this week, I attended a great naturalist presentation by Frank Taylor, a local high school biology teacher. During his talk, he mentioned plant/insect interactions and specifically goldenrod and a yellow and black beetle. His talk inspired me to look at goldenrod a little closer.

Yesterday, I looked for monarch caterpillars--about 6 of them I have been observing all week in a couple of old pastures. They were nowhere to be seen but I could not find any chrysalis either. So, I turned my attention to a stand of goldenrod.

The beetle Frank mentioned was there in profusion.

The yellow and black striped beetle is the locust borer, whose larvae wreak havoc on the black locust. But, other insects also caught my attention...

A locust borer and spider wasp feed together on one plant.

I caught this hornet in an unflattering pose. Besides these insects, I saw soldier beetles, butterflies, and a variety of bees.

The insects on the goldenrod make me reflect on the finding this week that scientists believe they have found the cause of what is killing the honey bees: a virus. Honey bees were originally from Europe and they are kept in hives in close quarters. Hundreds of these hives might be trucked to farmer's fields which consist usually of one crop. So, in contrast to the diversity of insects in the goldenrod community, the same species of bees is counted upon to pollinate the crops. Viruses are known to be more prevalent where people are in close quarters (e.g. schools, offices) so it is not surprising to me that honey bees would succumb to viruses. Perhaps the beekeepers could learn something from the goldenrod community.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Electronic Versus Paper Journals

89 degrees at 2:00 p.m. Sunny--no rain in sight!

The purpose of this post is to share my thoughts on electronic nature journals or blogs. I liked setting up this blog--it was easy and it looked good right from the start. When I made my first post, I felt self-conscious, though, about my writing because it is so public (the world can see me now). That's probably a good thing because I check for spelling and grammar. The blog is a good place to post photos although I have so many I could not begin to post even a fraction of them.

My electronic journal is not going to replace my paper journal. First, I need something for the field, when I am away from the computer. I cannot see myself taking a laptop into the woods. I can quickly jot notes in the journal, not even bothering to make sentences. If I say I would write something when I get back to the computer, it doesn't work. By the time I get back on, I have forgotten what I had seen.

Also, the drawings in my journals have an immediate connection with the notes as you can see in the sample journal entries. I see a lot more detail by sketching a bug or spider then I would by photographing it (most of the time the darned things won't sit still anyway). Drawing allows you to understand and remember more about what you are observing than if you simply took a quick photograph.

The major advantage of an electronic journal is that you are likely to share it with others, especially if it is a nature blog. As such, you can invite people to comment or help you with identification (like that mysterious spider that landed on me). The disadvantage is that you are removed from nature to a certain extent.

The major advantage of a paper journal is its intimacy with what you are trying to observe-- nature. It is a permanent record that can be accessed pretty easily. The disadvantage is that it is not easily shared with others.

So, I will continue to write my electronic blog while using the paper journal as the original source.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Just a little cooler...

A welcome 1/2" of rain came last evening amid thunder and wind. The water quickly ran off the parched ground around our house into the surrounding woods. Perhaps as a result of the storm, the temperature has risen only into the low 80s toay, a respite from the 90+ degree temperatures we have had for weeks. Still, everywhere is dry including the feeder creeks that normally run into Big Walker Creek, a mile down the road.

It's likely to be the hottest August ever for this part of the Appalachians. Yesterday, the Roanoke Times reported that our area has an official drought designation, something the farmers have known for weeks. Fields are brown but the flowers--goldenrod, Japanese knotweed (a pretty alien), and purple ironweed still thrive along with the butterflies. I did notice yesterday that a Great Fritillary was resting in the shade though. However, Crescents, Tiger Swallowtails, Black Swallowtails, and Sulphurs are eating nectar in the hot sun.

We have seen several box turtles on the move in recent days, possibly looking for water. Last week, I saw a box turtle, large one with a major scar from a road injury, come into our yard. Our dog was having a fit so I picked the turtle up and put him in the cove. Yesterday, my husband found him dead, with an almost empty shell already. My husband resassured me he probably died of old age but I had wished I had taken the turtle up to our back pasture near one of the cow ponds. Perhaps he died of thirst.

Monday, August 20, 2007

First Entry from Guinea Mountain

Monday, August 20, 2007

It's 65 degrees at 8:15 a.m. on Guinea Mountain. August has been unbelievably hot, with highs in the 90s most days. Most of the nights though have cooled down to 60-65, enabling us to cool off the house with fans. By opening up all of the windows in the sunroom to create an updraft, we cool off the whole house. As soon as the temperature starts rising (usually about 9 a.m.), we close up the house completely. So, the house temperature stays in the 60s all day while the temperature outside soars to 90 degrees.

Rain also in short supply with only 1/2 inch since July 25. Even the cove area which usually stays moist all summer is dry. Still, the wildflowers of late August abound--goldenrod, snakeroot, and ironweed.