Thursday, March 27, 2008

Red Maples

Temperatures climbed quickly this morning into the 70s. With sunny skies, the day was perfect for going to the back of our land.

In the pasture, several red maple trees were blooming.

This close-up view shows the male flower.

When I came back to the house, I noticed a sparrow I hadn't seen before at the feeder. He looked similar to the White-Throated Sparrow I have seen all winter but smaller with a bright rust-color chestnut cap.

The suet feeder is 5 inches tall so you can see how small this bird is. It is the same bird that probably made the "Mystery Nest" I had asked about in an earlier post (thanks to Owlman and Mon@rch for the tip). It's a Chipping Sparrow and its call is quite different than the other birds--thought it sounded like some kind of electronic device. There were two of them there in the late afternoon.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

First Native Wildflowers

Today is a partly sunny day, in the mid-60s. Yesterday, I found my first native spring wildflower.

Photo: March 25, 2008

I often miss the Spring Beauty flower but having seen the buds earlier, I looked for this tiny flower (about 1/2" across) in low-lying areas.

Today, I found the second wildflower....

Photo: March 26, 2008

This Toothwort may have been blooming yesterday. The flower is also very small, only about 1/2" across but is a little more noticeable than the Spring Beauty.

Why are early spring wildflowers white? I read an interesting theory about that once. The author suggested that the flower was shaped like a solar collector (or similar to a satellite dish) where the light is reflected to the center of the flower which is warmer than the outside air. White is the most reflecting color (bouncing more than 90% of the light to the center of the flower) so that might explain why all the early native wildlflowers are white. Thus, the early spring wildflower attracts insects for warmth and not so much nectar. But, the insect still helps pollinate the flowers.

Since Saturday (March 23), I have seen Spring Azure butterflies. These beautiful little blue butterflies are a sure sign of spring.

Finally, I saw this Mayapple poking thru the leaves--the first for this season. A couple of warm days and everything will be sprouting.

This is my favorite time of year!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Snowy Monday

Spring just wants to wait a little longer to come. The temperature last night was down to 29 while it is in the 40s today. Snow flurries were here about an hour ago. On a walk earlier today, I saw spring beauty buds, just waiting for the sun and a warmer day to open up. The spice bush also has had bright green buds for several days.

Early last week, we had a couple of nice rains. With the warmer temperatures at night (50s), I heard both spring peepers and the wood frogs in the bottom of Rye Hollow where there is an intermittent spring. On Tuesday morning, I saw two Great Blue Herons ithere no doubt lured by the frogs. As I turned onto the road, they flew away. Later that morning, I saw another Great Blue Heron on New River. Of course, it flew away too but I shot a photo of the river (see below).

This photo taken Tuesday, March 18, shows where the New River has cut 1500 feet through East River Mountain on the right and Peters Mountain on the left. The aptly named town of Narrows is around the corner and the site of a coal fly ash dump right on the New River (see my other blog "Coal Woes" if you're interested).

Snow flurries are back....

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pandapas Pond Field Trip

Last Saturday, March 15, I went on a field trip with Virginia Master Naturalists. We were blessed with warm, somewhat sunny weather that was sandwiched in between a rainstorm the night before and another one that evening.

The trip was led by Betsy Stinson, wildlife biologist with Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Jeff Kirwan, forester with Virginia Cooperative Extension/4-H programs. The focus of the trip was on forest ecology with the interaction between trees and mammals.

We first observed this beaver den where a Canadian Goose posed for scale.

While Betsy was telling us about beavers, a Red-Winged Blackbird ate insects on the den.

Hazel or Common Alders, small trees or shrubs, were all around the perimeter of the large pond. This is the only alder we have in this part of Virginia.

The male flowers on the 3" long catkins were just beginning to bloom. You can also see a female flower beginning to bloom on cones in left part of the background.

These cones from last year are cute, only about 3/4" long. Besides alders, we learned about the interaction between insects, squirrels, and acorns. Sadly, we also saw gypsy moth eggs on chestnut oak trees.

We hiked from the pond through the woods where we saw sign of deer. Besides feces (1-1/2"oval pellets), we saw this sign of a deer rubbing on a small tree. Betsy probably said he was establishing his territory.

Hiking onto the Poverty Creek Trail following a small creek, we found more sign of beaver. Several large trees were felled but nothing done with them. Why did the beaver go to all this trouble and not use the tree for anything as far as I could tell?

This beaver dam took a lot of work but it was worthwhile, creating a little pond.

At the edge of the beaver pond, the water was reddish, probably from the iron in the soil the naturalists theorized. One naturalist walked over to ask what I was photographing and I said "colors." He looked at me strangely, disappointed that I had not found any salamanders. I guess everyone looks at nature differently.

We heard the sounds of peepers and wood frogs. Betsy caught this small wood frog who posed for all the photographers in the group.

NOTE: Pandapas Pond is a man-made pond in the Jefferson National Forest, only 4 miles from Blacksburg. The day use area is popular with hikers, birdwatchers, runners, trout fishermen and naturalists.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

March Madness

I enjoyed looking at the lovely snow storm photos from Ohio (Nature Remains) and New York (Mon@arch). I don't know whether I'm jealous or thankful we avoided another storm.

Instead of snow, we had a windy, cloudy day yesterday. The temperature plunged all day, going from 54 to 32 degrees (F) by 5:00 p.m. Birds were feeding frantically. I counted 10 Fox Sparrows digging furiously on the ground. Usually, I see a couple this time of year. This week, local birders reported similar increases in Fox Sparrow sightings.

On Thursday, my husband and I went back to our big pasture to cut some wood, having exhausted our winter's supply.

From the top of this pasture, we can see Walker Mountain, actually a long ridge that stretches somewhat parallel along the border to West Virginia, almost to North Carolina.

It took a couple of trips to take the wood back to the house. Along the way, I stopped to take a couple of photos.

I spotted this mushroom (Witches' Butter?) several times this winter--just takes a little rain and a few warm days. With the Christmas fern, I first thought it was a flower. The color reminds me of the flower of Butterfly Weed which blooms in June.

This Coltsfoot is the first spring wildflower I've seen (having cheated with crocuses and miniature daffodils blooming near the house). I have seen Coltsfoot earlier--in late February but often miss it because only the small flower pokes through the dead leaves. The flower disappears before the large (cucumber-like) leaves are spotted in late spring.

Coltsfoot is not a native---having been brought here by the early settlers. But, it did not come to this part of Virginia until the 1950s. It grows along our old logging roads but not in the woods. It is considered an invasive alien but I don't think it is nearly as bad as Japanese honeysuckle or multi-flora rose which choke out native wildflowers.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Former Pasture and Mystery Nest

It's chilly (upper 30s at 10:00 a.m.) and foggy but promises to be a sunny and almost warm (50s) day. I will post this before I get lured outside.

The New York Times has an interesting article today about a new book Bringing Nature Home by Doug Tallamy:

The field pictured at the top of the article looks just like our former pasture where I had taken pictures of goldenrod last summer ("A goldenrod community"). Cows weren't on this pasture since 1996. The pasture had grown up with mostly Virginia pines. In the summer of 2006, my neighbor brush hogged the old pasture and piled the small pines to the side. In the winter, I've seen dark-eyed junco birds taking shelter in the dead pines. During the summer, the former pasture is filled with native wildflowers--goldenrods, milkweeds, rose pinks, asters, and grasses. Just like Tallamy discusses, these native wildflowers attract a variety of insects which in turn will attract birds.

On another note, I have a collection of found objects on my kitchen windowsill (how many other nature bloggers do that?) One of my favorites is this nest:

I found it last summer below a large Eastern White Pine tree that grows in our big pasture (the only one left that has cows on it). It appeared to have just fallen from the tree. Does anyone know what bird might have made this nest?