Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Did you know that-- about the parrot fish

                                                  It's Big! It's Blue! It's a Fish!

     It looks like a talking, cartoon fish. I stumbled upon something very weird on the Internet (not that that is difficult, but even so, this is surprising). Somewhere was posted several "weird" animals, animals being anything that can move independently. I then learned there is  a very unusual fish in the Caribbean (though they also have a variety of this fish in the Pacific as well). And it's called the parrot fish, this one being the blue parrot fish.
     This "blue" fish has a bump on its face making it look like a beak, and also a  fused set of teeth (instead of 32 individual teeth, like people have). And THAT, makes it look a bit like maybe a "Finding Nemo" kind of fish! 
     Many fish don't have any real teeth, as they feed on tiny insects or algae. The blue parrot fish does feed on algae on rock and coral, and bites off the rock in the process! It also has pharyngeal or throat teeth to further grind up the coral -- to tiny bits. It's then expelled out the other end: fish poop. If you were to swim by this three foot long fish it would leave you in a cloud of underwater dust!
     These remains help form the Caribbean beaches and islands. So maybe those "white" sands aren't as pure as you think! They say the parrot fish produces about 200 pounds of sand this way. It's certainly given me a new interest in the colorful fish of the Caribbean-- gee, did Captain Sparrow ever seek out any of these blue fish? 

What is by my door

     Near our front door, just besides our somewhat prolific red bush (now fading out), is a compound leaf of what looks like a "mini- tree", that's come out of nowhere. This means it could be the volunteer, invasive "Tree of Heaven". But it has leaves with serrated edges, which the Tree of Heaven doesn't have. It seems to be, more likely, mountain ash or maybe a type of sumac.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Falls Colors and Hiking Blue Ridge and Mabry Mill

                                             Me on the Rock Castle Gorge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway.
                                     The scenic Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway in VA.

     It was over a week ago, after being "inside" the previous weekend promoting nature, that we went outside to take our first real trip on the "Blue Ridge Parkway" to partake of the fruits of nature's labors in autumn: the fall colors.
     Actually, on Route 8 on the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway, I think the colors were brighter and peaking a bit more. I think it depended on what part of the Blue Ridge Parkway you were on. But we did see some outright bright reds (of dogwood, sourwood, red oak, sumac, most likely) at a few overlooks, amongst some greens and other muted colors. On one hillside, at the "Rock Castle Gorge" overlook, it was bright with many shades of yellow and oranges. I noticed the yellow orange color was prominent at the Rocky Knob picnic area.
     The Rocky Knob area was, well, rocky, with many outcroppings people could walk among as they headed toward a very rustic, slate colored restroom. The information station on the Parkway itself was also slate colored, and small. But it had some neat little items, like brochures showing the entire route of the Parkway you could take. If you wanted more, they had for sale cards identifying Eastern forest trees,  drawings of animal prints, and even hats and pocket knives for sale. But the picnic area itself, which seems to be "at the top" of the parkway, was windy and a bit shady and cold. I needed to head back to the car for my hat before sitting down to wolf down a sandwich in the cold wind. And I noticed a big oak above me --- most of its branches were near the top, and the top of it swayed to and fro about 80 feet above me!
     But diagonally across from Rocky Knob was Rock Castle. We looked out a bit, but also wanted to see a bit of a trail. The trail had some rocks you  had to get over and I almost tripped a few times --- good thing my spouse went back to the car to give us some steadiness with our walking sticks. The trail in many parts was "slushy" with fallen, dry leaves, and I noted the hickory nuts and some turkey oak and white oak too. As I told my college students, the trees are having their late hurrah before winter and then going dormant. It was a short trail, and we took pictures by these  rocks in the middle of the woods, in a configuration and little bit like an "open" Stonehenge.
     Then we drove several miles down the road to the reknown Mabry Mill, which was in business in the last century and before, at a time when they went to a grist mill to have their corn ground. It was packed -- you'd have had to wait an hour to get in their little restaurant, but there a guide speaking about the grist mill's history, and many other artifacts at the site, like an "evaporating dan," blacksmith log cabin, wooden wagon with wooden wheels, etc. And even some information on making soap. The good ol' days, when people were very self sufficient. And everyone was taking pictures of the mill and pond nearby, a few fall colors adding some contract to their dark color.
     Fall colors are an interesting way to get people out on the trail. The Parkway was busy the third weekend of October and hopefully it will continue to have visitors through the entire month.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Naturalist at the Hokie "Bug Fest" at Virginia Tech


                                             Tarantula in a container at the annual "bug fest"

      From my standpoint, the  annual "bug fest" at the Virginia Tech Conference Center was fascinating, totally noisy, maybe a little too much for the real little ones. One parent complained to me his six year old got scared in the haunted house, and it was a lot of stimulation for preschoolers. But it was really a great event, conveniently held inside as it did rain on Saturday, October 11. I even got to hold a praying mantis!
      All kinds of natural interactions awaited kids and adults alike at this conference with a little bit of everything: bee dancing, holding bugs, eyeing glow in the dark scorpions and juvenile fireflies in a "luminescent cave" upstairs, even nature games on a row of ipads. Kids could even use a remote control so that robotic metal and plastic colored "bugs" could move around on a little platform, or see monsters in a haunted house.
      The haunted house, according to one parent of a six year old, had creepy monsters that scared his son --- maybe they should have designated that for the older kids, or teens. It was definitely an event attracting very little kids, up to those in middle school. I suppose teenagers consider bugs to be just creepy and uncool, so that may be why I didn't see too many there from my spot manning the "Master Naturalist" information booth. Dr. Fell, the bee expert, pointed out (at this 10- 5 event) that by 11 a.m. they had 1,100 people pass through. 
      Fell, who's taught bee keeping at Virginia Tech, engaged kids and others in some "bee dancing," or what he called the bee waggle. He told the kids to follow the customed "Hokie bird" . "Are you ready, Hokie bird?" he asked at the beginning of the bee waggling dance.
      There was an entomology table with a question sheet kids and adults could fill out, based on information from displays and just talking to exhibitors. I had a game, a sorting of insect and non insect pictures, and some people asked me about the insect questions. Specifically, insects have three body parts -- head, thorax, abdomen -- and three pairs of legs. This includes bees, butterflies, ladybugs, mosquitoes. Non insects, in a different bug grouping, include spiders, slugs (long snails without a shell), earth worms and others. Non insects, like ticks, can have four pairs of legs and two body sections.
     Virtual bees on the computer screen flew in and out of a bee hive section and were pretty noisy, along with kids and adults looking over all the bug fest had to offer, from a bug wizard question wheel to beeswax candles to a bug zoo with different kinds of hairy tarantulas and giant cockroaches, the latter maybe four inches long!
      Not all adults were enthused about bugs, though. One parent was encouraging her son as he tried to maneuver the robotic blue bug that looked like a mechanical spider. "Too bad we couldn't control all bugs," I told her. She replied, "Yeah, have them go to the river and drown."
I meant have them leave the house; that's all, but many adults don't realize we need bugs. They provide food for bats and song birds; they pollinate most of our fruits and vegetables. E. O. Wilson says we couldn't live without them.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Cove Cleanup "Dunk"

     It seems that the third time is a charm, and I wound up getting all wet in the process. I was referring to my chances to get out in a canoe in my area.  We don't own a canoe-- since you can easily rent one it would seem to be a bit of a waste of space. So we looked forward to getting in "someone else's" canoe for the ride to the annual Jean Elliot- Master Naturalist picnic that is off the New River and on the way to McCoy (I believe). But we went down a road and took the wrong turn, then received lousy directions from this young guy who sent us on a wild goose chase. Spouse Frank was fed up and tired and drove home, so we missed the picnic and canoeing.
     Another time at Claytor Lake there was a weekly (and early for me) canoe ride on Fridays in the summer. The time we decided to go it was foggy and a little rainy. The spouse went while I walked around and got a hot chocolate from the gift shop, and bought a mug in "another" gift-supply office at Claytor Lake State Park. He told me later that it stopped raining after a half hour and I should have gone on the ride. Another canoe experience missed!
     So this third time, picking up trash via canoe or on land (or a combination) I went with "gung ho" Master naturalist member Michael (I think he's a little hyper)by canoe, and he was hyped up to pick up stray bottles, and plastic. And one time I saw something green and he, with his open rubber "boat sandals", walked in and pulled a ripped up  baby pool out of the water. I also found the  letter R, and many pieces of plastic, a plant that had grown through Styrofoam, glass beer bottles, and these Skol tobacco tins.
     In his family owned canoe I also received my first and only "dunk" in the water of the season. Normally, I was paddling in front and he was steering in back. But he turned the boat around. I was facing away from the cove and didn't see what he was doing. Next thing I know, the front of the canoe was tipping to one side and I completely fell in! He didn't apologize either. I think I tried to laugh it off (and a good thing that my rain coat, ironically, was dry in a waterproof bag we'd packed). I only fell in 2-3 feet of water, but that's all it takes to get soaked! Luckily, the air felt pretty warm and I wasn't getting chilled till we were finally heading back to where we started and a bit of wind was coming at us -- I didn't seem to heat up even as I was paddling at a good clip.
     Another unique find we put in trash bags -- we collected 6 big bags and some loose stuff as well ---was a pair on dark colored pants caught on a tree limb. Toward the end, as I was already wet, I got out of the canoe and put a bunch of plastic bottles, glass bottles, and pieces of plastic and bottle caps into a trash bag of my own. Fishermen can be lazy. Oh-- we also found some caps in good condition, and flip flops, no doubt blown off their wearers at some point. I got some good exercise and received a certificate for finding the "least expected piece of trash" (for the baby pool).

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Discovery Center at Claytor Lake State Park popular

                                     Beach area at Claytor Lake State Park, below discovery center

     Do most people who visit Claytor Lake State Park in Virginia even know what there is a neat "discovery center" in the park, a place where adults and kids alike can get up close and personal with live critters like frogs, salamanders, or see animal skins?
    Claytor Lake Park, which is such a short ways off of I-81 that it is probably the most visited state park in Virginia, has a beach and swimming area, like most state parks, trails, areas to fish, camping, a nice gift shop and conference room for meetings for groups, and even a house where you can learn about the "natural history" of the area. But it ALSO has a discovery center, a place where you can see for yourself some of the native fauna (animals) of the park. And this is a good place to go. 
     I volunteered there in June, July, and August, and I learned some "stuff"  just by being a Master naturalist volunteer at this center. For one thing, I learned there are 20 or more different kinds of snakes in Virginia. At this end of Virginia the poisonous copperhead with its brown, patchy design, is more common. The Commonwealth also has the (open its mouth and it's all white) cottonmouth, on the east coast, the the timber rattler. But most of its snakes, from the tiny ring necked snake to the black rat snake, are not poisonous. They like to be left alone and do not seek out humans, but do like to hide in tight spaces, which might include the wood pile. In fact, the ring necks we had, with their yellowish underbelly and grayish color on top, liked to "hide" under a few pieces of bark we put in their little (fish) tank. The frogs and toads also liked to hide under the moss we provided in their tanks.
     My husband has told people that one time when we were up in New York I picked up a snake to show him. Not so. I just "pointed it out" to him. It was small. Probably was a garter snake trying to find its way around in the small wooded area close to where his mother worked.
     After the Discovery Center I also did some pointing -- and a little touching-- though frogs and turtles (and lizards) I'm told may carry salmonella so one should wash one's hands after touching them -- during my dozen or so volunteer days in what was a kind of cramped room off of the bathrooms and indoor concession stand and souvenir shop above Claytor Lake Park's beach area. The beach area was a good place to locate this room, as a number of adults and kids came by to see and try to touch the critters we had on hand for them to see. The little kids were the most interested, but some teens and adults also wondered in to see live examples of nature at their fingertips.
     The little (fish) tanks had some forest material, like moss and bark (or in one case, sand), and in them such noteworthy animals as the spotted pickerel frog, the bumpy brown and beige American toad, the black rat snake, and box turtles. Kids seemed to be quite aware of the box turtles. Sometimes you see them trying to cross the road. And we also had a tank with "red efts". The red efts are the juvenile version of the Eastern newt (of the salamander family) and they are pretty! They are orangy looking and may be found in the woods, sometimes right along your trail if you look! But they hatch in the water and eventually, after a few years, go back to the water (like a pond) and live in the water as an adult. I don't know why. Maybe that is nature's way of keeping more of them alive, as they are eaten by a lot of other critters and animals in the woods. I found an eft myself on the trail at Fairy Stone State Park, the morning after an evening of a lot of rain.
     Some of the kids at the discovery center asked some good questions, sometimes not so good. "Is it an otter?" asked a girl touching the soft yet almost oily feel of a beaver pelt hanging above one of the little tanks. I said no, then she asked, "Is it a river otter?" No-- I said it was a beaver. Then she pointed out "we come here every year." Another kid said, "My family found snake eggs." That's nice, I said. "We're from Charlottesville." And one adult who'd brought a number of kids with her said, "Thank you very much, I appreciate it."
     It was somewhat interesting/awkward having a deaf assistant, a college intern who said (writing it in a notebook) she wanted to one day work at a park or zoo full time. She and her dad and a few other park personnel hunted for the "critters" who only were on display about 2 or 3 weeks. Then they put them back in the woods for "fresh" display animals. All in all, it was very worthwhile for the park and good volunteer hours for us Master naturalists.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Hiking the Cascades in one day-- a good hike

                                                   Cascades Falls, Pembroke, Virginia

    I took oldest son Zeb and his girlfriend Stephanie on a hike to "The Cascades," a well known spot in Virginia but one we hadn't been to yet. The falls are well known, and I'd heard something about the trail being a little rugged in parts and they were right. The so-called lower trail took you close to a cool stream with various little falls. You were stepping on rocks that were pretty flat, or stone steps, or stepping around the above ground, thin roots of trees that were also on the trail, so it wasn't flat by any means.
      Being as it was July, there were very few wildflowers making an appearance along the trail. But there "were" some pretty white and pink bordered rhododendron flowers, as well as some bergamot, white and yellow avens, leafcup, and a bit of wild ginger leaves too. I also picked up some "heal all". I thought it might help Stephanie, who fell and broke her foot!
    Actually, "comfrey" might have been more helpful as some kind of poultice, though she didn't have an open wound. When we first got to the falls my spouse and I took off our shoes and socks and put our feet in the cold water. But Zeb and Stephanie took off their shoes and walked together up to the falls themselves. She said the stone was slippery, and she turned and her left foot fell into a crevice, fracturing a little of her foot above her toes. She went down the "upper" steeper trail without all the steps but mostly dirt, using our walking sticks like crutches. The next day she "did" get crutches and we found a few places that would have wheelchairs we could borrow for her so we could visit a few places.
     When we got back to the parking lot she soaked her foot in the cold stream water and I got her a towel, as the men did most of the cooking of our steak shish kabobs. Before her mishap she actually got a lot of good pictures. I didn't take too many as my camera was acting up, without its full compliment of power,  I guess. It was 4 hours to the falls and back. A lot of exercise!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Nature, Travel gets you out of whack, People,Writing

    Emerson said travel was a "fool's paradise" and that people are basically the same as you go from place to place. My travel in June has me tired. I slept fitfully during half of it. And your system gets 'out of whack' by not eating your regular diet at a regular time --- I admit their had great desserts (choc. cake, cheese cake, choc. cream pie, etc.) at the writers' conference. And I wrenched an arm and wrist a bit falling down (being attacked by) an escalator getting off Amtrak's train in New York City. I was helped up, ironically, by a black woman behind me with a cane, and a uniformed Amtrak employee.
    Hamilton (N.Y.) was a neat looking little old town with a very scenic campus with a good variety of tree types, some of them labeled. You actually drive onto Colgate University's campus, not far from town, surrounded by these big, shading oaks (on Oak Drive). The college must be three times the area of the college where I work (Radford U.), which is part of the "main drag" in town. There is little room to expand and they keep swallowing up the green spaces and parking lots for bigger and better (?) buildings. I can see that whoever had the fortitude to have a writers' conference at Colgate saw there was room for visitors and students alike,with a nice pond (they call it Taylor Lake) to sit by and contemplate. Or see a sunfish shaped fish whose mouth area was an iridescent light blue! And the swans left their (crappy) calling card on the grass near my wooden bench, encouraging me to write a little poem about it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Mother Nature's Wrathful Snow-- GBBC coming

     Mother nature certainly showed who was boss recently. Schools and businesses closed, and we received 13(!) inches of snow; and it didn't look like it was going to quit for a while there. The Interstate 81 exit near our town seemed to be constantly clogged with traffic and I'm glad the college was closed and I didn't have to go out in it. But my husband, who works at the college dining hall, couldn't depend on our two small  "unheavy" Chevys-- people with trucks gave him rides to and from work.
     Today the sun is out and I should go outside, but don't have a decent pair of waterproof boots. AND my digital camera stopped working :(  so I don't have any photos of the pretty snow to upload. It is covering the shrubs in front of the front door,  the post holding our mailbox is  covered halfway to the top, and a neighbor broke one of our cheap shovels--- well, her daughter's friend did. Husband told her to keep the other shovel for a while (well, we have two of the shovels you use to dig up dirt and I suppose they won't break--- but the snow is on the wet side now in the sun and I should go out for some vitamin D).
   And today starts the Great Backyard Bird Count! No birds in the backyard now, but yesterday as the snow was coming down I spied a flicker (type of woodpecker) and what looked like a black capped chickadee at our front yard feeder. In the last few weeks I've noticed seagulls  hanging around our one shopping center where the old (now vacant) KMart used to be. You know, I like that store-- it has a better variety of clothing styles than its competitor, Wal-Mart. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Another Encounter with Nature -- Part 2

       It was actually several months ago, but I would like to remember the fact that I had an encounter with deer in a suburban setting, on the outskirts of a town part, similar to the above photograph.
     I was actually driving along, in a part of town that skirts around "Wildwood" Park, when I noticed something starting to move, off to the side of the road. It was actually an adult deer and three smaller deer, at least two of them with the visible white spots of a fawn. Mother and children were getting ready to cross the road, and it was still daylight out, though later in the afternoon. I've spoken to a local person about this, Becky at "Curves,"and she pointed out her daughter recently moved to a more remote town, Snowville, and she's actually had a black bear right in her yard!
     Are we encroaching more and more on wild animal habitat (or could it be the other way around)? Running between natural wilderness corridors, I suppose that makes it more possible to see deer in town. I hear in some places they vote to get rid of deer by extending the hunting season, because they think they are becoming pests in their gardens. I don't have a woods around me (so no big animals in the garden), but my neighbor has complained of rabbits in hers. I did see deer one night as I was driving home from work, and they looked like they were headed to the cemetery. What, to visit a friend? There are big trees at the nearest cemetery, too high I think for them to reach the branches, but maybe they were going to eat some grass and shrubs instead. Deer seem to be amazingly fearless, until you start moving toward them. They are the gentle creatures of the woods and we should appreciate their presence, because they are a reminder we still have nature quite close to our door, if we would but let it in.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Some Glimpses of Nature Part 1

     It-- he or she, traveling so fast I couldn't tell which -- stared straight at me as I cracked open the front door of the house to let the cat in. Sammie -- our cat, named after Samantha Brady of "Days of Our Lives" TV fame -- didn't seem to notice that barely above the hedges partly in front of the walkway in front of the house and slightly above my eye level was (gosh)  a hummingbird (we're talking back in July, not now in January). It was a female, a ruby throated hummingbird (many birds being dimorphic) looking at me. She was in her helicopterlike position, as though she were waiting for me to throw her some bread crumbs. Close to my front door is also a tall, gangly rose bush. Maybe she had tried for some nectar from those red flowers before it decided to just hover by my front door? I couldn't tell. But in 15 seconds she suddenly "zipped" away. Too bad we didn't have a feeder out front.
     Our neighbors had a tree of Sharon and a sugar water hummingbird feeder out front, but I believe they were in the process of cutting it down. After that I didn't see any more hummingbirds. They are very fast wing flappers and one wonders how they keep their energy up, especially in winter, when most of them do travel south to warmer climes. As long as we have "sugar" feeders and deep, nectar filled birds the hummingbirds will survive, though I'm also told, like other birds, they will wolf down tiny insects too. The early bird literally "does" catch the worm, and eat it too!