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.