Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Foster Falls, The New River Trail and Musings (in fall)

                                   Old depot at Foster Falls Recreation Area along New River Trail
                                           Along the New River Trail near Foster Falls

    A few weeks back we went with our friend Will to an area we hadn't explored all that much: the New River Trail, south of Wytheville, Virginia. I thought that there was just "one" New River Trail State Park, but along this old river that oddly flows north, there are several parks with the same name. And where we planned to walk was actually the Foster Falls Recreation Area.
   So what's so special about the Foster Falls Recreation Area? I assumed, rightly, that since it was a part of the New River Trail, a "rails to trails" project, that the walk would be fairly level, a great idea for a wounded knee, twisted and stressed more than once in the last year. And Foster Falls, with its tidy green and white old depot that now stays open as a gift shop, was once part of a somewhat bustling little town!
    The driving force behind the little town was the iron industry. An iron furnace was built by the Foster Falls Mining and Manufacturing Company during 1880-1881. It employed 70-80 people and shipped pig iron via railroad to huge cities that could use it, like Baltimore, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. The New River was important to the Foster Falls business, and this business also encouraged the opening of a hotel, a symmetrical structure we walked by,  as well as a dry goods store, distillery, and 100  homes. We only saw the depot and old hotel and a few farms nearby, but a friend in Pulaski told me she had kin who lived next to this "recreation area" till very recently. 
    The falls themselves are off a trail that winds by and then away from the New River. Foster Falls are actually very low to the surface of the water falls, that really look more like several big riffles or tiny rapids in the river. My husband wanted Will and myself to hurry up and take some pictures so he could actually hike the trail. Along the way a ground hog scurried in front of us and under a building that said "Discovery Center" (which was closed), and a raven hovered overhead in an updraft. We actually reached a dead end on a wooded trail near the river, so we backtracked and eventually got on another trail. That STILL wasn't the right one as it was only a few feet from the river. Would railroad track be laid that close to churning waters? I think not.
    Eventually we found we had to backtrack (again) to discover a fairly level, wide trail, going along a steep hillside, not too much color to greet us on this fall day. Will had to get into his gadget, his smart phone, and we looked up directions later to a log cabin restaurant maybe a half hour's drive, in Wytheville. But it was Sunday-- it was closed! So we gorged ourselves on turkey dinners at the chain  restaurant Bob Evans, instead. Man, was that good!
    Fall is a time to try to relax with nature, give it one more try, a last hurrah of positive interaction and reflection, before the cold and sometimes dreary isolation of winter, when we all stay inside way too much, becoming like bears without planning on it. Sometimes, when there is a winter thaw or it isn't too windy, winter walks can be interesting. But they never have the red, yellows, and oranges of autumn to greet us on our outdoor sojourn. 
    All in all, visiting Foster Falls Recreation Area (which also has camping, canoeing and picnicking we didn't have time for), was an interesting fall side trip along the New River Trail going south.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Memphis Zoo a place of many colorful sights

Top: A colorful red macaw. Bottom: A sleeping jaguar. Both found at the Memphis Zoo.

    As usual, I had to hurry to keep up with the male members of the family, as we encountered -- depending on the section you were in-- the many shaded sections of the renown Memphis Zoo. It'd been a few years since I'd been to a big city zoo and wondered what to expect. Certainly, the map with the variety of animal sections, gave me a clue there was much to see and explore at the Memphis Zoo.
   It was probably my first time seeing giant pandas face to face. And they were rather unimpressed with me. One was lying on his back, limbs to his side, in the middle of a nap. Probably. The other, behind Plexiglas (I assume) to keep us both protected, was working on a ton of eucalyptus leaves. Really, can't you try eating something else? No wonder they seem to sit there and have no energy! 
   Other sections of the zoo alternated between big open areas with a bridge you could cross to look down at the animals, or closer enclosures with Plexiglas and/or fencing. I thought the jaguar enclosure in the "Cat Country" section was a little cramped. But he (or she) was at the top of hill close to us, lounging around. (DID YOU KNOW THAT) Jaguars are the third largest "big cat" and the biggest cat in the Americas, a few traveling as far north as the southwestern U. S. ? Except for the mother and her young, they are said to be solitary animals with a various diet, from birds to eggs to even turtles and alligators. And they are a rather compact 200+ pounds of muscle, with those interesting spots on their tawny yellow backs that look like a black outlined circle with one or two smaller black dots in it. What they call a rosette.
   It's too bad this rainforest (mostly) animal is endangered. Killing jaguars is prohibited in many Central American and a few South American countries. Since they are considered an "umbrella" species, protecting them and their habitat will help a great deal of little species in their habitat, as well.
   At the "wild encounters" stage we caught the tail end of show on birds. A zoo staffer in khaki was interacting with a "double yellow headed" (Amazon) parrot "Keido"  on her wooden perch and getting her to reproduce various sounds, like the sound of a growling "big cat" (you see the tie-in to above). And then really big birds flew overhead to perches that must have been over 20 feet above us and just outside of the amphitheater entrance! The flyovers were done by a huge flock of white birds which looked a bit like big doves, and the very colorful red macaws, a type of South American parrot. They aren't totally red, but mainly red on the head, back, underside and super long tail, with yellow and blue wings. The tail along looked to be three feet long! Actually, I read online (www.iaate.org) that their entire body is three feet long, half of it that long tail, but surprisingly, they only weigh a few pounds.
   I was also impressed by the herpetarium (reptile house) and outdoor area of the elk and wolves. But we had a wedding to go to later in the day and didn't get to see everything. The t shirts weren't that cheap ($24 for adult large), but you could also buy more reasonably priced pens, post cards, little key chains and little animal figures. 
   As we left this museum with the Egyptian hieroglyphics at its front entrance with simple animal sculpture "animal cracker" shapes, I thought we got some good exercise and had a good visit to the zoo. There was even a part with mist coming off of big fans when you could stand and cool off!


Friday, August 7, 2015

Discovery Center Has Been Interesting

     If you visit your local state park you may find some interesting things there, such as foxes or bears in the woods, fish in the lake, cool water or rides on the lake. You could also find more "stuff" about nature if that park has some kind of nature center.
    This summer I've volunteered several times at the Claytor Lake State Park "discovery center" and it's been interesting. Many visitors live closer to the woods than a "townie" like me. I've seen deer near our neighborhood, but nothing else. Visitors (near their homes and at the campground) have seen bears, foxes, and even a coyote (the last near the East coast of Virginia). There "is" nature out there if you will but look!
    In our discovery center we have also had live critters, like a garter snake, ringneck snake, wood frog, musk turtle, sunfish, and the like. So come visit your state park and see what critters and wildlife there are to find!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Treatment of dogs-- Be Humane, not insane



     I don't even have a dog anymore and so why should something around me be my concern, you ask? Maybe it's because stupid and inconsiderate behavior bugs me. People, those mammals with the big brains, should know better.
     But they don't always, do they? They had an article just today in the Roanoke Times about a young mother who wanted to remind others to not leave their young children in a car. Apparently her husband left their less than two year old child in a hot van. They both regret it, of course, and sometimes kids get "lost in the shuffle". We didn't used to have car seats to leave kids in and we knew they would want to get "out" of the car. Especially a hot one.
     Well, dogs are no different. Who wants to stay in a hot car? The other day I was having my "get a cone for 59 cents" fix at McDonald's and had to get in line to get my treat. There were a number of people in front of me and behind me, and I wonder which one behind me had the dogs. As I got out and went to the car my spouse, who'd been waiting in air-conditioned comfort, commented that a huge pickup a few parked cars down have a window a quarter of the way open, which he considered inadequate in the 85+ degree heat. According to the Humane Society,  a car with a  slightly opened window that is 85 degrees inside can reach 102 degrees in 10 minutes, and 120 degrees in 30 minutes-- wow, that is in the desert hot, whether a dog or child is in there! They suggested we should have taken down the license number and make of the car and announced it in McDonald's. That's what we should probably do next time.
     Another time we were near insensitive dog handlers too. It was at the 4th of July celebration, and a man near us told his friend it was the first time he'd brought his light colored Labrador to this event. Well, it was dumb idea. I thought "we" were a little close and several times "I" plugged up my ears the bangs were so loud. But that dog was on a leash and trying to run away the whole time. A few times the man rubbed the dog's ears, but that's not the same as plugging them up. They say dogs hear sounds we don't and those loud noises probably didn't help her hearing any. Insensitive. And stupid.

Monday, June 15, 2015

PHOBIAS-- We all have them

Have you ever been afraid of the dark? Or seen a spider nearby and said "yikes" and not known what to do?
      The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a "phobia" as               an extremely strong dislike or fear of someone or something. 
I  am one of those with a fear of extreme heights-- in an airplane I feel somewhat protected, but I wouldn't want to be at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City, which has 103 floors and is 1,454 feet from the street to the tip of its lightning rod.
     Some of us are afraid of the dark, being in a dark closet, or have a fear of snakes and spiders. Researchers now say that when it comes to the snakes and spiders, this is considered instinctive, our way of surviving in the jungle or being around something that suddenly moves around us. But snakes are shy and do not seek out human contact. Spiders are interested in insects for a snack, not people, and most snakes and spiders are NOT poisonous, but control populations of other living things, like rats or flies. 
     Sometimes hypnosis can help people be less afraid of their particular phobia. Pets can also have fears, such as when there is thunder and lightning. If it is an extreme phobia that affects the animal's behavior all the time, then you may need to take the pet to the vet for some helpful suggestions.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Steep hikes at Yosemite, Mountain Lake, etc.



                     On the steep Mist Trail up toVernal Fall at Yosemite.

     You know you're getting older when you stray away from steep hikes. Living in Virginia, where a good portion of the Appalachian Trail goes through, you may be "used to" winding and steep hikes. Well, maybe you are, but I'm not. 
     Having been a preemie, I think I lost out in the lung capacity department, making steep hiking a real challenge. So my hike up to Vernal Fall at Yosemite National Park in April was a challenge too. I saw many others "bee-bopping" along on this trail that seemed to go almost straight up. We only got partway, to the wooden bridge where you can snap a pix of the fall from a distance. But there were some interesting rock formations, like (above) this pix of me with a facelike set of rocks all strewn together.
     It is amazing that some 150 years ago (or more) John Muir took to these steep hikes at Yosemite like nobody's business. And when climbing he didn't have a piton (pin) and ropes to get him up. He used his hands and boots for many of his adventures in this high country. Could I have done the same? No way.
     And in the last 6 months I 've injured my right knee twice. So no steep hike up a trail at Mountain Lake. My knees would give out; they need some therapy and rest, and I hope to swim at Claytor and help them out.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tree hugging at Stadium Woods, Value of city forests

                                    Me hugging a tree in "Stadium Woods" behind Lane Stadium at VA. Tech.

     I was walking with some students who were helping to clear away some "invasive" (nonnative) plants at the base of different trees in "Stadium Woods" when we decided upon a break at the far end of the woods to get something to drink. On our way to the other end of Stadium Woods, behind Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium, I came upon a rather fat tree. I suggested to some students, hey, let's reach around this tree to see how big it is. It took a little over three people, their arms totally stretched out, to reach around this old oak. Of course it's big. It's 300 years old!
     Old growth forests are not associated with cities. Forests with fat old trees make you think of the West coast, the redwoods in their temperate rain forests. It doesn't make you think of the East coast, which has been cut down and settled for much longer than the West coast. But yet, right next to a busy university, is a small forest, with mostly white oaks someone left standing, perhaps to have a supply of wood for building homes long ago. We may not fully know why, but Stadium Woods next to VA Tech's Lane Stadium is unique. I think we have a bit of a "ho-hum" attitude about trees. They will always be there. With Dutch elm disease attacking many elm trees and hemlocks failing because of the woolly adelgid, maybe not. We need to hang onto to the old trees we've got before they are all lost.
     While weeding the nonnative periwinkle (vinca) and English ivy out of the woods, I pointed out to the students the mayapple plants would soon produce a fruit. It is highly important as it is actually used in treating testicular cancer (in a particular formulation, of course, in congress with another drug). And the dandelions they saw were edible--- use the leaves in a salad, or boil the root for tea. Though bitter tasting, it is great for detoxing the liver.
     Yes, being out in the spring and helping a place like Stadium Woods was a worthwhile outdoor, Saturday  diversion.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Visiting Charlottesville AND historic McCormick Farm

                         Our second stop, visiting the log cabin and Grist Mill at McCormick Farm.

    I was on the street with my fellow naturalists in the unlikely place of downtown Charlottesville. Charlottesville, founded in 1762, several years before Thomas Jefferson starting building his famous Monticello, with its interesting gardens and architecture, has some interesting spots of its own, with some narrow streets (one time for horse drawn carriages) and old architecture everywhere (and perhaps Jefferson would still feel comfortable there today). And since our wetlands training was actually supposed to be two hours away in Richmond, putting us in the wrong spot we thought, what the heck, let's walk a bit downtown.
     The library where we were supposed to meet was on Market Street, with its part organic "Market Street Market," an interesting combo of coffee shop, fresh produce stand indoors, and specialty items for sale like organic packaged goods. I think I even picked up a peanut butter bar that was gluten free and pretty good overall. So we ventured away from the library and Market, and in less than two blocks took a turn, on the advice of a local, down to what is called the "Downtown Mall."
     Here, on a brick covered walkway, you can visit all kinds of historic shops. We briefly (my cohorts were impatient) looked around the Timberlake (the name makes me think of  Justin) Drugstore, a corner store with a formal white facade, that was formerly a bank and kind of looks it. Inside it's been an old timey drugstore since 1917. I say that because it still has those covered round stools and counter, the so-called soda fountain, where you can still get a limeade, milk shake or soup. But we were impatient. It had a good variety of loose candies in baskets near the register, and one wall had a lot of lotions and soap. I settled on a greenish aloe and cucumber one that would make a great face soap, and a few tiny Peppermint patties. And down from this, to the east of Main Street, we obtained some information at the visitor center, which is very close to a covered "pavilion" I assume is used for city concerts.
     Up a few short blocks in this very brick and mortar area was the oldest home in "Historic Downtown," built in 1785 and of course of a brownish brick on the outside. I wondered if it was open on Saturday, as a sign nearby said they served lunch from 11-2 from Monday to Friday. So I knocked on the door anyway, and a hostess graciously let us see some of the colorful rooms. It'd been a law office and they had actually tried to cut off one of the fireplaces in a shortened room and covered up the hardwood floors, but this "Inn at Court Square" was redone and refurbished. Interesting was the John Kelly room with the lime green walls, bright yellow ceiling and oak looking head and end boards on the spacious bed. The red door to the building also stood out.
     But it was lunch time and we decided to head down the road, off I-81, to the old McCormick Farm, now owned by Virginia Tech. It was rustic and rather cool. We picnicked in the car and walked around the log cabins and grist mill, the mill containing miniature models on display of Cyrus McCormick's famous mechanical "Virginia reaper," which in 1934 could do the work of three men or more. It would speed up the gathering and cutting of wheat and grains, and was improved upon. He was only in his twenties when he invented it-- well, necessity "is" the mother of invention, I'd suspect.
     There was a little trail we didn't get the chance to explore, and the farm buildings still standing at this National Historic Landmark were fairly close together. We don't even think about what it takes to farm anymore. Tractors and disc harrow tools are used now on farms and I suppose there are fancier reapers or "gathering" machines now (probably motorized and using too much gasoline). Maybe the mechanical way without dependence on oil is better. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

About trees, tree bud i. d. in winter

                                Soon tree buds will open, like this saucer magnolia with the furry buds.

    Spring will be upon us soon, but last week I saw robins in the snow...
                               Snow Robins

     Robins in the snow
     As the white around us grows,
     Hopping on their merry way,
     On this wintry March day.
     Fighting off the starlings
     Who weren't exactly darling,
     Blue jays getting into the act,
     Jumping on snow to pack
     it down and compete for the food.

    About Trees ---
    Did you know that the red maple is one of the most plentiful here in southwest Virginia forests ("ubiquitous" is the word)? 
     I went with a group of "budding" Master naturalists on this unique walk, up a bank away from a parking lot at Pandapas Pond, the parking lot just barely melted enough for my Chevy to find a spot I could get out of. We chatted casually till one of the organizers, Dianna B, made her appearance, as I asked my fellow naturalist friend about if her daughters had built a snowman during the last week. (She complained that they hadn't had school in the last 13 days, and when her husband was teaching a college class she had to somehow work on her computer at home with a 6 and 9 year old -- good luck.)
    So  how the heck do you identify a tree in the woods, in the middle (or end) of winter? No foliage, no flowers, and they mostly look gray, right? Our guide, Virginia Tech forester John Peterson, was very specific and pulled down a number of very small branches and twigs with buds for our group to look over. Did you  know that the red maple actually "has" red buds? And later, in fall, its green, jagged edged leaves will turn a bright red as well. But the sugar maples have them beat in the color dept. in fall. Their leaves vary, even on the same tree, from yellow, to yellow-orange, to red and deep red-orange. Really pretty, in my view. But Peterson said the sugar maples were fussy about soil type and weren't as readily seen in the Appalachian woods as the red maples.
    Like the photo above, we also found a "furry" budded tree, the cucumber magnolia. I'm not sure where the cucumber name comes from, but it certainly has soft to the touch buds.
Other trees common to the woods in this region include various pines, like Virginia pine, Table Mountain pine, and white pine, and hemlock, another evergreen. Oh, and pitch pine too. They are very close in appearance and it takes knowledge of certain characteristics (like the size of the needles, the type of bark, the shape of the particular cone) to get them right. Not rocket science, but may take a little memorization. And we did this standing in an inch of snow much of the afternoon. Good thing I wore a hat so that I didn't catch a chill!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Did you know that -- different sea gulls inland at Lake Spring Park

    The other week we explored "Lake Spring Park" in Salem (VA) and found the newspaper article we read about it to be somewhat correct -- it is at least partly overrun with birds in its two in town ponds, and there are bird droppings you'll want to avoid on part of the paved walkway around the water at Lake Spring. But I don't think the droppings are mostly from Canada geese. It was overwhelmingly populated with sea gulls, hundreds of miles from the ocean!
    Why were they there? Good question. And they seemed to be everywhere, overwhelming the geese and mallards in the water when we decided to toss our cheddar flavored popcorn at them. They really annoyed the heck out of the other birds with their high pitched screeching and aggressive dive bombing around the ducks to catch even a sliver of food. There must have been at least 50 gulls and man, were they pushy!
     And they weren't the usual ones we see migrate this way this time of year. They were ring-billed sea gulls. These gulls are a little smaller than the typical herring gull you see at the beach. It looks like they had someone paint a thin black stripe near the tip of their slightly smaller beaks. Though they did have gray on their backs, there were also some with speckled heads and backs, and legs and feet that were pinkish or grayish, instead of yellow. My Audubon guides says the speckled one are immature; there must have been as many "youngsters" as mature ring-billed sea gulls.
      A few years ago we camped near the bottom of North Carolina, and took a ferry toward South Carolina and Myrtle Beach. On land we spied these black-headed sea gulls scurrying about us for food. It seems nature wants to always provide some type of variety in species. After all, variety is the spice of life.
    We ran out of popcorn and found the walk around Lake Spring Park rather short, so we drove a bit more and picnicked at Longwood Park. This was before our recent snow, and I hope we get back to springlike weather real soon!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Winter Walks and helping at Stadium Woods at Virginia Tech


                                     Cars are parked on the root systems of these old oaks-- a no no.
Woooo --- it wasn't half as cold as I thought it would be on Saturday, the day we had our first "cleanup" of the year at Stadium Woods. Stadium Woods is (there may be some grammatical debate on whether the verb should be "is" or "are", but with an expanse of wood/forest we Americans tend to use the verb "is") located behind Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium, and been the site of controversy and back and forth arguing and contesting of decisions concerning its future. After all, when you're talking about 300 to 400 year old oaks in the middle of town, a rare occurrence on the populated East coast, then maybe something should be done to help this woods thrive and survive.
     In the past the university has talked about cutting up this 14 acre forest to create an exercise facility for the football players. Considering the fact that there is actually a forestry major at Virginia Tech, you would think they would want to keep the woods intact, especially when studying all these white oaks, (which most of them are) and what ecosystem is unique to white oaks. But they didn't seem to care about this. So the "Friends of Stadium Woods" and the local Master Naturalists have had to be the advocate for the woods. Tsk, tsk.
     But a group of students came out on this sunny day to help pull up alien invasives like Privet, Japanese honeysuckle, English ivy, and Oriental bittersweet. These are plants that once they get foothold  in an area, they overrun the native plants and can kill them off and change the ecosystem. We had some students actually using shovels, like the two guys working under me, to totally, "totally" get rid of multi-flora rose. This woods already has a good share of brambles from black raspberries and wine berries, so the "sticker bushes" of multi-flora aren't too welcome. It is really an overgrown mess in some places, so we worked in our winter coats, hats and work gloves to pull out and pile up invasives taking over the woods for a few hours. 
     Even if it's not been decided by the university president at Virginia Tech whether or not  to fully keep this forest intact, we will continue to strive to clean up the invasives. There are trails locals and visitors can take, bringing them close to trees you need two to three people to reach all the way around. And that's big, let me tell you!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Bit of a Walk at Mill Mountain, Roanoke

Overlook at Mill Mountain, Roanoke, Virginia

     Depending on whatever the weatherman wants to throw your way, a walk in winter can be either unpleasantly harsh, or surprisingly nice. Or, it could be a little of both. It was certainly that our first time up the mountain, Mill Mountain, that is, which overlooks Roanoke, a city like many that is named after a Native American tribe (Algonquin for "shell money"). Mill Mountain, with its huge neon star overlooking the city at night, is also a place where you can view wildlife and get close to nature. But on this January day they were all holed up in their burrows and dens.
     Our guide, Tim, took a small group of us on a walk along the "ridge line" trail at the top of the mountain. But part of the way we were surrounded by the barest of tall trees, and strewn about logs, which didn't need to protect us from the elements -- there was little wind and the sun was up in a blue sky. He pointed out small animals may use the logs on the ground as their highway or runway to get from place to place. And when we came to a tree with a big hole in it about three feet up, he asked the kids in our group of a dozen why animals might like the big hole above the ground. He received answers like "to protect from the rain," "to stay warm," "to stash food," and a few others. We didn't see any critters, even if the day was warming up to almost 50 degrees. Snakes might come out of their den with prolonged warm temps and sun themselves on a log, Tim explained, but this surprisingly mild day saw no creatures stirring on this afternoon,  except for humans. Ah well. We might need to wait another month or two before the little critters come out.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Don't Eat the Christmas Berries

    This may be a little after Christmas, but those of us trying to learn more about nature and foraging (especially if you are ever lost in the woods!) need be weary of the many red berries we see around Christmas time. Like holly berries, which come from the female tree-- yes, some trees are like that, carrying the female parts and fruit, with male parts on other trees of the same species. There a number of different holly trees on the Radford University campus, and the red berries produced are poisonous. Maybe one berry wouldn't hurt much, but poisonous parts of plants in nature make people very ill, or the case of certain plants, like jimson weed or  poison hemlock, downright deadly.
      So don't let the kids or cats eat the holly berries that may be part of Christmas wreaths. The white berries of mistletoe, that little sprig you put overhead in order to garner a kiss, also are not healthy, the leaves even moreso than the berries and cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, not fun things to happen to you during the holiday.
     Wintertime and the woods seem rather brown and bare, and the bright berries on display then are for the birds, though they aren't the birds' first choice.