Bluebirds Need Your Help!

It’s time to put up the bluebird nesting box. It’s still winter, mid-February, but the bluebirds will begin checking out housing in a few weeks.

Bluebirds are one of my favorite bird species. They are about seven inches in length and the males have bright, truly blue heads, backs and wings, an orange-red throat and breast and white belly.  The females have a grayish head, back and wings, but edged with blue. They are members of the thrush family, the finest singers in the woods. Their song is a soft, melodious warble that finishes on a slightly lower pitch and with just a hint of sadness to the tone. I love the sight and song of bluebirds so much that I can pick out just a fragment of a song, or a call note, a quarter mile away.

Bluebird Photo from Wikipedia

There are three kinds of bluebirds in North America – the Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird and the Eastern Bluebird which inhabits areas East of the Rocky Mountains. Once plentiful,  North American Bluebirds were in decline through much of the 20th century and their numbers  had dropped by an estimated 70 percent by 1970. The reason was largely due to the proliferation  of nonnative bird species that were cavity nesters like bluebirds. These species, the European Starling and English House Sparrow, outcompeted bluebirds for nesting sites by aggressively attacking them, driving them off their nests, destroying eggs, killing nestlings and sometimes even the adults.  

To reverse the decline of bluebirds, in 1978, Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, founded the North American Bluebird Society to promote the preservation of bluebirds. The main focus of Dr. Zeleny’s efforts was the provision of nestboxes and managing of bluebird nestbox trails. He designed a nestbox that had a small enough entrance hole to keep the larger starlings out, and a hinge on the top so the box can be viewed. The English House Sparrows can still get in the boxes, but Dr. Zeleny stressed monitoring of the boxes and removal of English House Sparrow nests and eggs. The combination of educating the public about the needs of bluebirds, providing them with nestboxes and information for monitoring them has had positive results. In 2005, the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory reported sitings, once rare, of bluebirds all across the southern United States as part of its Backyard Bird Count conducted by thousands of citizen scientists. You can read more about providing and monitoring bluebird nesting boxes here.

Yesterday, I erected a bluebird nesting box on a six foot smooth, round metal pole, attached a baffle designed to keep raccoons from reaching up and destroying eggs or nestlings, and will later affix a metal cage with sharp wire points to keep out snakes. I tried it out on the box, but will screw it in place only after the box is being used by a bluebird, or

Author shows snake guard for bluebird nesing box

other native cavity nesting bird. The birds may be scared away by the cage, but once eggs are laid and nestlings hatch, they will not abandon the box.

I placed the pole and nestbox on the edge of a natural opening in the woods near the summit of Naked Mountain. It is not far from my house and deck, so I can spy on activity, using binoculars, from a distance. I will also monitor weekly to ensure English House Sparrows do not use the box. The spot I picked is exactly the spot bluebirds themselves chose twenty years ago. There was a hollow tree on the edge of the clearing with woodpecker holes on its south-facing side, the preferred direction. The clearing provides the birds with an open area to locate and pounce on crawling bugs. It also provides an intermittent drinking and bathing water source via a bowel effect in the rock formation. A shallow puddle forms there and stays for a few days after a rain shower. I have secretly spied on many kinds of birds, including bluebirds, bathing in the rock puddle. It is totally fun to watch this!  I also provide additional water in a birdbath near the house for those hot, dry weeks in July. 

Author puts up bluebird nesting box on Naked Mountain

The bluebirds fledged two broods for two consecutive summers in that old hollow tree. Then it blew down in a storm. That’s when I started putting up the nestboxes. But two summers ago, my resident pesky bear that I have nicknamed Chobani because he seems to prefer Greek yogurt, predated the nestbox. You can read more about Chobani in the January 28th post on “How To Be Bear Smart On Naked Mountain.” I didn’t put a nestbox up last spring, but Chobani didn’t bother me all last summer, so I am going to try again.

We’ll see what happens this spring. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

Coyotes — Boon or Menace?

Coyotes are a growing presence, and some would say menace, in the Eastern United States, including Virginia.  While I have never seen one on Naked Mountain, I have seen signs that may indicate their presence – scat like a dog’s, but unlike dog scat, full of hair.  Neighbors have also heard coyotes calling and yipping.  They sound like a cross between a wolf and a dog alternating with a high-pitched howl and yip-like barking.

Coyote – photo from Wikipedia

Friends who live in southern Albemarle County, about seven miles away, told me an amazing story verifying rumors of coyote wiliness.  One day last summer, Will walked out to one of the barns on their 1200 acre farm accompanied by the family’s young bloodhound, Missy, and a visiting pet, a small mongrel named Riley.  The whole way out to the barn, the dogs ran at each other playfully.  When the threesome got to the barn, Will saw that a coyote, standing on the lip of the “slash,” or swampy area, behind the barn, was intently watching the dogs.  Will and his wife Ti knew that a family of coyotes had moved into the slash establishing a den there.  Will watched as the coyote trotted up to the playful dogs, who were unaware of its presence at first, and then engaged them in active play.  He was astonished as the coyote played with the dogs like it was one of them.  But then, the coyote ran a little distance away, turning back to glance at the dogs in a kind of invitation.  Missy froze and just stared.  Riley chased after the coyote who then led him down the sloping field toward the slash.  When Will turned his glance to the slash he saw two other coyotes standing there, intently watching the approaching pair.  Will saw the developing danger for Riley and called frantically to him.  Finally, in the nick of time, he got his attention and Riley ran to Will, leaving his strange new companion behind.  If he hadn’t, the threesome pack of coyotes would have made quick work of poor little Riley.

 Deer hunting season has just concluded in Virginia and many hunters in the Naked Mountain area are reporting that the number of deer are significantly down.  Some hunters believe the influx of coyotes are responsible.  Many wildflower enthusiasts, like myself, would cheer this possibility.  On Naked Mountain, deer browse on many native plants including beautiful wildflowers like Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis),

Bloodroot — Photo from Jennifer Anderson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

which I have watched decline since my husband and I purchased Naked Mountain in 1988.  

I called Matt Knox, one of two deer project coordinators with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) to ask him if he thought coyotes could be responsible for a decline in the deer population. He told me that coyotes used to be rare in the state twenty years ago when he started work with the VDGIF, but now they are commonplace.  Over the twenty years Matt said the population of deer in the state has been stable.  Some years the number of deer killed by hunters is down as in 2010, the year after a winter when a foot of snow was on the ground in most of the state for 60-90 days. Many deer starved and did not reproduce in the Spring.  He also said they would be easy targets for coyotes who can walk on top of crusty snow, while deer punch through, slowing them down. But in 2011, the deer population was up.  This year, Matt has had many reports that hunters have killed many fewer deer, but the numbers from the state’s many check points will not be available for several months.  Matt noted that the deer population in the Western United States has long co-existed with coyotes and their numbers have not suffered.  He then told me about an interesting research project that is investigating coyote behavior.

 I called Mike Fies, wildlife biologist with VDGIF, who is directing the “Ecology of the Eastern Coyote” research project.  It is being carried out at Virginia Tech by a professor there and two graduate students.  The project is designed to answer questions about whether or not coyotes are impacting the deer population in western Virginia where the numbers of deer on public lands, like the George Washington National Forest, are down. Mike said this may be due to many factors including expanding poor habitat as trees are not cut and forests mature.  He noted that the bear population has been increasing quite rapidly and that bears, in addition to coyotes, are predating deer fawns. 

 The research will impart information about the Eastern coyote which is a very different animal than its better known Western cousin.  The Eastern coyote is larger, possibly because it has interbred with the Canadian Red Wolf  in its migration East, and it has different habits.  The project traps coyotes and fits them with radio collars so their movements and denning behavior can be tracked.  Researchers are also collecting and analyzing coyote scat to determine what the animal has eaten.  The scat is subjected to DNA analysis to ensure that it is coyote and not bobcat or bear scat.  The DNA analysis also allows researchers to identify specific individual coyotes providing  a rich database of ecological information. 

 The three year project is in its second year.  Stay tuned.   

 

 

 

 

The Blacksmith

I needed help with my fireplace.  When we built the house twenty years ago,  we selected a plan that located the fireplace in the center of the house so as not to block gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge Mountains through large floor to ceiling glass doors that opened onto a series of decks.  We knew that all that glass in a house facing northwest, even though double paned, might result in keeping the living room a little cool in the winter months.  A woodstove clearly would have been more practical, but we wanted a fully viewed fire in a fireplace. Most modern fireplaces don’t do a good job of warming a room.  What to do?

We had noticed that friends of ours that lived in nearby Albemarle County on an estate that had been in their family for seven generations always had radiantly warm fires burning in their fireplaces on cold, snowy days.  These fires were significantly warmer than any we had ever experienced, and certainly warmer than those produced by the fireplace in the Northern Virginia home we then owned. We shared our observations and our friends responded that all the fireplaces in their 1810 home were “Rumfords.”  They explained someone named Count Rumford (a Tory from Colonial days) figured out that the only real heat a fireplace emits is radiant heat.  Therefore, the firebox needs to be tall, wide and shallow and flush with the floor to allow for the maximum amount of radiant heat   

Intrigued, I began to research Rumford fireplaces.  As this was in the days before widespread use of personal computers and the internet, it was not as easy as it would be today.  But I found and ordered a pamphlet entitled, “Energy Efficient Masonry Fireplaces” from the Centre for Research and Development in Masonry in Calgary, Alberta Canada.  The pamphlet extols the virtues of a Rumford fireplace and provided clear blueprints on how to build one.  I handed this over to our builder who, in turn, gave it to the masons subcontracted to build our fireplace.  You don’t have to order the pamphlet from Canada; you can read more about Rumford fireplaces at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rumford_fireplace.

The stone masons were Nelson County craftsman, but former school teachers who had emigrated to the peace of rural central Virginia from the frenzy of Northern Virginia.  They had learned their dry-stone masonry technique from a local master. When they visited Naked Mountain and the building site, they urged us not to buy pretty stone from a building supplier, but rather to use the dark, streaked and lichen-covered stone they found lying on the ground everywhere near the building site.  They said they had never seen stone like this.  Many of the fragments were right-sized and required little more effort than being picked up, brushed off and fitted, like a puzzle, with other found stones.  The finished fireplace, they argued, would look like the rocks we could view just beyond our windows.  

Many years later, we learned how special those rocks are:  amphibolite that has been metamorphosed through geologic forces from basalt and that is rich in calcium, magnesium and potassium.  These chemicals leach into the soil and help nurture robust and diverse flora on Naked Mountain.

But back to the fireplace… convinced we should have a site-stone fireplace, we said go ahead.  I worked with them to try and scale the firebox opening to fit the tall, 13.5 foot fireplace, faced with amphibolite and flanked with slanted antique heart-pine boards.  The opening was tall and very shallow, but needed to be much narrower than most Rumford fireplaces.  It looked right, but when we lit a fire, the opening was so high, smoke drifted out into the room.  We then had to purchase two lintels that we could stuff up at the top of the opening and seal the gaps that occurred between it and the natural stone with yellow insulation that came in the package.  The effect was less than appealing since the lintels were shiny black and ill-fitting with bits of yellow insulation showing through.  But, the fireplace then worked very well and the fire threw out radiant heat like any other well-designed Rumford fireplace.  Over time, the yellow insulation acquired black soot and visually disappeared, more or less, into the black rock. 

Fireplace before with dual store-bought lintels

A few weeks ago I resolved to fix the fireplace; to replace the make-shift lintels with a properly fashioned, iron lintel that would be shaped to fit into the natural stone gaps.  I got the name of a good local blacksmith, Scott Hingley,  from a neighbor. 

Scott is a character who drives around Nelson County in a Model A 1930 Ford Coupe that he has re-worked so it functions like a small pick up truck.  Scott is a highly independent person who is completely self-taught.  He can do many things:  stonework, carpentry and metal work.  He came to my house in his old truck, neatly dressed in a button-down striped blue shirt.  He showed me pages and pages of pictures of beautiful work he has done over the years, most of it metal work, ornate gates, doors, hinges, etc.  It was very impressive. 

Scott Hingley and his 1930 Model A converted Ford Coupe

Scott squeezed the horn and it sounded just like you would expect!

I just needed something quite simple.  Scott measured the make-shift lintels and the fireplace opening very carefully.  He looked everything over and then told me what he would do and gave me what I thought was a very reasonable price.  And… he could do it tomorrow!  After 20 years of an eyesore in an otherwise beautiful and interesting fireplace, I was going to get it fixed tomorrow!  

Scott showed up the next day and spent about four hours carefully carving out curved areas so they matched the uneven shapes of the rocks flanking the firebox opening. He set up just outside the house on the gravel walk, carefully raking away any dry leaves to keep the resulting sparks from causing a fire.  He trimmed the metal piece first with a cutting torch and then refined the contours with a hand-held electric grinder.  He then checked the progress of the shape he was making against the fireplace rocks, then back out again to re-work the metal, then back into the house again to check it. 

Scott shaping the metal lintel to fit into the natural stone

He probably made 50 trips before he was satisfied he had the right shapes and the right fix.  Then he fit the metal piece in tightly and sealed it with a fireproof sealant so any remaining cracks (I couldn’t see any) were eliminated.  He came back the next day to paint the sealant black and then it was done.  I waited a week before using the fireplace to be sure the sealant and paint were properly cured.  The new, beautiful lintel worked perfectly.

 Well done Scott!

Finished fireplace with new lintel.

Celebration of the just published Flora of Virginia!

Yesterday, December 9, 2012, was a momentous day in the natural history of the state of Virginia, one of the original 13 colonies and so one of the nation’s oldest states.  Yesterday, marked the celebration of the publication of the Flora of Virginia, a 1,554 page compendium of all of the plant species known to persist and reproduce in the state without cultivation. The hefty manual, 11 years in the making, includes descriptions of 3,164 species organized into 189 families, accompanied by 1400 original illustrations.  There are fascinating introductory chapters describing the history of plant discovery and documentation in Virginia, the ecology and natural history of plant species as well as descriptions of accessible natural area sites that showcase the rich variety of species within Virginia’s borders.  Because Virginia encompasses five physiographic provinces, from low lying coastal regions to mountainous plateaus, it harbors an unusual diversity of plant species matched only by a handful of other states that are much larger in size.

Stacks of Flora of Virginia at publication celebration.

Most important of all, the manual includes a key to the general classifications and to the families within them that is described as “user-friendly and innovative” and should reduce the need to bring along a dissecting scope for a field trip (but do bring your magnifying lens).  The key, the essential aide to field detective work, is prefaced by a quick explanation of the whys and wherefores of botanical keys and a review of the most common terms for botanical structures.  There is also an extensive glossary of terms and the index includes listing by common as well as Latin names.  You can read more about The Flora of Virginia Project which produced the manual and order a copy of it here.

Until yesterday, Virginia was the only state without a modern day flora.  Until yesterday, when I ventured out on Naked Mountain looking for new flowers to identify, I had to take along the West Virginia Flora to accomplish this delightful task.  I own the Second Edition published in 1978. Until yesterday, it was the best approximation I could find to a resource that might describe the species I would likely encounter on Naked Mountain.

Why Virginia was so late in developing its own modern flora may be due, in part, to the fact that this is not the first flora of Virginia to be published. The first publication took place in 1737 and was entitled, Flora Virginica. It was based on the collection and classification of plants by Virginia colonist, John Clayton, which he sent to European botanists.  Clayton’s findings were astonishing to men like Carl Linnaeus, the famous originator of the species classification system used today by botanists around the world.  The story of Clayton’s collaboration with European scientists is described in the new, 2012 Flora of Virginia.  

Yesterday’s celebrations began at noon at The Wintergreen Nature Foundation(TWNF).  Executive Director, Doug Coleman, provided an overview of the Flora of Virginia Project which enlisted support and direct input from a Who’s Who of Virginia’s botanists, botanical organizations and their leadership.  

Doug Coleman, Executive Director of The Wintergreen Nature Foundation. To his left is Lara Call Gastinger, main illustrator for the Flora.

Many of them were at TWNF yesterday to bask in the glow cast by the culmination of a major piece of work that is a significant contribution not only to Virginia’s natural history, but to the natural history of the Southeastern region of the United States.  The Flora’s three authors were present: 

  • Alan Weakley, a Virginia native, is director of the University of North Carolina Herbarium and an adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Christopher Ludwig is Executive Director of the Flora Project and chief biologist of the Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • John Townsend is staff biologist with the Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, previously curator of the herbarium of Clemson University.

    Chris Ludwig, Executive Director of the Flora of Virginia Project, speaking at the Flora celebration.

Chris Ludwig, Gary Fleming, who wrote two of the introductory chapters, and many other botanists present at the celebration have been on Naked Mountain and inventoried the plants growing in the barrens there, or in several of the vegetation plots that have been established to conduct research.  The Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation holds the easement for Naked Mountain and provides me with stewardship assistance to control invasive species.

Also present at yesterday’s celebration were two of the illustrators, including Lara Call Gastinger who illustrated the bulk of the Flora.  Lara is an exquisite artist who won a Royal Horticultural Society gold medal in 2007.  You can see some of her work here and on the Flora dust jacket (pictured above) which features one of my favorite wildflowers that I see in various locations on Naked Mountain:  Claytonia virginica, Spring Beauty — a well-chosen example for its relevant historical name and its proliferation in many of Virginia’s habitats.

The Flora of Virginia is a monumental contribution for many reasons and purposes.  It is designed to be used not just by scientists to further study and knowledge of Virginia’s plants, but by amateurs who simply love wildflowers.  There has been attention, all along, to the next generation and how to draw them in to the fascinating world of plant biology.  Efforts are already underway to convert the whole Flora into a digital app that can be downloaded onto handheld smart phones or tablet devices.  The Flora Project is building a library for its website of gorgeous photographs, including a few by Kenneth Lawless of Naked Mountain’s sentinel plant, Dodecatheon meadia, or Shooting Star.  As many of yesterday’s speakers emphasized, the most important hoped-for outcome of this massive, heroic effort is conservation.  The more more of us know about Virginia’s hertitage, the better equipped we will all be to protect it and preserve it. 

Author’s note:  If you purchase a copy of the Flora of Virginia, and if you live in Virginia, or visit it on occasion I hope that you will — don’t try to read it in bed!  I think it weighs about five pounds and trying to perch it on your stomach may give you indigestion!   

 

Beautiful Crafts

On November 11th a friend and I embarked on a special Virginia experience that I had never tried before.  We decided to participate in the 18th annual Artisans Studio Tour in Charlottesville and surrounding counties.  This year, 36 artists were displaying their work in 20 studios, many of the them right here in Nelson County near Naked Mountain where I live.  I love their moto:  from our hands to yours.  Here is their website.

We only had time to visit four studios, but three displayed the work of more than one artist.  I had intended just to get information about woodworkers and furniture crafters, which I certainly did, but I couldn’t resist the works of other artists and purchased pottery items as well as a gorgeous pair of dangling sliver earrings.  The level of artistry was truly amazing and some of it among the most creative work I have ever seen anywhere.

The day we did this was gorgeous with a bright blue, sunny sky and warm, sixty degree temperature.   As we drove along old, historic roadways we passed lovely old estates and farmhouses with horses and cattle dotting the mowed and grazed fields.  Glimpses of the aptly named Blue Ridge Mountains were frequent. 

There were alot of people engaged in this most pleasant acitivity.  Checking in on the website today I am not surprised to see the report that this year’s tour was the most successful ever with a record number of visitors. 

Between our studio stops, we reluctantly bypassed one of our favorite places in Nelson County, the Blue Mountain Brewery, and its special artistry: hand-crafted beers.  The parking lot was jammed!  We had a sort of schedule to keep.  But by 2:00 p.m. our senses were saturated by stunning examples of crafts of every description and our stomachs were rumbling.  We were just a smidge too late for a delightful lunch of French-inspired handcrafted soups, salads and sandwiches at the charming cottage that houses Basic Necessities.  Not a problem, we simply walked up the small hill to another famous eatery in  Nelson County: The Blue Ridge Pig, and had a hand-crafted, pulled BBQ sandwich with coleslaw. Excellent!    

 

Road Work

My road, which has probably been in existence and periodic use for 200 years, is narrow, gravel and 2.4 miles long.  Since it cuts up Naked Mountain through a forest, trees line both sides of it from the beginning to the end.  Invited guests that make it to the top are rewarded with spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and nice cup of tea (or something stronger) proffered by the lady who lives in the small gray one-story house on the ridge (that would be me).  However, to reap the reward part of this journey you must be able to get up the road.  This is not a problem on foot, but if you are driving, you may encounter a few problems.  A common one is tree fall.  See the August 23rd blog entitled “Stymied.” 

To try and prevent the experience in “Stymied,” my good neighbor Steve suggested we cut down obviously dead trees that look like they could fall into the road.  We set aside this past Saturday to do the work.   Another friend, David, joined us.  The captioned pictures below describe how the trees were selected and cut.   Most of them were additionally cut into logs that can be split into firewood.  We piled these next to the road for later pick up.

Steve cuts a wedge to direct tree fall.

 

 

The wedge.

Steve cuts the tree into logs while David holds it steady with a Peavey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As I have decided, unlike some women in rural areas, I am not well-suited to use a chain saw, I took the opportunity, as we walked down the road to each tree site, to do another

Author cuts sapling with loppers.

road work task:  grooming the sides of the road by cutting small saplings that will eventually impede travel by growing into trees.  I probably cut 250 saplings of varying sizes with a pair of loppers and my sore forearm muscles are confirmation that I did.    

 We cut down a total of eight trees.  As Steve cut the largest one, pictured here, an Eastern Screech Owl flew out of a hole in the tree.  We were all sorry to have destroyed this owl’s home.  But I am confident there are many more large dead hollowed out trees on Naked Mountain and that this owl will quickly find another home within its established territory.  

I do not understand why these charming, small 8-9 inch reddish-brown owls are called screech owls.  They do not screech. Their song is a pleasant descending whinny quite similar to a horse whinny.  During mating season the song is often a monotone trill.  You can download an audio recording of an Eastern Screech Owl from the Cornell Ornithology Lab here.  You can see photos and read more about screech owls here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Screech_Owl

 

 

Return to Naked Mountain

I was away on international travel for several weeks, and then my regular schedule on Naked Mountain was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy.   But a couple of weeks before Sandy hit, on October 20th, I snapped  the picture on the header from my deck as the sun was lowering.   The fall colors have been beautiful and the sunsets spectacular! 

Today, was bright, sunny and a warm 60 degrees.  I decided to go for a good, long walk down my road.  But before I set out I watched a white-tailed deer, a young, two-point buck, making his way gingerly through the yard.  The creature was so graceful, but unfortunately also destructive.  When there are too many deer their browsing of tender tree shoots can keep a forest from regenerating.  On Naked Mountain, I have noticed that a number of wildflowers  have been diminishing due to deer browsing.  At the urging of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program stewards who help me manage the preserve, I have arranged for a neighbor to hunt deer.  Steve, who is featured in the August 23rd Blog entitled, “Stymied,” is a very experienced and safe hunter.  He has erected two deer stands on the preserve and he has already spent a few days hunting this fall season on Naked Mountain.  Even though I want deer controlled on Naked Mountain to protect forest habitat for all the myriad species that depend on it, I did whisper to the gentle creature tiptoeing through my yard to, “Watch out for Steve!” 

 On my walk down the road I saw, and heard, some other denizens of Naked Mountain.  A Pileated woodpecker was noisily working the trees, jerking its way up one side, then winding around the back of the tree and jerking its way up to the top speaking loudly the whole time.   I often see pairs or threesomes of these striking woodpeckers on Naked Mountain.  They remind me of flying dinosaurs with their long, pointed beaks and their bony

Pileated Woodpecker (Stock photo)

red-crested profile that is exaggerated by the black and white stripes on their cheeks and necks. Pileateds need about 300 acres of forest to successfully breed.  I love seeing them in pairs on Naked Mountain.   It is direct confirmation of the importance of establishing a natural area preserve and working to protect the habitat that allows this species to survive even though it means destroying some members of other species that are in harmful abundance.

Early Fall Delights on Naked Mountain

The weather for the past several days has been spectacular!  Low humidity, warm days in the 70’s with bright, clear blue skies and cool evenings drenched with golden red sunsets.  

Yesterday morning, as I sipped coffee on my deck at 8:00 a.m., I heard a commotion in the trees nearby.  I kept seeing flashes of yellow and olive green as several birds worked the undersides of the leaves for insects and called gently to each other in high-pitched sounds.  I grabbed my binoculars and was able to get one of the birds in focus:  Black-throated Green Warblers.  They must have been migrating, on their way from summer nesting grounds in conifer forests further north to the tip of Florida, or Mexico for their winter stay.  I am used to seeing and hearing Black-throated Green Warblers pass through Naked Mountain in the spring on their way North, but this is the first time I saw a group on their way South in early fall.   You can see photos of these small, colorful birds here.

This is the time, if you live in or near the Appalachian mountains, to watch for migrating birds.  Millions of birds, from large birds of prey like Eagles to tiny warblers, follow the long ridge of the Appalachians that begins as far North as Mount Katahdin in Maine and ends in the hills of Northern Alabama.  The ridges of the mountains provide updrafts of air when western prevailing winds hit the mass of the mountains.  Birds that soar and glide especially benefit, saving the energy it takes to flap their wings.  You will often see hawks use this updraft to “kettle” their way up to thinner air and easier travel lanes.  Dozens, even hundreds, will circle around in each other in a stirred bowl effect, hence the rubric “kettling,” going higher and higher.  One September my husband and I witnessed Broad-winged Hawks kettling right over our heads on our deck.  The hawks circled higher and higher.  Suddenly, a rainbow appeared and they literally disappeared into the rainbow!  What a magical moment!   

An excellent book to read that captures the wonder of migrating birds is Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind.   But be warned;  reading it will inspire you to climb up on the roof of your house at nighttime in October, as I did, and scan the face of the full moon with your binoculars to see thousands of silhouetted birds crossing its silvery face. 

There is a new sound in the early fall forest.  Added to the now fading cicada songs and crickets in crescendo is a crashing sound through the leaves every minute or so.  Naked Mountain has an abundance of Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) trees and this is a banner year for acorn

Chestnut Oak tree on Naked Mountain loaded with acorns – photo by author

production.  Usually Chestnut Oak acorns on Naked Mountain are about 3/4 inch in diameter.  This year, probably because we have had ample rainfall, they are a full inch in diameter and the trees are loaded.  Many of the forest creatures eat acorns including everyone from mice to bears, so this mast crop is a boon for Naked Mountain denizens. 

I could not resist taking a photo of a late summer Naked Mountain flower:  False Foxglove  (Gerardia laevigata).  This flower is parasitic on oak tree roots and Naked Mountain supports a variety of oak trees.  Consequently, False Foxglove blooms in sunny spots all over the mountain.  It reminds me of tiny golden trumpets.  I wonder what it would sound like if a little chipmunk blew on one?

False Foxgove (Gerardia laevigata) Blooming on Naked Mountain — photo by author

Butterflies Galore!

I have long felt that the most wondrously beautiful structures in nature that most of us have been exposed to are the petals of a wildflower, the feathers of a bird and the wings of a butterfly.  Last week as I drove down my road on Naked Mountain on my way to a Labor Day weekend trip to the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, I was mesmerized by the action of dozens of butterflies, and other pollinators, as they “worked” the blooms under the power line cut.   I stopped the car and took a series of photographs as they flitted all around me looking for the most nectar-filled blooms.  Sometimes two butterflies would land on one flower and peacefully consume nectar together, while at other times they chased each other relentlessly in a competitive flurry.

Other pollinators were at work as well.  I watched a bumble bee chase off a beautiful big yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, forcing it to fly on down the road to hunt for another flower patch.  I photographed a beautiful iridescent blue bee with yellow striped body gathering nectar; it is pictured below.   Does anyone know what species this is and if it is native or not?   

 

Upper Left: Eastern Tailed-Blue on Tick Trefoil (? variety); Upper Right: Female dark morph Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on dried Queen Anne’s Lace; Lower Left: Great Spangled Fritillary on Field Thistle; Lower Right: Unknown bee species on Hoary’s Mountain Mint

The Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor), a native thistle plant, seemed especially attractive to a number of species, including a couple of American Goldfinches who use the silky down from the plant to line their nests and dine on the seeds which are its favorite food.  

Another favorite plant seemed to be Hoary’s Mountain Mint  (Pycnanthemum incanum).  At least three kinds of mountain mint grow on Naked Mountain.  Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum terefolium) and the rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum), occur along with Hoary’s in the low elevation outcrop barrens. The barrens are studded with 100 year old Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana), the host species for the Olive-sided, also called Juniper, Hairstreak.  I once took Dick and Mary Smythe, butterfly experts that conduct annual butterfly counts at the nearby Wintergreen Resort, down to the barrens the first week in July to see what they would find.  They were surprised at the high numbers of Juniper Hairstreaks that were busily nectaring on all three species of mountain mint.  Juniper Hairstreaks are not rare, but they are among the very few butterflies displaying beautiful green coloration on their wings.  Dick said he had never seen so many in one location.  You can see photos of Juniper Hairstreaks here.

You can learn more about butterflies here.

After spending a good 45 minutes photographing the butterflies, I tore myself away.  Alas, I could not spend any more time with these gorgeous, energetic creatures.  Human demands required my attention. 

9/9/12 — Here is the photo of the Double-banded Scoliid Wasp that Gary Fleming mentions in his comment. 

Double-banded Scoliid wasp; photo by Gary Fleming

 

Stymied!

My road

I was heading down my road to work on killing some Ailanthus trees and sprouts (See the August 10th blog about this) when I ran into a tree that had fallen and completely blocked my way.  So, I hiked back up a half mile to the house and called my neighbor Steve.  Steve and Anne live about three miles away from me, but are among my closest neighbors.  My road is 2.4 miles long, narrow and graveled.  Although no road at all in the middle of a

Blocked!

natural area preserve would be preferable, it would mean I couldn’t live close to nature and so Naked Mountain might never have become the 49th Natural Area Preserve in Virginia!  Compromises, compromises.

 Steve arrived on his trusty ATV with two chain saws.  Most folks in the country carry two saws just in case one gets pinched as the log is being sawed, a very frequent occurrence.  Very few women use chainsaws, but I know

Steve arrives on his ATV

several who do.  It is one of the most dangerous activities of rural life, so I consciously avoid it, leaving that job to the stronger men who are used to dealing with two cycle engine machinery.   Even then, most of my male neighbors tell stories of near misses with chainsaws.  Safety equipment, like Steve is wearing is critical. 

Steve cuts the tree with a chainsaw

Tree cleared!

Helpful neighbors are essential when you live in a rural setting.  During the recent derecho, for instance, Steve and Anne provided water for our small Dutch Creek community because they had a generator.  Everyone else, including me, suffered a loss of power and with that water, for six days.  I always stash gallons of potable water in closets all over the house to make it through power-loss occasions. 

Rural living certainly has its challenges, but it is all worth it!