Category Archives: In the Field

Sky Meadows double loop

On my way out to visit Charlie, I took a fairly easy double-loop hike in Sky Meadows State Park. I didn’t push very hard on the climb, taking the shortcut across on the Gap Run Trail, which proved to be very good for singing Wood Thrush. Acadian Flycatchers, a pair of Scarlet Tanagers, and several Indigo Buntings also were heard and seen.

The mostly sunny, sweaty summer day was also pretty good for butterflies, in particular a Zebra Swallowtail or two hanging out around its larval host plant, Common Pawpaw.

not quite sureI followed the Snowden loop (I think this trail is new to me): some gentle climbing as the loop reaches the southern edge of the park property. This trail was much less busy than the ridge trails. At the second stream crossing (not much more than a trickle), I pulled out my camera to photograph an interesting orange and black guy (he didn’t stick around), but I did get a snap of what I’m pretty sure is a Tawny Emperor (Asterocampa clyton).

Best bird of the day was a Brown Thrasher checking out a ripening patch of (alas, abundant) Wineberry.

All told, about 3 miles in 3:00.

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At the park: 92

Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser trend chart



From my summary report to the team:

As for predation by the snakes, I wouldn’t move any of the boxes just on the evidence of this season. Last year it was boxes #1 and #3 where we had a problem; this year it was #7 and #62.

no TyphaLocal conditions around box #69 have changed. Past years, it was overrun with Typha sp. by mid-May. This year, it remained clear of veg.

As for nest structures for Mallard and American Black Duck, let us know where you’ve placed them and we will try to work them into our monitoring routine. My references show that the nesting season for these birds extends later into the summer, so we would have the opportunity to extend our work season.

A pattern that I’ve noticed over the years is that the fledge-to-eggs ratio for Hooded Merganser is usually higher than that for Wood Duck. A couple of hypotheses:

(1) Since the mergs start laying eggs a little earlier than the woodies, perhaps they out-compete them and occupy the more favorable boxes for that year. (We don’t see that one species is particularly faithful to a box, and indeed since we see a few mixed clutches, a box may be considered favorable by both species.)

(2) We are more likely to see “dump” and “drop” nests for the woodies: boxes with 20+ eggs. And with these jumbo clutch sizes, it’s more difficult to incubate all the eggs sufficiently.

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Sugarloaf loop

Too long away from the park, I set aside today for an easy 5-mile loop using the AT, Sugarloaf Trail, Pole Bridge Link Trail, and Keyser Run Fire Road.

Top bird sighting for the walk was a couple of female American Redstarts (Setophaga ruticilla).

pinkThe Sugarloaf Trail has a big swath of Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) just coming into bloom. Less easy to ID to species were several patches of pinxter azalea—given the conflicting keys in the Flora of Virginia and Newcomb, I’m going to call this just Rhododendron sp.

tiny, tiny flowersI had more success keying out a saxifrage that was having a great time in the stream of Keyser Run, and this Wild Yam (Dioscorea villosa), a plant that I’ve seen before, but perhaps never before in (tiny, tiny) flower.

crossinghanging onAlong the multiple streams of Piney River, I found one of my favorites, Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)—a little past its prime.

as close as I cared to beThis guy? I gave him his space.

Making the climb up Hogback Mountain, I found a very hungry Microtus vole, who hung around long enough for some views, but no good photographs.

I covered the 5-mile loop in a very leisurely 4:35. According to my notes, I made this same hike in February 2008 in 2:30. There’s less to see and hear in February; I took a long time waiting for those butterflies; and I carried a few more cookies up Hogback Mountain than I did nine years ago.

slightly wornBest invertebrate of the walk was Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), found in a small group on the AT near the parking lot. This individual, albeit a bit banged up, gave me a reasonable look.

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At the park: 91

A report from the 14th:

Greetings, duck boxers! The 14th saw hatching evidence in 5 more boxes, bringing the season total to 7 boxes with hatched eggs. Unfortunately, it appears that box #62 was predated, at least in part; Paul evicted a Black Rat Snake from the box.

In box #10, eggs were in the process of hatching; the female Wood Duck attempted to entice us away from the box with a broken wing distraction display.

the view from box #13With the holiday and such, the 4th of June makes more sense for our next work day. We will need to check only 6 remaining boxes, so the morning should go quickly. Among these are #10 and #13, which might possibly have a second clutch started.

Bird of the day was Acadian Flycatcher, heard quite distinctly in the woods on the way to the boardwalk.

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At the park: 90

From my last report to the nest box team:

Much activity in the boxes so far this year! We’ve had nests in 14 of the 16 boxes. Of these, box #2 has already hatched out (unfortunately, only 8 of 22 eggs hatched). Also, oddly and sadly, box #6 hatched just one Hooded Merganser egg while the 13-15 Wood Duck eggs did not hatch. Kat reported the sounds of pipping in box #1.

So we should have several more boxes hatched out for our next session, on 14 May. For 28 May, I think that we will just spot check known active nests. Depending on what we find then, we can make a call on when and what to do in June.

Bonus birds from last Sunday were Prothonotary Warbler (heard, and seen by some) and Red-eyed Vireo (heard, perhaps seen).

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Great Backyard Bird Count 2017

I got started earlier in the day, and somewhat surprisingly, the list is shorter: only 17 species this year. Good weather (forties) for birding. Got the pair of RSHAs.

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My year in hikes and field trips, 2016

Most of my exploring was close to home this year.

And several trips to my home park, Huntley Meadows Park.

2015’s list. 2014’s list. 2013’s list. 2012’s list. 2011’s list. 2010’s list. 2009’s list. 2008’s list.

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At the park: 89

mid-autumn colorA lazy midday stroll to the tower and back through the woods. Despite the season, a rather birdy day, perhaps due to the crazy warm temperatures. A Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) cruised by. Most notably, I watched an altercation between a Red-bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) and a juvenile Red-headed Woodpecker (M. erythrocephalus).

today's mysteryToday’s mystery flowering plant is this lance-leaved low shrub (about 2 ft.), with slight wings along the stem, growing near the boardwalk and nearly in the water.

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VNPS 2016: Wildwood Park

very wet meadowsharpRyley Harris led last Sunday’s walk through Wildwood Park in the City of Radford. The park lies on both sides of Connelly’s Run, as it flows roughly north to the New River; the stream lies at the bottom of an abrupt gorge that once separated the two halves of the city. Seeps and other flows provide wet meadow conditions along the hike-bike trail. At left you can see Impatiens capensis (I. pallida is also found here), a Solidago, an ironweed (Vernonia), Queen-Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), and Cowbane (Oxypolis rigidior) (and in closeup). Also along this path were the remnants of the preposterously-leaved, square-stemmed Cup Plant(Silphium perfoliatum).

lushlush, tooOn the far slope of the gorge, it was another day for looking at lush, leafy green ground cover: Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) (left) and Sharp-lobed Hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba) (right).

mystery lepThis mystery caterpillar (maybe an Banded Sphinx Moth (Eumorpha fasciatus): the book says that they show a lot of color variation as they prepare to pupate) also made an appearance.

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VNPS 2016: Mountain Lake

A busy-busy week (build manager at work, video production class in the evening), so I am just now writing up two successful field trips that were part of Virginia Native Plant Society’s annual get-together. Home base was Blacksburg, and this year’s meeting was hosted by the New River Chapter.

My first surprise, once I arrived and took a look at the geophysical and hydrology maps, is that this part of Virginia, such a long schlep down I-81, is not part of the system that drains to the Atlantic Ocean. Rather, the New River drains north and west to the Ohio, and thence to the Gulf of Mexico. However, it is part of the same Ridge and Valley Province (do you say Valley and Ridge?) as the more nearby Massanutten Mountain and Sideling Hill.

shrubbyOn Saturday, Dave Darnell led a walk on the War Spur Trail in the vicinity of Mountain Lake in Giles County. Much of the lands here are part of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. Mountain Lake is one of only two natural lakes in the commonwealth; unfortunately, drainage conditions lately have left it rather dry. The trailhead was at about 3700 feet. On the mountain, immature sprouts of American Chestnuts (Castanea dentata) are easy to find, their reproductive fates unfortunately sealed by the pathogen Cryphonectria parasitica. This is an acidic, rocky soil; the plant community is probably best described as High-elevation Red Oak Forest in Timothy Spira’s system.

somewhat shinyOn the ground, the evergreen leaves of Galax urceolata are easy to spot. Also abundant were the non-photosynthesizing plants with a complicated lifestyle: Bear Corn (Conopholis americana), Pinesap (Monotropa hypopithys), and Indian Pipe (M. uniflora). In the darker patches, individuals of Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are undaunted.

thanks for the drinkDave pointed out a bit of Lung Lichen (Lobaria pulmonaria); the photo shows the lichen after it was doused with my water bottle and sprang from shriveled, dusty brown to fresh green. Lung lichen is does not tolerate air pollution well, so this is a good species to see.

boggy landscapeIn the afternoon, Dave took us back down the road to the University of Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, a residential research and teaching space for undergrads and graduates. At the edge of this property is a rather extensive spahgnum/spruce bog, where some really big Red Spruce (Picea rubens) can be found, along with thickets of Rhododendron maximum the size of a house.

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Rose River loop

For a birthday walk Leta and I took a very leisurely loop hike along the Rose River and Hogcamp Branch. We also dallied before starting out, so the Fishers Gap parking area was packed and the trail was full of families, couples, dogs, and suchlike.

turningMostly White Wood Aster in bloom, along with various Helianthus and a smattering of phlox. We heard one Common Raven along Skyline Drive. Unexpected mammal sighting was a pair of young Black Bears near the bottom of the Hogcamp Branch section of the trail; we kept our distance.

rocks are for sittingFor this 3.7 mile circuit we took 4:00. No huffing, no puffing, just some practice with the new camera, good company, and a nice walk along the water.

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At the park: 88

We bounced back from the dismal 2015.

Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser trend chart

From my final report to the team:

It seems like every year I get this final report put together later and later. At any rate, this was a much more successful nesting year for our Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers.

Of our 16 boxes that we monitored, we had 16 nests started. That is, one box had a double brood and only one box this year was not used. Of the 16 nests, 13 were (predominantly) Wood Duck, and three Hooded Merganser. (We often have some eggs from the other species in the nest, which messes up the recordkeeping that I submit to the Cornell Lab.) And of the 16, 13 fledged at least some young, one failed, and two I’m just not sure about. The two questionable boxes are #1 and #3, near the tower. When we checked on 8 May, the evidence indicated predation, but when we visited on 22 May, I saw evidence of membranes, indicating that some eggs had hatched.

So, not counting the two questionable boxes, we have a fledge-to-eggs rate of 70% (114/163) for the Woodies and 91% (31/34) for the Hoodies….

Thanks again, everyone, for the hard work, and we’ll see you in February/March! When it should be colder.

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Along The Glade

first tripPractice shooting with a new camera. I’m usually down this stretch in winter. It’s much greener today.

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Blue Mountain summer walk

outstanding in her fieldStephanie Mason led members of her posse on a summer walk in the Blue Mountain area of G. Richard Thompson WMA. This patch is well-known in spring for its ephemerals, trilliums, and orchids, but there’s plenty to see once the trees have leafed out, too. The weather was cool for July, generally overcast, with a bit of a shower towards the end of the day. Not much happening on the butterfly charts.

jewelnot so odoratusSummer wildflowers go for broke in the color department. Pale Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) on the left and Purple-flowering Raspberry (Rubus odoratus) on the right.

flower and fruitextravagantThimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) on the left, in flower and fruit. And the extravagantly-colored Canada Lily (Lilium canadense) on the right.

The bird checklist for the trip was short, but we had some goodies. Heard and seen Common Raven (Corvus corax), Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus), and Acadian Flycatcher (Empidonax virescens). And brief glimpses of Kentucky Warbler (Oporornis formusus) and Cerulean Warbler (Dendroica cerulea).

only to genuslargerBut the theme of this walk turned out to be beetles. Perhaps the cool temps slowed these crawlies down so that we could get good looks. At left, trying to convince you he’s a Milkweed Bug or firefly is a net-winged beetle (Calopteron sp.). We have three species here in the mid-Atlantic. Distinguishing them calls for looking at features like antennomere colors—beyond the quality scope of my image. At right, creeping over my knuckles and trying to stay out of focus, a Larger Elm Leaf Beetle (Moncesta coryli); according to Evans, this is the largest leaf beetle species in North America.

first stopAnd, at the start of the walk, a patch of dogbane with numerous Dogbane Beetles (Chrysochus auratus)—even flashier than Japanese Beetles.

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Riverbend Park ferns

stop and talkKit Sheffield led a ferns workshop last Sunday (yes, it’s been a busy week). We looked at a lot of ferns, some plants that don’t look like ferns but are, and of course some plants that aren’t ferns. We started at the Visitor Center, followed the river trail as far as Gladys Island and Carper’s Pond, then looped back via the Nature Center.


fragilebeechySome new ferns for me were Lowland Fragile Fern (Cystopteris protrusa) (left) and Broad Beech Fern (Phegopteris hexagonopera) (very handsome).


A few fern ID tips:

  • The first thing to look for is growth pattern: does this fern grow in a clump, or singly?
  • Look at the bottom pair of leaflets, for instance to distinguish Lady Fern from Hay-scented Fern. This is also useful for applying my “opposite Onoclea” rule.
  • Look for hairs in the axils (armpits) of Cinnamon Fern.

scourSomething that didn’t look like a fern for centuries, but is now considered to be one, based on fossil evidence: Scouringrush (Equisetum hyemale). Unfortunately for the quality of the image, the growth tips of this specimen have been deer-browsed.


rockyOne more fern, Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum). Cute name, cute fern!


rampscallionsAnd a not-a-fern: Ramps (Allium tricoccum) are in flower.

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