Walk among the Giants

Stephanie Mason led a small group through very changeable weather this morning. This is a regular loop for her, following the River Trail from the C&O Canal NHP visitor center and returning along the canal towpath. Because this stretch of floodplain has some majestic trees, among them 200-year-old sycamores, she has styled this trip Walk Among the Giants.

overwinteringStephanie pointed out some abundant drifts of the basal rosettes of Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea). I need learn that not all winter rosettes in the floodplain are Gill-over-the-Ground or Garlic Mustard.

scarce here 2scarce here 1We stopped for a Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii), an uncommon tree for the metro area.

At this point, my camera’s power gave out. But we did have some interesting discussions and opportunities for follow-up. I confessed a distaste for the messy suckerish habit of Box Elder (Acer negundo), yet Stephanie mentioned the tree’s food value for overwintering wildlife, and the rather attractive clusters of samaras persisting on the tree’s branches.

The question of where non-native invasive Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) came from came up (it’s native to Japan-Korea-China) and when it was introduced. Sources indicate that it was brought into North America in about 1890 as breeding stock for other blackberry cultivars.

It is used today by berry breeders to add specific genes to berry varieties or species. Wineberry is an example of one man’s flower being another man’s weed. Given containment, wineberry has desirable and useful qualities, but due to its invasive nature, it is considered a significant pest of agricultural and natural ecosystems.

We saw a good ten or twenty Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) feeding and loafing on the river.

At the park: 106

Wood Duck and Hooded Merganser trend chart

Better late than never, here’s the graphic of nesting success for the spring season. The Wood Duck number is a minimum. We had two nests for which we never took a good count of eggs, and a third nest that perhaps was predated. I did not count these nests in the year’s total.

The Hooded Mergansers were 40 for 51 (78%) and the Wood Ducks were 32 for 86 (37%). First estimated hatch date for the hoodies was 4 April, and the last estimated hatch date for the woodies was 29 June.

Some links: 86

  • Converting 35% of the acreage of a coffee farm to shade-grown culture can maximize revenue, according to new research by Amanda Rodewald et al. and summarized by Gustave Axelson. Depending on the premium paid for shade-grown coffee, that percentage can go as high as 85%.
  • A smartphone attachment can test for the presence of norovirus in a drinking water sample and produce results in five minutes. The promising prototype comes from the biomedical engineering lab of Jeong-Yeol Yoon. Joe Palca reports.

    In the wake of hurricanes and other storms, flooding can cause sewage systems to overflow, potentially mixing with water intended for drinking. Municipal water system managers would breathe easier if they could be certain they didn’t have to worry at all about norovirus contamination.

  • How to cross a river. The water at Huntley Meadows Park is never this fast or cold.
  • Melissa Errico submits a “self-tape” audition.

VMN conference 2019

Three interesting workshops at the conference, formally the Virginia Master Naturalist Program Statewide Conference and Volunteer Training, held this year in Harrisonburg.

Michael Pelton and David Kocka talked about the natural history of American Black Bear (Ursus americanus)—which comes in four color morphs, including the blue-gray “glacier bear” found in the Pacific Northwest—as well as problems in human-bear interactions. Fun fact: bears actually do eat Bear Corn (Conophilus americana).

Emily Thorne’s dissertation research consists of understanding the Virginia habitat preferences, distribution, and genetics of Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spirogale putorius). She’s recruiting VMN volunteers to set up and monitor game cameras pretty much statewide; it’s known from the Blue Ridge west, but could be found east of the mountains as well. This little critter does a handstand as a defensive warning behavior—very cute.

Chelsey Faller, Wildlife Disease Biologist with DGIF, is spreading the word about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Virginia. 69 cases have been reported in the state since its arrival in 2009. It’s particularly prevalent in Frederick County, and a Disease Management Area has been established for Frederick, Shenandoah and two adjacent counties. Inspections of deer harvested this season in Shenandoah County are mandatory.

right theresnip snipFor a hands-on exercise, we learned how to perform the dissection to obtain specimens for lab testing. Although CWD is a prion disease that affects the nervous system, in White-tailed Deer it can first be detected in the lymphatic system. So the dissection removes the retropharangeal lymph nodes (behind the voice box).

open wideHow to age a deer? Pry open its jaws with this gizmo and check the dentition.

Chelsey is also looking for volunteers at check stations.

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 7

Plants Report

I hadn’t planned on spending any time botanizing… and yet, these interesting plants kept appearing and reappearing. Our guide Elis had a folding brochure with some of the very most common and conspicuous plants of Iceland, but midway through the trip I felt the need to pick up Hörður Kristinsson’s Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland (2017, 3/e), with entries for 465 species (including 17 for genus Saxifraga—go figure). With the brochure, I quickly learned to recognize Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (Vallhumall), the non-native invasive Nootka Lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis) (Lúpína), and Garden Angelica (Angelica archangelica) (Ætihvönn), a truly preposterous-looking plant.

But, provisioned with Hörður, I went looking for more. Some of the following IDs are rather provisional.

This bushy prostrate plant, with flowers gone by, was very common, and the first to catch my eye: possibly Alpine Lady’s-mantle (Alchemilla alpina).

The next day, on the grounds of our hotel in Hövn, Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium verum), a mystery plant with purple tepals, Mother of Thyme (Thymus praecox), and unmistakeable Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) (Bláklukka).

Equipped with a search image from Elis’s brochure, I spotted something interesting and hopped off the bus in Djúpivogur to get a quick snap of the lovely daisy-like Sea Mayweed (Tripleurospermum maritimum).

So, Heather (Calluna vulgraris) is actually a thing.

In the north, at the Ásbyrgi nature reserve, peely-barked Downy Birch (Betula pubescens).

moonscapeLet us not overlook the pioneers of the barrens and lava fields. There are indeed places in the highlands where nothing is growing.

footholdfoothold 2Nevertheless, there are lava fields that are in the very slow process of being overrun by lichens, mosses, grasses, creeping flowers, and taller things. I took a morning walk around our hotel at Mývatn. All sorts of green things happening. Shrubs sheltering in the potholes.

watch your stepBut watch your step!

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 6

Other Reports

Pro tip: As you are preparing your luggage for a flight to Keflavík (KEF), do not pack your windbreaker in your checked baggage. You’re going to need it for the short scrambles to and from the shuttle bus that will take you to the terminal. Sited on a peninsula jutting out into the North Atlantic, the air field is well positioned for the defense of sea lanes (as it so served in WW II). But the nasty cross winds make it an adventure to traverse on foot, at any time of the day.

balcony viewThis is the quite pleasant view from my shared balcony at the elegant Hotel Holt. Several of my guides emphasized that Iceland is somewhat allergic to city planning—hence the lack of other commercial amenities around this hotel. (On the other hand, my second hotel, the Hotel Reykjavík Centrum, was surrounded by eateries and night life.) The University of Iceland campus is visible in the distance.

walltourists for scaleÞingvellir National Park is one of the places where the rift between the North Atlantic and Eurasian Plates is visible on land. I’m standing in the rift, with the North American Plate looming above and on the left. Þingvellir was the meeting place of Iceland’s first parliament, which first met there in 930. As dramatic as the scenery might be, this place was more or less centrally located for the delegates traveling to it across the country, and the rift valley afforded relatively flat terrain.

where does the water go?Rifts and cracks mean interesting water features.

tourist for scaleThe atmosphere of the Njámafjall hot springs area in the highlands of the north is sulphurous. Stay on the boardwalk, and make sure you’re standing upwind!

not big sur 1not big sur 2In the East Fjords, this “golly” prospect is on highway #1 between Höfn and Djúpivogur. At left, looking north, and at right, looking south. We didn’t stop for the lighthouse at Hvalnes. Iceland needs to up its lighthouse game.

the chair nowhereIt’s a long drive to get anywhere in the East Fjords. Sometimes you just have find opportunities to stop, no matter how silly—like the chair nowhere.

Dark Hollow Falls loop

common mysteryIt’s Labor Day, so it’s time for a walk in the park. I shared Dark Hollow Falls with many weekenders; the horse trail back from Fisher’s Gap was much quieter. I made the acquaintance of White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), which popped up all over the place. Why have I not noticed this flower before? I also found a little patch of Northern Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum). Both IDs resisted efforts to key them out; thanks, iNaturalist! About 4 miles in the loop, 215 meters of elevation change, a leisurely 3:10 for the circuit.

Mason and Bailey: 2

More scouting of Rachel Carson Conservation Park, in preparation for next weekend’s walk. At the pond, the dragonflies had decamped, but I found something cool (Green Heron [Butorides virescens]), and something not so cool (Wavyleaf Basketgrass [Oplismenus undulatifolius]). A Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrina)) did not stick around for a photo; I found some Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) that I hope to show the group. Persimmons are in fruit; Common Buckeyes (Junonia coenia) are in the meadow.

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 5

Waterfalls Report

Iceland has a few waterfalls.

And we stopped for many more gorgeous cascades than I could photograph. I was chasing cliff-nesting seabirds at Seljalandsfoss, for instance. But I did get my camera out for a few of them.

plungingoh, there it goesGullfoss (the gull means “golden,” like the local beer, but I never got an explanation of why the name applies to these falls) is the mystery waterfall, as the water appears to disappear into a crack in the earth. Once you look back, you can see where it’s gone to.

quick stopFossá (“waterfall-river”) in the East Fjords region might be my favorite. It’s small, not spectacular, but it does what a waterfall needs to do. According to an interpretive sign at the site, the average flow is 8 m3/sec, but in spate the flow can exceed 150 m3/sec, and a peak in 1980 was measured at 395 m3/sec. A 30 kW power plant takes off some of the river’s energy.

the beastDettifoss, in the north, is nicknamed “the beast.” This one feels as powerful as Niagara.

cleanAt right is Jökulsá á Fjöllum, the outflow from Dettifoss. The river continuum model of stream ecology doesn’t really fit Icelandic rivers. There is very little vegetation along the banks to fall into the water, and thereby to feed shredders and other organisms. These cold-clean-rocky, often braided, streams are strange and quite beautiful.

the beauty“The beauty” to Dettifoss’s beast, so they say, is Goðafoss. I’ll buy that.

Mammals Report

my rented mountOn our first day of the bus tour, we stopped at Sólhestur farm for a short ride on the local breed of Icelandic horse. My ride, whose name I didn’t quite catch, patiently endured my clumsy mount and dismount. (I haven’t been on any kind of horse since summer camp as a kid, and I am sure that all equines compare notes on what I klutz I am in the saddle.) Only 3 of our busload of 14 opted for the ride, while almost all of us did the glacier. Hunh.

the farm and the backdropramblingThe farm is in the shadow of Ingólfsfjall. At left, you can see the no-barn solution to storing fodder for livestock: great bales of hay wrapped in plastic sheeting. At right, more horsey friends.

ready for usone more glacier shotAt the end of our three-quarter loop around the island country, we boarded the Hólmasól in Akureyri, to see some cetaceans. And perhaps some more glaciers, while we were at it.

the speckled oneOur guide turned up a small handful of Megaptera novaeangliae (Humpback Whale) in the fjord. It turns out that humpbacks can be individually identified by patterns on their backs and flukes. So, for instance, this whale has the nickname “speckled” (maybe “deckled”? audio quality on the boat was sub-optimal).

the hooked onethe hooked one's flukesWhile this fellow, a particular favorite of our guide, can be distinguished by the hook in the dorsal fin.

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 4

Glacier Report

at the baseSólheimajökull is a rather grungy glacier, as it scrapes off bits of the surrounding mountains on its way to the sea. Our guides impressed upon us how much this outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull had receded in the past century, in the past decade, in the past year, as a result of global heating. That thought followed us up and down the glacier, as the sounds of rushing meltwater on this sunny summer day were all around us.

Equipped with crampons and ice picks, we set off to climb a bit of it.

halfway upAbout halfway up our ascent of 200 meters, far in the distance we espied one of the other guides on his way down.

Viking push-upAt the top of our climb, some of us did a “Viking push-up” to get a drink from a meltwater pool.

looking backand yet more aboveAt left, looking farther up the glacier. At right, looking back down the valley. Time was, the ridge in the left part of the photo was an island in glacial ice, with another tongue of the glacier flowing around behind it. No more.

Gravelly snow and disappearing ice aside, this hike was the high point of my trip!


cleanerLater in the day, our bus stopped for a photo op with some more picturesque ice draped over Hvannadalshnúkur.

Birds Report: A Correction

A sharp-eyed iNaturalist community member correctly identified the birds on the wing in my photos as Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialis). A closer reading of Sibley’s guide tells me that fulmars occur in light and dark forms, which accounts for the rather dark birds I saw at Reynisfjara. I’m still fairly certain that I also saw kittiwakes on this trip, but I don’t have the photos to go with.

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 3

Technology Report

dispenser 1Our first night on the road out from Reykjavík, I encountered this perplexing soap/shampoo dispenser with no visible affordances. Nothing to click or push.

dispenser 2I figured out that the one latchy thing on the bottom released it from its holder.

dispenser 3It still took a couple of minutes for it to dawn on me that you’re supposed to squeeze the entire container to get the gel to come out.


polisher toppolisher frontI saw shoe polishers in a couple of places, but nothing so vintage as this example in the Hotel Holt.


crampons 2crampons 1Crampons let you climb the the glacier. They strap on to your hiking boots with this intricate five-step process that our guide “S” explained.

crampons 3And they work! Here we are after a climb of 200m up Sólheimajökull.


GravelinesSigns in Reyðarfjörður honor French fisherfolk who once worked these waters.


white on bluedecaying white on redBack in Reykjavík, I found a couple of old-school building-mounted street name signs.

standardBut what I mostly saw were these no-nonsense, very legible signs. Out in the country, signs at crossroads (no pic) are rather low-slung. They wouldn’t look out of place next to an airport runway.


yellowLighthouses in Reykjavík are rather pedestrian, alas.

Across the Mid-Atlantic Ridge: 1

I’m back from a week traveling in Iceland, most of my time spent on a 19-seater minibus making a three-quarter turn around the island from Reykjavík to Akureyri.

Birds Report

I’m pleased with the results from my birding, considering that our guide Elis made only a couple brief stops specifically to look at birds. Fourteen lifers and 28 species altogether. Just a few photographic records: Greylag Goose (Anser anser) and Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus) in Tjörnin hard by Reykjavík’s city hall, and Black-legged Kittiwake Northern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialus), photographed at Skogafoss.

foldedThe photo opportunities for the kittiwakes were better later in the day at Reynisfjara, but I was looking at other things at the time, like my first Northern Fulmars (Fulmarus glacialis) nesting on the cliffs.

wide viewcloserAs we were hotelling nearby, I had the chance to bird the other side of the mountain the next morning. In glorious solitude. The sea stacks, Reynisdrangar, are rather birdy albeit distant.

bitsNot a new bird for me, but I got excellent up close looks at Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea) perched up on the bergy bits in Jökulsárlón.

White Wagtails (Motacilla alba) seemed to be ubiquitous; I heard them in some quite inhospitable places.

Easiest life bird was a Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) outside my hotel room window in downtown Reykjavík. I worked hardest keying out Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritimus) on the beach along Eiðsgrandi.