West Virginia road trip

Yesterday, S. and I made a pilgrimage to Dolly Sods Wilderness in order to give a proper, final goodbye to Ann (thunderstorm whisperer) and Leta (her mom’s biggest fan).

We overnighted at The Greenbrier, not really close to the wilderness area but at least in the same state. A short climb on a bit of the Raven Rock Trail (once I got out of the golf course) did turn up two wildflowers new to me, Eastern Gray Beardtongue (Penstemon canescens) growing on the exposed rock of a road cut, and Tall Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis).

On the move, up and over the ridges of West Virginia, then on to Jordan Run Road, and finally climbing the 7 miles of potholes and washboard of Forest Service Road 19. (S. was a great sport about all the various driving conditions on this trip. And she doesn’t mind I-81.) We reached our destination, the Dolly Sods Picnic Area and had a snack. Winds were surprisingly light, and the immediate area was more or less sheltered. I read from Graham Swift’s Last Orders and S. from Emily Dickinson. A Columbine Duskywing (Erynnis lucilius) nectared in the drifts of bluets; Black-throated Green Warblers and Wood Thrushes and Red-eyed Vireos and American Goldfinches sang. I took a very short walk on the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail.

a place to come back toAs the trail entered a forest of spruce with rhododendron understory, I returned a smidge of Leta’s and Ann’s remains to the ecosystem.

I found more new plants in bloom: Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia), and Canada Mayflower (Mainanthemum canadense).

And the birds continued their songs.

Mason and Bailey: 8

A modestly successful meeting of the Mason & Bailey Club, again at Huntley Meadows Park but this time with more moderate temperatures. We have added theater buddy L and husband J to the crew. We found a bit of Eastern Yellow Stargrass at my reliable Hieracium venosum spot, and a wee snail tentatively ID’d as genus Mesodon.

It was a good herp day: mucho Snapping Turtles, a Black Ratsnake coiled up at the tower, Northern Watersnakes, Ribbonsnakes, unidentifiable larvae in the water, a likely Red-eared Slider. On these outings, I find that I’m too busy overexplaining to take many pictures or reasonable field notes.

At the park: 146

Sunday’s report:

Ducklings on the ponds and traffic jams in the parking lot: it’s mid-spring!

On Sunday, we saw three boxes hatched out, as well as box #2 in the process of hatching. Photographers reported 21 fledglings leaving box #6 on 21? 22? April. [We cleaned out 7 dead eggs from this box—this was our dump nest box for the season.] And we have one new clutch started and incubating in box #61.

Box 2 - 28 April 2024
Box #2 with pips visible in three eggs.

Box 10 - 28 April 2024In box #10, we saw sticks and veg indicating that a songbird might be interested in using the box.

So we have seven active clutches to check on our next work day. Since 12 May is Mother’s Day, we will next meet in three weeks, on 19 May. We will check all the boxes at this time, and after that we will only do spot checks for any boxes that continue to have activity….

Thank you for listening to my dumb jokes!

New York 2024

(Cleaning up my to-do list.)

Back in January, I took my first trip to New York since pre-COVID-19 days. I’ve already posted my theater reviews; I checked off two new (to me) jazz venues and made my pilgrimage to the Met’s Astor Court. This post is mostly about trains.

The trip stated off with a mess: a Northeast Regional train was out of commission ahead of our Acela, somewhere in the neighborhood of Aberdeen, Maryland. Our train picked up all the passengers and it was standing room only (and not much of that) all the way into Penn Station, an hour-plus late. I was very grateful for the comped snacks in the mini fridge in my hotel—they got me through the dinner hour—and even more grateful for the lone food truck that was open, in the rain, at Hudson Yards, after Here We Are let out.

at the terminalturnaroundThe next day, I checked off a new rail system: I rode the Staten Island Railway from St. George about halfway out the island, then turned around and rolled back. There are no fare gates at the interior stations: you scan your OMNY card in or out at St. George.

Much drama finding some place that would sell me an OMNY card; much thanks to the Bronx express bus driver who asked me, “just where are you heading?”

I made what will not be my only trip to Zabar’s on the Upper West Side. I brought back babka for the Dance Nation teams and a scrumptious fruit-filled confection labelled “Russian coffee cake” for me.

relicThere are still fire escapes to be found on Coenties Slip.

mostly in the frameAnother highlight of the trip: Sol LeWitt’s Whirls and Twirls (MTA) at Columbus Circle. LeWitt’s wall drawing style, accomplished in much more durable tile.

On the way back home, the Amtrak conductor was a little tongue-tied approaching Philadelphia, and it sounded like he was announcing “William H. Macy Station.” Now that would be something.

Dance Nation: an update: 5

We closed the show on Sunday, with a bit more drama. Sunday was a clean run for cues, except that at the end of the show we were high-fiving each other and I forgot the cue to bring the house lights up (the last of 80 light cues, which is a new personal maximum).

I missed Thursday through Saturday because I was chasing off a COVID-19 infection (first time for everything!). Swiss Army knife/ASM/understudy Trenor called the show, and do it well, by all reports. We spent four hours Thursday morning with me coaching him through my book and explaining (as best I could without the license key dongle) how to use the EOS virtual light board.

my deskYou can see the app running on my laptop here, along with my book, the god mic, a walkie-talkie, flashlight, scribble pads, water bottle, and Godzilla guarding it all.

step upclimbing wallHere’s that dummy electrical box and the climbing wall setup.

Wet towels to pick up the candy glass residue just made the deck sticky. Sweep, sweep, sweep.

Mid-winter trip reports

I assisted at Elklick Woodlands Natural Area Preserve for a couple of work days. (More days to come? subject to scheduling.) Park Authority staff are actively managing woody vegetation within several deer exclosures in order to re-establish and extend a rare forest community, known as northern hardpan basic oak-hickory forest. Thousands of trees were planted about five years ago, and those that have survived are about knee height now.

to be trimmedThe management is fairly aggressive: both native and non-native trees, all of them faster growing than the oaks and hickories, are cut back to the ground, for instance these Virginia Pines (Pinus virginiana) which would soon shade out the white oak at the right of the photo.

oak saplingMany of the trees that we’re nurturing are still very small, and have dropped all their leaves at this time of the year. So flags make it a lot easier to find them.

I’m also back at The Nature Conservancy’s Fraser Preserve, now equipped with a new tool: an Extractigator Junior, generically known as a weed wrench. For non-native invasive shrubs like Rosa multiflora and Berberis thunbergii, we need to remove as much of the root as possible. A garden fork and some steady pulling will accomplish this, but a weed wrench gives you some mechanical advantage and is easier on the muscles. The genius of these gizmos is that no springs are involved, so it’s unlikely that you’re going to mash a digit.

A composite of a couple of roses that I pulled: Dropping the tool into position.into position

Closing the jaws around the stems and beginning to pull back on the handle.jaws closed

The extracted crown of the plant.extracted

I’m still finding my touch with the tool. With smaller plants, I have a tendency to snap off the stem rather than pull it out with the roots. The Junior weighs just under ten pounds, so it’s luggable from Fraser’s parking area to our work sites.

Widewater to Great Falls

A solstice walk, one of Stephanie Mason’s last walks as Senior Naturalist for Nature Forward. We were also joined by new Senior Naturalist Genevieve Wall. We pushed from the Old Angler’s Inn parking up to Olmsted Island and back: 4 miles round trip, and even though the walking is nearly flat, I was dragging a bit at the end. At Great Falls, the water was up and pumping: I felt a bit uneasy on the first footbridge, so close to the torrent.

low waterA couple of small takeaways: Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) leaves resemble Corydalis, but you often find it growing on rocks; someone (Edwin Way Teale?) once described the twists of bare persimmon branches as “like mad snakes.” Widewater, incorporated into the C&O Canal, is an abandoned branch of the Potomac.

Sighted: one very chill juvenile RSHA.

Ohio 2023: 2

My field trips in Miami County focused on county parks where I might donate a bench in Mom’s memory. There was much dodging of drizzle and driving through rain.

from Maple Ridge endfrom the middleThe twin parks of Stillwater Prairie Preserve and Maple Ridge are linked by a swingy suspension bridge for foot traffic…

true to its name… over the Stillwater River. I didn’t get much time in either park, but the former has some extensive grasslands that look to be quite delightful in season. I did spot some Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) fruit in the woods edging the prairie and stream.

Charleston Falls, in the southern end of the county, is also rather nice, but the falls on this October day were just a trickle.

In nearby Champaign County, Cedar Bog (actually a fen, and there is lots of interpretive material explaining differences) Nature Preserve offered lots of Northern Whitecedar (Thuja occidentalis), well-demarcated Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), and a mystery forb.

More or less on my way home was the E. Lucy Braun Lynx Prairie Preserve in Adams County. Braun described the xeric limestone prairie openings as distinctive, and worked for their preservation. A signature species, Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) showed itself within 20 meters of the parking area. I also found a gentian-like wildflower, quite plentiful in spots, Agueweed (Gentianella quinquefolia); Cobb, Farnsworth, and Lowe helped me identify a really cool fern sharing space with Ebony Spleenwort on a huge limestone outcrop, Common Smooth Cliffbrake (Pellaea glabella ssp. glabella).

Ohio 2023: 1

car 338 boardingcar 325 departingThe first leg of my Ohio road trip brought me to Cleveland and environs and, after much negotiation of time slots, entailed lunch with Aunt D. and dinner with long-lost girlfriend C. In between meals, I had some downtime so I rode the Red Line out to the airport and back. I was a little surprised that the rolling stock was rather light and that power came from a pantograph, but since the Red Line runs in its own ROW, most people would call it a subway/metro/rapid transit. Non-rush hour trains consisted of only two cars each. The West 25th-Ohio City station is looking rather scruffy; there seems to be some confusion over how to spell “Windermere.”

pleasant surprisedownstreamIn the morning, I took a quick loop at Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a surprisingly vigorous water feature. At right, the creek looking back upstream in the direction of the falls.

pathology 1pathology 2I found my first clear example of Beech Leaf Disease, which has just been found recently in Virginia. Close by (and perhaps related), an infestation of Beech Blight Aphid (Grylloprociphilus imbricator). You really need a video to fully appreciate these tiny sap slurpers.

A mystery: 28

The Southwest Virginia Historical Museum in Big Stone Gap is a mini-Smithsonian in the sense that it’s a collection of artifacts that someone once found interesting and/or valuable. (What I found most interesting was the red oak woodwork throughout the mansion.)

mystery mark in situmystery markIn the collection is a set of china from Minton. A gift from Queen Victoria to her Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (27 February 1868 – 1 December 1868, 20 February 1874 – 21 April 1880), it came into the possession of Campbell Slemp. All of the pieces are marked with a monogram formed from a pair of interlocked B’s, topped with a crown and bearing the motto HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE. So far, so good, appropriate to a monarch. But what about the linked B’s? Who dat? They don’t fit Victoria nor Disraeli, as far as I can figure.

VNPS 2023 plus

The following weekend, I transitioned from the skinny western end of the commonwealth to the bulgy eastern end for the Virginia Native Plant Society 2023 annual meeting. And I picked up four more state parks: my 20-park pin is in the mail.

looking for that kingfisherBeginning with Belle Isle SP in Lancaster County, on the Mud Creek Trail, I found that recent rains have plumped up the above-ground fungal activity. The prettiest mushroom I found was ID’d as Peach-Colored Fly Agaric (Amanita persicina).

From the parking area, the first part of this trail traverses the edge of a working corn field, as I found to my slight dismay when a very large piece of equipment ran through to process the standing brown stalks. But the edge was good for lots of Verbesina, which meant some nice pollinators, like this late Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius). The trail winds down to Mulberry Creek, which empties into the Rappahannock.

Friday and it was on to York River SP and the Taskinas Creek Trail. I found a rather birdy spot and got identifiable photos of Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and four warbler species (only three of which I considered iNat-worthy), perhaps most interesting among them a juvenile Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)—I never would have figured this one out without photos.

I came within steps of disturbing the first Eastern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) that I’ve ever seen in life. (I am mildly amused that five different iNatters have confirmed the ID. I can hear them now at the keyboard: “Are you sure you saw a copperhead?”) Even the binomial of this snake sounds dangerous. I was so fixated on keeping my distance from this fellow that it never occurred to me to be wary of possibly more individuals in the area. This one looks like an oldish juvenile. It is written, “Unlike other viperids, [copperheads] often “freeze” instead of slithering away, due to [their] habit of relying on excellent camouflage, rather than fleeing.” That’s exactly what this bad boy did.

Crossing the James on the Jamestown-Scotland ferry (20-minute ride, lunch break waiting for the boat), I hit Chippokes SP in the afternoon. More farmed fields mixed in with natural areas. On these two weekend trips, I’ve turned up a few day-flying moths, like this Chickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopis grataria). My brain is too full to learn any of them properly.

A fluffy pine that looks like Longleaf Pine to me, but iNatter jimbean ID’s it as Sonderegger Pine (Pinus × sondereggeri). I’d like another opinion.

One more state park on Saturday: Machicomoco SP, on the eastern shore of the York. Sporadic drizzle and showers. Soybeans in the middle of the loop road, and just a short braided trail down to Timberneck Creek, but some common seaside species, a confusing composite that turned out to be Spanish Needles (Bidens bipinnata), and a moth (moths again!) masquerading as a beetle: Yellow-collared Scape Moth (Cisseps fulvicollis).

The rain cleared off for the afternoon with Gary Fleming at Grafton Ponds Natural Area Preserve. This bit of the Coastal Plain has some similarities with the karst landscapes of Lee County, in that there are pools that dry up seasonally, but whereas the soft, soluble stone in Lee County is just under the thin soil layer, at Grafton there’s up to 40 feet of sediment overlaying the Miocene shell-marl. Gary showed the group a Verbesina that isn’t yellow, Frostweed (Verbesina virginica); the two remaining Pondspice shrubs in the preserve; Pityopsis graminifolia var. latifolia; and what he believes is a first York County record of Flax-leaved Aster, or Stiff-leaved Aster (Ionactis linariifolia).

Last stop, and conveniently on the way home: a walk in the Dragon Run preserve in King and Queen County, held by a private non-profit, the hike led by Maeve Coker and Kevin Howe. We didn’t get down into the swamp (small disappointment), but there were some nice things to see. More mushrooms, including the gangly Beech Rooter (Oudemansiella furfuracea) making a connect-the-dots to its host tree. And another first county record? Oval Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis).

My takeaways: I’m still hoping for a better-performing point-and-shoot camera for closeups, and I should check every patch of goldenrod and Verbesina for pollinators. Even if I’m impatient about ID’ing the goldenrod.

VMN conference 2023

By chance, this year’s Master Naturalist conference was held in Southwest Virginia, so the Doctor and I hauled down I-81 once again to Abingdon.

I took the opportunity to check off four more State Parks on my Trail Quest: Hungry Mother SP (huge rhododendons on the Lake Trail: this trail would be even nicer when they’re in bloom); Natural Tunnel SP (a lovely patch of Hearts-a-burstin’ (Euonymus americanus), but the trail markings were not as good as I’ve come to expect); a mad dash to Wilderness Road SP before dinner back in Abingdon; and Southwest Virginia Museum, all 1.5 acres of it.

natural tunnellimestone underfootPresentations and field trips for the conference focused on the karst landscape underlying much of the area. Sinkholes, karst fensters, and natural tunnels are plentiful when the limestone is just a few inches below the surface. At right, you can see the bedrock cropping out below this flowering Pink Thoroughwort (Fleischmannia incarnata). Laura Young with DCR/Natural Heritage explained that property acquisition for The Cedars Natural Area Preserve is a little different than usual: rather than striving for contiguous lands and eliminating inholdings, the idea is to protect specific resources, like sinkholes, with small purchases. On Sunday, Terri Brown with UVA’s College at Wise presented in the classroom on karst landscapes.

To the east, in the Blue Ridge, Kevin Hamed took us on a salamander scramble on Whitetop Mountain in the Grayson Highlands. In a small patch maybe 100m in diameter, we found more than a half dozen species, including the rare Weller’s Salamander (Plethodon welleri) (but tolerably common in this locality) and Blue Ridge Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus orestes).

Rounding out the conference were classroom presentations by Jeremy Stout (with the Nature Center at Steele Creek Park); Mike Pinder of Virginia DWR on freshwater fishes of Virginia (nifty GoPro videos of Leuciscidae and Percidae: logperch conservation is an ESA success story, and their rock flipping behavior is adorable); and a sassy chat by Kate LeCroy (soon to be with Rhodes College) on mason bees.