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.

Power line grassland

pendentabundanceNelson DeBarros led a walk for the Potowmack Grass Bunch and FCPA staff to a power line easement along South Run. This is a high-quality patch that probably benefited from a fire on 1 April. About an acre was burned.

I recorded one grass observation (to maintain my Grass Bunch apprenticeship), Nuttall’s Reedgrass (Greenechloa coarctica), but mostly I went after yellow forbs, as is my wont. Maryland Golden-Aster (Chrysopsis mariana) is new to me, and it’s always good to have someone help with an ID of Bearded Beggarticks (Tickseed Sunflower) (Bidens aristosa).

Purple False Foxglove (Agalinus purpurea) is hemiparasitic on graminoids and other hosts. Another illustration of my (not well-articulated) principle that every organism has a different way to make/buy/beg/borrow/steal a living from its environment.

Sacramento 2023

Boots on the ground (well, sneakers) in Sacramento. I met the abundant Valley Oak (Quercus lobata), host to a wasp that induces huge apple-like galls; got reacquainted with Spotted Towhee (Pipilio maculatus); found new dragonflies, like Variegated Medowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum ); puzzled over yet another carrot family member, Bisnaga (Visnaga daucoides); and watched a small flock of songbirds that iNat and I are still sorting out.

SanchoHere’s faithful Sancho the Chevy Bolt, my rental car, taking a break in the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, where I unsuccessfully sought a jinx bird who shall remain unnamed. eBird reported only a few individuals lingering in the week prior. All in all, August is rarely a good month for birding, wherever you are in the north, but this trip wasn’t just about birding.

The arboretum at the University of California, Davis was quite nice, and worth the quick trip. And the Crocker Art Museum, newly expanded since my last trip west, was a pleasant surprise. There’s some great ceramics there, and a decent collection of 20th and 21st century work. More Wayne Thiebaud than you usually get to see.

going outarriving 2arriving 1I rode the light rail out to Folsom and had a dish of ice cream in memory of Mom.


Summary statistics and other data for the trip:

  • Observations of Chris Ware in Oak Park: 0
  • El car numbers: 5030, 2621, 5374, 5471, 5483, 5195 (twice), 5573, 5291, 5435, 5198, 5286
  • Trainspotters spotted: 3
  • Zephyr Salutes (none returned) along Moon River: I lost count

A passage in Jonathan Franzen’s recent “The Problem of Nature Writing” struck a note with me:

The very presence of a piece of writing leads us to expect an argument from it, if only an implicit argument for its existence. And, if the reader isn’t also offered an explicit argument, he or she may assign one to the piece, to fill the void. I confess to having had the curmudgeonly thought, while reading an account of someone’s visit to an exotic place like Borneo, that the conclusion to be drawn from it is that the writer has superior sensitivity to nature or superior luck in getting to go to such a place. This was surely not the intended argument. But avoiding the implication of “Admire me” or “Envy me” requires more attention to one’s tone of written voice than one might guess.

Whether it’s Borneo (never been) or the Blue Ridge, it’s true that I am fortunate to have the resources to travel across the commonwealth (and sometimes the country) and to bring back a bit of documentation. And I try to remember that I’m fortunate.

I keep this blog (a) to exercise my writing muscles, (b) to occasionally demonstrate to someone else that I can string sentences together, albeit with capricious use of punctuation and conjunctions, and (c) to leave a record for myself that I can come back to. OK, every once in a while (d) I get to write about something cool that I accomplished.

I’m too old to be the object of someone’s admiration. I guess that I need to keep that in mind.

California Zephyr 2023

A few snaps aboard Amtrak train 5, the California Zephyr, from Chicago to Sacramento via Denver and Salt Lake City.

climbingClimbing the mountains along South Boulder Creek, Gilpin County, Colorado.

through the divideHaving crossed the Continental Divide via the Moffat Tunnel, we’re now following the Fraser River downhill to its confluence with the Colorado.

somewhere on the downslopeUhh, somewhere on the Colorado River, still in the state of Colorado. (I failed to save my GPS fix.)

basin and rangeAnd the next morning, having crossed Utah in the dark, here we are in Churchill County, Nevada, northeast of Reno.


Good food on both Amtrak trains (the Zephyr and the Capitol Limited). After three days you sort of get used to the bumpy ride. The Capitol Limited was 45 minutes late into Chicago (largely due to an automated systems failure at CSX); the Zephyr was two and a half hours late into Sacramento (late start due to two different cars that needed to be swapped out; amplified by an unplanned detour through the Union Pacific yards at Reno). Better than I expected!

Chicagoland architecture 2023

I assembled a three-legged trip for this year’s birthday excursion, stopping in Chicago to see my long-missed friend Janet in Chicago, and then on to Sacramento for a memorial service for Mom, hanging out with my cousin and her family, and exploring a few natural areas.

In Chicago, I stayed in the amenable Hotel Blake, one of the Loop hotels that has been repurposed from (usually historic) office buildings. My architecture focus was on older buildings—I love me some International Style and Brutalism, but Chicago’s earlier buildings are something extra special.

I took a lovely guided/audio tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park and a sampling of his houses on Forest Avenue.

finally processed throughAlso a quick run up to Evanston to make sure all of the buildings I remember are still there (true, with one exception), taking a walk with Alice in the development office. The Weber Arch post-dates me, so this was my opportunity to make a procession of one through it.


monadnock 1My target building in the Loop was the Monadnock Block. I fell in lurve with this structure when I saw photos of it for an art history course, but to the best of my recollection, this is the first time that I’ve seen it in the stone. It’s just inside the El’s Loop, as you can see from the structures in the foreground.

white hatStreet level businesses are hanging on, including a sandwich shop and a rather smart bistro.

exit stairsstone towerGotta snap the fire escapes. And, oh, those delicious Chicago bay windows.


here we arereliance towerNoted in my AIA guide was the Reliance Building, now a Staypineapple hotel.

don't fall outAccording to Janet, some people back in the day found the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows a bit vertiginous.


permanentSome street furniture: engraved street name signs for Michigan Avenue at Van Buren Street,

nouveau 1nouveau 2and a cheeky Art Nouveau station entrance marker for Metra.


and other jobsThe Hotel Blake is south of Ida B. Wells Drive, in the semi-revived neighborhood of Printers’ Row.

clock tower completeclock tower topThe end of Dearborn Street is anchored by the old Dearborn Station. No more trains, and not much else happening in this building, alas.

semi-intentional selfieWe looked through my Flickr feed during Japanese class (“what did you do on vacation?” prompts). My classmate Kathy remarked, “There are no pictures of people.” So here’s a picture of me, just for Kathy.


nice backgroundI enjoyed a little time in Millennium Park, but I gravitated to old school Grant Park (to honor those who marched) and Buckingham Fountain. Nice shiny-shiny towers in the background.

Clifton Institute bioblitz August 2023

looking more or less northAlmost perfect weather yesterday for traipsing and documenting. We surveyed a farm up on the Piedmont of western Fauquier County that is being converted from cattle pasture to a more native plant-based flora.

low flowgetting the shotquarryThe farm backs on to an upper reach of the Rappahannock River, this summer not running with much water due to our moderate drought. But Bert Harris and helpers managed to net a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) for observation and release.

After I chased an Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) for half an hour, it settled down to sally from a perch, giving me some excellent, well-lighted looks. I’m not fond of Box Elder (Acer negundo) as a rule, but some of the trees in the river bottom are delightfully gnarly and chonky.

It’s a bioblitz, so everything counts, including Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) and Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). This one caught our attention because it was loudly gnawing on a bone.

After sifting out the out-of-focus shots and doing my best to color-correct the greenish cast given off by the mercury vapor lamp, I was able to contribute 49 observations to the project.

At the end of the day, as we started to drift back towards the cars, someone gave up a shout, because a female Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus) had come to the light.

Clifton Institute NABA Butterfly Count 2023

I stepped into the role of sector co-leader for this year’s Clifton count. I did some scouting on Thursday, if anything to start to make sense of the maze of mown paths in the Woodcock tract and elsewhere.

lunchtimeVery pleasant weather on Saturday. Not outstanding numbers, but everybody had fun. Our less experienced team members found all the good stuff: Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis), Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris), Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor).

BANO banding at Clifton Institute

out of the boxin the handClifton Institute technician Caylen Wolfer has her banding kit out again, this time for Barn Owl (Tyto alba) nestlings, just about ready to fledge. A few of us got to ride along.

There are five nestlings (a/k/a fluffballs) in this nest box, which replaced (as far as the owls were concerned) a barn that was pulled down in order to make room for a greenhouse.

Baicich and Harrison write that the owlets are flying after about 60 days in the nest.

I could spot one bird in the box before Caylen got her mitts on it, so this sighting is ABA countable. Yay!

Sweet Run State Park

Virginia’s newest State Park is Sweet Run SP, not far from Harpers Ferry and nestled in the Blue Ridge synclinorum. The site of the former Blue Ridge Center for Environmental Stewardship, the amenities have not yet been updated to state park standards. Without a GPS, you’d likely not find the gravel driveway leading off Virginia 671.

to be upgradedI had a couple hours before visiting Charlie in the afternoon, so I walked the Farmstead Loop Trail. The pleasant news is that, in this park, the trails are shorter than they look on the map. Walking counterclockwise around the loop, there’s only one stretch of climbing. The blazes are sufficient for you to find your way around in this woods.

I pulled a reasonably good recording of Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina ).

I’ve a mind to return for a longer visit.

Acidic seepage swamp in Fairfax County

look but don't touchNelson DeBarros led a walk to a small acidic seepage swamp tucked into a Franconia neighborhood. The park is variously named Springfield Forest Park or Franconia Forest Park, depending on whose map you use. Here, Nelson points out a Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), while all of us keep our distance.

rather drydoing wellThe wetland was rather dry today, but it was supporting a vigorous community of acid-loving heaths, like Black Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium fuscatum), as well as some drifts of Netted Chain Fern (Lorinseria areolata)—which I learned as Woodwardia.

For the most part, I left the sedges and rushes to Grass Buncher Margaret C, but I did pick up the tidbit that the green above the inflorescence on Juncus effusus is actually a bract, not an extension of the culm.

A bitsy Krigia virginica had escaped the mower in a patch near the play equipment. Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) was coming into fruit—with a big swath of unidentified galls on its leaves.