Monday, December 29, 2014

Landing in a good spot

Shenandoah River State Park, Wildcat Ledge Trail overlooking the River (photo by Jacob Malcom)

We've made the move from northeastern Connecticut to Front Royal, Virginia.  There are many natural features that make this area appealing to naturalists like Jacob and me.  We have the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the Appalachian Trail passing through, and the Shenandoah River in our neighborhood.  The Skyline Drive of Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, Shenandoah River State Park, and more state and local parks offer thousands of acres accessible to the public.  Jacob and I learned how much we appreciate large areas of public lands like National Forests when we lived in Austin TX.  From Austin, it takes over 4 hours to drive to a National Forest, and the State Parks, while very nice, were few and relatively small for the number of people who use them.  After unpacking and Christmas festivities, Jacob and I have been out hiking everyday at Shenandoah River State Park, and Elizabeth Furnace in the George Washington Forest.  (More on these outings soon.)

Shenandoah River State Park, Shenandoah River along Bluebell Trail (photo by Jacob Malcom)

Shenandoah River State Park, Sycamore Tree (photo by Jacob Malcom)

Shenandoah River State Park, Shenandoah River along Bluebell Trail (photo by Jacob Malcom)

However, the spot that we are enjoying the most is the ten acres where we are living. Jacob's parents moved to the property more than 35 years ago, and Jacob's dad is a fantastic gardener and naturalist. The ten acres have many great trees, a stream, pond, old orchard field, and the gardens filled with both natives, and exotic plant species.  The wildlife abound in the shrubbery and varied habitats with numerous birds, chipmunk, squirrels, rabbits, foxes, deer, and in the Summer the bird feeders are often visited by black bears!  Ansel's garden are a testament to getting rid of boring lawns, and growing wildlife habitat.  Click here to check out a post I did a little over a year ago about Ansel's Garden.  We are very happy to be calling Virginia home with both Ansel and Mary Carol. I'm sure there will be lots of fun nature oriented things to blog about.

I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Goodbye to friends

Yesterday, the dogs and I went out in a cool drizzle.  Two days ago, it was pouring cats and dogs, and we were indoor all day so we needed to get out.  We went out to one of my favorite spots, a pine groove that has a vernal pool.  It was a very nice walk with the rain making music on the newly filled pool. The drips were falling in big drops off the trees and it actually sounded like a bird or frog chirping.  I stood for a few minutes trying to figure out what was making the sound and then several more enjoying them.

Can you find Cici?  That's how big the tree was!

On the way home, I found that one of my landmarks, an old oak, was down!  I don't know when exactly the giant fell, but it was within the last month.  It wasn't cut, but looks like it finally lost it's balance as one side was rotten and it had already lost a tree sized limb some time ago.  I have often used that limb as a park bench in my woodland walkabouts.  The tree smashed several smaller trees, one a fairly large birch.  I think the white oak was at least 60 ft tall and 4 ft in diameter.  It would have been incredible to see the impact of its fall.  I think it is interesting to see the natural death of this 200+ year old tree.  Many trees do not reach such size and age, but succumb to insects, fungus blights, animals foraging, and the chainsaw.  I feel thankful to have been able to see the end of the long life cycle of the tree.  Not that I wanted the tree to fall, but that I got to see acorns, seedlings, small trees, mature specimens, and the end of such a wonderful type of tree, the White Oak.  The White Oak is Connecticut's state tree and a principle species in the New England woodlands, and this one was my woodland friend.

Tree standing with branch down in front last winter
(I know its not the best photo, I did say I have a hard time
photographing trees just a few posts ago.)
Cici and Silly on the limb last winter.

The trunk of the downed tree.
Where's the dog this time.

It is also interesting that my discovery of the tree's end coincides with mine and Jacob's last week in New England.  We are moving down to Virginia where we will live with family for a time as we figure out where to go from there.  We have enjoyed living in the woodlands of eastern Connecticut, but Jacob has learned that academia is not the career route that he wants.  So one chapter ends, another opens, and I am excited to see what fun (without the stress of academics) comes our way.  I will continue to blog about nature, environmental education, art, and other fun things that come my way.

As we head down south, we are thankful for the past year in New England with it's seasons, creatures great and small, and of course the trees!   I am thankful for the Connecticut Audubon with Sarah, Mrs Fish, Paula, Patty, and all the kids who I got to play -I mean work- with.  I am thankful for Mr. and Mrs. Bolduc our friends and landlords and the home we enjoyed.  Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Russ, and Mr. Church for allowing me to explore their properties.  I am thankful for everyone at Chaplin Elementary who were very kind as I substitute taught through much of the year.  Thanks to Emma and Goodwin Friends at Goodwin State Forest for letting me teach some programs before finding regular work at Connecticut Audubon.  Thank you for a wonderful year, and if you're down in Virginia, give me a shout!

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Monday, December 1, 2014

A Fisher in the early morning snow.

Fisher tracks in snow

Here is a good example of an unusual pattern that fishers
leave behind.  1,2,3,4 skip 1,2,3,4 skip  They can also make
a bounding pattern where all the tracks land together.
The day after Thanksgiving, I found signs of a exciting nighttime visitor, a fisher.  As I walked out back I found a trail from an animal with tracks that were as big as the tracks of my 45lb dog.  However, these tracks were not a dog's they wider and shorter than a typical dog track.  The tracks meandered all around circling trees, leaving a squiggly trail.  I saw where the fisher must have jumped to catch something, or just rolled around in the snow.  I confirmed my suspicions by looking up fisher tracks on the internet.  Fishers have 5 toes instead of 4 toes like a dog or cat.  Since they are long and short-legged, aka weasel shaped, they have different gates than a typical dog.  I saw both these traits in the set of prints left in snow.  

Fishers are one of the larger members of weasel or Mustelidae family, and is about the length of a red fox.  Connecticut is home to several Mustelidae including from smallest to largest: ermine, long tailed weasel, american mink, fisher, and northern river otter.  As you've probably noticed this mammal family has many members that are famous for thick fine fur needed for survival in cold northern winters. 

Fisher tracks going up the photo, dog tracks going horizontal.
See how wide and short the fisher tracks
are compared to the round dog tracks.
The dogs also have 4 large toes and the fisher has 5 small toes.  

A fisher in snow, cute isn't it, but not if you are a chicken, or a squirrel.
Fishers, also called fisher cats, are oddly named because of all the things they eat, fish is not one of them.  I'm told fishers eat a lot of squirrels since they can climb trees with retractable cat-claws. Fishers, once very rare, have come back to Connecticut as the state's forests have regrown as farming has decreased.  The other day I saw something that I wanted to turn into a fisher, but chalked it up to just a house cat.  But it seemed long, bounded just a little oddly, and made me pause.  Perhaps, it was after all a fisher.  I want to believe it was.

Another fun note:
I contributed this week's mystery seed challenge to Growing with Science. I follow Roberta's Blog with her weekly seed and insect challenges, children's science and nature book reviews, and other enjoyable posts.  If you'd like to make a guess at the mystery seed check out Growing with Science.
(here is the answer to the mystery seed)

Happy belated Thanksgiving everybody!