May 29, 2018

The Virginia Master Naturalist Conference - Volunteering

The Virginia Master Naturalist Annual Conference is being hosted by our very own Central Rappahannock Chapter this year at the Fredericksburg Expo Center, September 7-9, 2018.  The state sent our chapter a preview of the program as we need to volunteer for various sessions.  Unfortunately we have been sworn to secrecy and cannot yet disclose the really cool opportunities such as:  all of the local areasthat are so fascinating, from a naturalist's point of view, and the education opportunities.......and so much more.  Sigh, I really do hate having to redact things......but this will be a great conference.  But the conference will not happen without lots of volunteers.  

The enjoyment I have received from becoming a Master Naturalist is immense.  Not only from an educational perspective but meeting fascinating people who continue to amaze me through the volunteer work they accomplish.  We all have to meet our 40 volunteer hours as part of the Master Naturalist Program, what easier way then to dedicate some time for the conference.  I figured it is the least I can do to repay the enjoyment I have received through the organization.  Sign ups have started and mine was submitted this morning.

Join me and many of the other Central Rappahannock Master Naturalists to make this a Annual Conference to remember!!!

May 21, 2018

Mott's Nature Center

Volunteering is one of the single most important aspects of the Virginia Master Naturalist organization.  Our chapter does quite a bit of volunteering at Mott's Reservoir and the Nature Center located there.

I try to volunteer at the Nature Center once a month.  In May I had over 53 visitors and was just amazed at the number of children that came in and then begged to stay longer.  We had quite a few participate in the scavenger hunt, where they had to find facts within the center.  Pocket, the center's resident corn snake, put on quite a show by eating a mouse.  The most interesting thing was about three families whose children came back after hiking and wanted to learn more about what they observed on their hike.  Definitely future naturalists in the making!!

This past weekend was quiet at the nature center.  After a week of rain the sun finally came out on Sunday but people were still drying out.  Three young women came into the center inquiring about the orienteering course.  While I provided a compass, map and instructions I could not answer any of their questions using the compass with the map.  I hate not being of assistance, needless to say I will be watching some videos on orienteering. 

While human activity was low, nature was quite busy.  A pair of mallard ducks decided to sun themselves on a log that jutted out into the reservoir near the center.  I watched them jump into the water, wade, swim, splash, bottoms up - you name it.  They were quite an entertaining pair.  But then I also had three various visitors come directly into the center to sun themselves on the nice wood floor in the sun.  

First was an American Toad, who was a bit of an escape artist and difficult to catch.  Luckily there was no one around as I am fairly certain my actions would have been fabulous video fodder.  Eventually he was caught and taken downstairs to freedom.

My next two visitors where lightning fast.  The first was a broadhead skink.  A very good size one, that allowed some photos.  Obviously not his first visit as he knew where the front door was.  The second was a five lined skink.  He zipped into the center in a flash, then zoomed around the edge and hid behind a chair.  He was a bit of a challenge to "herd" back out but once he found the door made a fast exit.

My final visitor was a large black snake who had just eaten dinner.  He was down in the parking area and some human visitors spotted him and asked me to come out and identify what type of snake he was.  With a full belly, he was not moving fast so the visitors had a great time identifying him.  I showed them how his pupil was round and the head was rounded and not diamond shaped, an easy way to tell if a snake was not poisonous.  After posing for pictures and a video he slowly slithered off.

So I closed up the center and smiled on my way out as the visitors were discussing the snake, what he might have eaten and simply excited they had seen one.  Another wonderful day at Mott's Nature Center.

May 14, 2018

The Morning Cacophony


I love walking in my neighborhood early in the morning, right before dawn.  As spring is upon us, so is the cacophony of bird songs.  Our neighborhood is heavily wooded and the two mile jaunt is serenaded by hundreds of birds.  However, most of these birds are high in the tree canopy and can be heard but not seen.  This morning was was exceptionally noisy, but in a very pleasant way. 

So this brings the challenge, I cannot see them but hear them.  How on earth does one tell them apart?  Well to be honest, having gone on a few birding adventures with my fellow naturalists and having them point out different songs, the realization dawned on how importing songs and bird calls were.  Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a fantastic website with bird calls and personally it is the site I have used to learn songs.   The site offers up some valuable tips for beginners, my goal is one new song every week.  Once the song is learned, then a field test is in order, can I hear the bird along my walk?  Now as I walk, I am starting to recognize the songs.  Such as the tufted titmouse, cardinal, Carolina wren, crow, etc. so when now I can hear a bird and think – hmmm………I haven’t heard that song before, then try to visually see the bird to go home and learn the song. 

Through this process other sounds have been learned as well, such as the scolding grey squirrel and the chattering chipmunks.  It is amazing what you hear, when you take off the headphones and simply listen.  Nature has a lot to say.

April 23, 2018

Wildflower Identification Class

This past week I had the pleasure to attend a Wildflower Identification class at the Virginia State Arboretum at Blandy Experimental Farm in White Post, VA.  Marion Lobstein led the class, with some assistance from Alex and Sally.  Sometimes I am a terrible person and neglect to note last names.

The class focused on learning to use Newcomb's Wildflower Guide, The Flora of Virginia and the Flora of Virginia App  to identify wildflowers.  Not having a botany background, Marion suggested using the Plant Identification Terminology: An Illustrated Glossary by James & Melinda Harris to look up the definitions when keying in the Flora of Virginia.  On the first day there was a nice overview of understanding the difference between a Monocot vs. a Dicot.  Always helpful to those of us that do not have a biology background.  We then proceeded to use all three to identify the Common Violet.  We also used Newcomb's to look up a daffodil.  Intimidated at first, I found Newcomb's and the Flora of Virginia App on my smart phone quite easy to use.  

We were given homework to find at least three flowers and ID them.  With the large Flora of Virginia, I really had to use the Plant Identification Terminology book to understand the scientific terms and really just need to practice.  However, I was able to find a flower in there I could not ID using Newcomb's and the app.  Practice is definitely needed.  What did I find?  Whitlow grass (invasive), Ground Ivy and Partridge Berry.

The second day of class included a walk through the Native Plant Trail at the arboretum.  The entire class wanted to stay out on the trail all day as we learned many new plants.  I saw my very first trillium, I know, I know - been living under a rock.  There were a number of flowers in bloom and just seeing everything brought a real smile to everyone's face.  Returning to the classroom, we dissected some flowers - sunflower, hyacinth and then many students brought plants in to share.  We also learned more about many plant families and it was suggested we should learn those.  

As I almost always have my cell with me, the Flora App has been incredible helpful.  An additional dozen or so plants have now been identified in my neighborhood using the app.  My neighbors have been asked me over to see if I can assist in identification and if the plant if considered invasive or not.  Veronica Speedwell seems to be rather widespread and invasive in all our yards.

If you have not yet been to the Virginia State Arboretum I would highly recommend a trip.  They have a number of interesting classed and their spring Garden Fair is coming up Mother's Day weekend.  Not to mention their Arbor Day festival.  Always remember to take the time to stop and enjoy the beauty nature provides, and if you can ID some of these flowers even better!!!

Sesal Trillum

Yellow Violet

Arboretum Building

Experimental Greenhouse - Closed to Public

Pennsylvania Sedge

Herb Robert Geranium

April 9, 2018

Montpelier Working Woods - Home of James Madison

I have been going to James Madison's home, Montpelier, every year since it opened to the public.  The first tour we had was on a bus, riding from the old Esso station on Rt. 20, by many Sears & Roebuck barns, back when the mansion was still pink, stucco, and 100+ rooms from the DuPont era of ownership.  Seeing the mansion revert back to James Madison's home over the years has been fascinating.  

Having joined the Master Naturalist program, I noticed the request for volunteers for the Montpelier Working Woods tours.  The forest at Montpelier is special, recalling the first time I traversed the trail behind the mansion.  This same forest is a designated Natural Landmark, one of ten in Virginia.  Working Woods is a great collaboration with Master Naturalist Organizations (Old Rag, Rivanna and Central Rappahannock Chapters), The Montpelier Foundation, and the Virginia Extension Office.  The working woods walk takes visitors through the Landmark Forest to the Working Woods.  An area where different forest management techniques are being used, providing great examples of how to maintain healthy wooded areas.

Freedom Tree
White Oak 225+ Years
There are many things to see on these walks.  View champion Sweet Cherry Trees, very large Tulip Poplars, Spice Bushes, stands of Paw Paw trees, numerous wildflowers and a forest teaming with life.  As trees fall, such as the Freedom Tree, a 225+ year old White Oak, new life grows as sun shines down through the gap now in the canopy.  A meadow surrounded by forest, where Red Bud, Milk Weed, Mullein and other flora grow attract various pollinators.  The woods change significantly with each season.  The walk this past Sunday we found emerging Jack in the Pulpit, mullein and wild comfrey.  Cutleaf toothwort, blood root, and rue anemone were all in bloom.  Buds on Spice Bushes and Red Buds.  Evidence of a pileated woodpecker and his tell tale oval holes on a fallen tree.

Cutleaf Toothwort
Rue Anemone
Not only do the Master Naturalists guide these working woods tours, but we also help with the significant challenge on invasive species.  This is an ongoing effort that has really helped make a difference in the forest.  Unfortunately it is an effort that will never end, as one invasive species is worked, more gain a foot hold.  Some are fairly easy to remove, others require significant time, effort and occasionally herbicides (those are left to the professionals).


 Come join us for a walk in the woods.  July 15 and October 21 both at 2pm.

Jet Bead (Invasive)
Removing Chinese Privet
 (Invasive)
Spice Bush

Princess Tree Seed Pod
(Invasive)
Wild Comfrey
Barberry (Invasive)
Five leaf akebia (Invasive)






April 2, 2018

The Cacophony Outside


One of the things I have noticed in the past few weeks is just how many birds are singing outside.  The songs have been slowly increasing in crescendo, along with those tell tale signs of spring.  Being a part of the Master Naturalist organization one must admit to paying a bit more attention to these songs now.

My dog walks me at least a mile in the morning and night.  He definitely likes to stop and sniff the proverbial rose so to speak.  Just for the record, I do pick up after him, but that is another topic for another time.  One of the most interesting things I have found is the number of bird songs heard while walking.  It is coming to the point, songs that are new immediately stand out.  Stopping we watch until the bird is located and identified.  Surprisingly enough I am seeing bird species I have never seen in the wild before.  Perhaps it is because my view has changed, but honestly it is due to paying closer attention.  Not to mention slowly learning some of the songs.

This past week I saw my very first Cedar Waxwing, but wait there's more.  I didn't see just one but seven.  All flitting around in my neighbor's yard.  Their high pitched call was new, not hearing that before.  Initially I thought they were female cardinals, but then the yellow tail tip and belly and the black mask gave them away.  I was so excited but alas the only camera with me was my phone and the birds were too far to get a decent picture.  Not to mention my dog pulled me along saying it was time to go.

The next day, we stepped outside and I saw a rather large bird tossing mulch in the air in my flower bed.  At first he looked a bit like a yellow bellied sapsucker, but that was not right.  I ran in and grabbed my Sibley's Guide to North American Birds.  A Northern Flicker with his pretty scallops black feathers.  We sat down and watched him for quite awhile, after all he was hard at work in my garden turning it over for insects.  His harassment of the squirrels was amusing.

My final treat for the week was observing a very small hawk fly overhead.  Luckily my binoculars were with me.  The size caught my attention, stopping to watch until he flew out of sight.  Remembering important identification markings, I was able to look the bird up when I got home.  An American Kestrel.  Reading more about their habitat and conservation needs I realized this really was the treat of the week.

I understand why some of my fellow Naturalists are avid birders, while they probably have seen these species hundreds of times, it was new for me.  When I have to sit inside and work, instead of digital radio I will simply listen to nature's concert going on outside my window and smile as now I know many of the lead vocals and it doesn't cost me a dime.

March 27, 2018

Motts Run Nature Center


A number of the Master Naturalists signed up to attend the Motts Run Nature Center training in order to assist in staffing the Nature Center.  I must confess, it was my very first visit to the center.  Being relatively new to the area, I discovered Motts Run Reservoir last year for kayaking.  Not realizing the Nature Center was there, I would definitely have stopped in. 

What a hidden gem.  This is a place I would definitely have brought my children when they were younger had we lived in the area.  The training session included learning about the resident female snake “Pocket” as well.  Unable to resist the opportunity to hold her, I held my very first snake.  She was cool to the touch, ever so smooth and really quite curious and friendly.  But Pocket wasn’t the only interesting thing in the Nature Center.

The Center is a one room log cabin with numerous on-hands displays.  There was quite a nice library of books on nature, nature games and scavenger hunts.  Equipment that could be checked out such as binoculars, books, field guides, dipnets and so forth.

I must admit, I look forward to volunteering at the Nature Center in hopes that others will be equally inspired and become curious in this beautiful world we live in.  Not to mention I plan on discovering each display personally….as I am always a kid at heart.

Hopefully everyone will take the opportunity to stop by Motts Run Nature Center, open April through October on Saturdays and Sundays from noon – 5pm.  Best of all there is no charge and you can bring a picnic lunch, kayak, fish and hike.