Tag Archives: animals

Embrace the Camera: Wine Festival Fun

A couple of weekends ago I went with my son and his grandma to Ash Lawn-Highland for a wine festival, where we met a couple of other family members. It was my birthday weekend and I was really excited to be able to spend a little time relaxing at a wine festival. There are a ton of wineries here in central Virginia, but with two small kids and a husband who is not much of a wino, I haven’t been able to do much wine tasting or touring yet. I’m looking forward to touring some of the vineyards this summer with some girlfriends, though!

D enjoyed the festival a lot too! He got to see some animals, the most exciting one being a peacock! Here is a photo and him and me with the chickens.

The roosters were neat, but the peacock was especially exciting, though we didn’t get to see him with his tail fanned out.

D’s other favorite part of the festival was listening to the folk band that was performing. He even asked me to go over and tell them they were good singers. I couldn’t get him to tell them himself or to go with me, but the singer seemed tickled by the compliment when I relayed the message. She even looked over to him, smiled, and waved, which tickled him. We bought one of their CD’s and listened to it on the way home.

Ash Lawn-Highland is so beautiful and scenic! D thought so too; he especially loved checking out the herd of cows that passed by in the adjacent field.

And, of course he never passes up an opportunity to have time with Grandma!

Now… on to planning that winery tour! 🙂


May Garden Update

I did better this year with the plants I started from seed, but I still don’t have a system down and don’t completely know what I’m doing; I left some plants in the trays for much too long and it seems to have stunted their growth. The plants that I re-potted first were clearly the most happy.

Miss D helping me move tomato plants around while claiming a few of them as her own. “Mine!”

I waited a couple of extra weeks past our last frost date to plant tomatoes and peppers and, with the cold nights we had in late April, I carried these plants in and out of the garage each day for about a week. It was only within the last couple of weeks that I started to put them in the ground, and the garden began to look complete.

The warmer weather coupled with the plentiful rain we received over the last few weeks has really given the garden a boost. Here’s the garden on April 26th.

April 26

Here it is just two weeks later, on May 10th.

May 10

Don’t my potatoes (left middle) look great? The beans got a cold and soggy start and weren’t looking great, so I pulled some of them and replanted. I also planted a row of sweet potatoes last Sunday. I ordered them through a mail-order catalog and would you believe this is what they looked like when they came?

The instructions that came with the plants mentioned that they might be wilted and that I should not be concerned; they are resilient plants and should recover “under the right conditions”. I guess we’ll see if we have the right conditions.

Lastly, there has already been a visitor in the garden foraging on my plants and it appears to enjoy eating the entire plant! It leaves nothing behind but a small hole in the ground where the plant used to be. So far I’ve lost a tomato plant, a Brussels sprout plant, and a sweet potato plant. I don’t remember this happening last year–entire plants disappearing. Based on the hoof print in the fresh mud that I saw the other day, I suspect its deer. I’ll have to start mixing up a home-made deer deterrent. Last year I tried Deer Scram, which seemed to work, but it’s pricey. If you have a tried-and-true deer deterrent that doesn’t involve chemicals or firearms, I’d love to hear it!

By the way, did you notice the children’s garden in the photos above? It’s growing like mad! All of the plants in there are far outperforming the crops in the main garden! I’m not sure what their secret is but I’ve got a lot of work to do!

More Virginia Critters (I Need a Better Field Guide!)

Last year I posted about the interesting creatures we encounter around our home in central Virginia. This spring is proving to be just as much of an adventure. In fact, we have several mason jars circulating as temporary homes for some of the ones we find. So far this year we’ve caught several different moths, including the caterpillar of the Tussock Moth that we identified using our National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders.

We also recently caught a neat looking frog that was snoozing inside an open bag of potting soil. (I wondered why the soil moved after I scooped a shovel full into a planter, then took another look and found him.) We only kept the frog for a half hour or so, but found one just like him (maybe the same one) the next day hanging out on our back deck. We caught him again and D had fun watching him for a while. He also liked putting the frog, in the container, in the little compartment on the back of his tricycle so he could take it for a ride. 🙂 I think this frog was the same kind we found hanging out by our grill last summer. According to my National Audubon Society Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, it may be a Cope’s Gray Tree Frog.

This weekend we discovered several new critters, starting on Saturday when the kids wanted to ride their jeep in the driveway and were waiting patiently for Daddy to clear a dead tree he had cut down out of the way.They helped him clear some of the wood and were checking out the ants and other bugs that were in the dead tree trunk.

Finally, Daddy got all of the big pieces out out of the way and the kids could rough-road it over the rest of the debris.

Along the side of the driveway we found a skink that seemed like he was a bit dazed. Perhaps he was hanging out in or around the dead tree when Daddy cut it down? The skink stayed in the same spot for quite a while, allowing me to get a few pictures. I looked it up in my field guide and I think it’s a Five-Lined Skink. These guys usually move really fast, so I think this one was definitely out of it.

Later on the kids were playing and just as I was taking a photo of my son, he looked up at the side of our house and calmly said “Mommy, there’s a Black Widow spider over here.”

“Mommy, there’s a Black Widow spider over here.”

Sure enough there was.

I took a look around and found another one nearby.

I’ve told him before to watch out for the black spiders with the red dots, and to let us know if he sees one. Obviously, he was listening. 🙂 These critters were definitely too close for comfort, so I got rid of them.

The last interesting critter of Saturday was a colorful millipede that we found walking across the driveway. Not sure where he came from or where he was headed, but he was neat. We didn’t touch it, but we did observe it for a little while. Based on an online search, this millipede appears to be an Apheloria virginiensis. Good thing we didn’t touch it; according to some sources, it can secrete a cyanide compound as a defense. (Yikes!)

On Sunday, it was the same story… more animal encounters! Most of them were spotted by my son, and again, he was quick to point them out to me. First, it was a black snake hanging out in our driveway. (May 8 update: Based on my online searches, I think this was a young black rat snake. Still not 100% sure, though.)

Then, there was another skink hanging out in a flower bed. I looked this one up too, and apparently it’s also a Five-Lined Skink. The other one is a juvenile and this one is an adult.

Lastly, as if the two Black Widows perched on the side of our house wasn’t alarming enough, D spotted this monster on the house in the same area the following day. Its legs spanned about four inches, front to back. I wasn’t able to positively identify this spider using my field guide, but I think he was probably a wolf spider. He made me nervous, being on the house and so close to where the kids play, so I got rid of him too.

I have much respect for, and enjoy, the National Audubon Society Field Guides, but I think I need to get something more specific to Virginia, or at least the mid-Atlantic, rather than all of North America. The NAS field guides just don’t seem to be comprehensive enough. The frog, Black Widow and skinks were in the field guides, but the millipede, snake, and brown spider were not; at least, I didn’t find them. However, I suspect the snake we saw may have been a subspecies of one shown in the book. Nevertheless, I will be shopping for some additional references. If you have a recommendation for a good field guide, or another resource for identifying animals (or even plants), I’d love to hear it!

A Sacred Place

In early October we took a much-needed family vacation that involved more driving than I might have liked, but was well worth it. We drove the circuit we usually make to visit our immediate family. This time, however, we had a few extra days, so we spent a couple of them at Lake Minisink–a timeless, even somewhat sacred place that holds a special place in my heart.

Lake Minisink is a small lake nestled within Pennsylvania’s Delaware State Forest.  Before our recent trip, I hadn’t been to the lake in over five years, but when I was a child my family–including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins–spent nearly a week there almost every summer. The memories of summer days spent there are vivid; each one is like a stitch that string together the fabric of my childhood. Wading and swimming in the lake was always an adventure, with the soft lake bottom squishing between our toes and tiny sunfish and minnows nipping at our legs.

When we weren’t swimming, we were often out on the lake in a canoe or rowboat, either sunning ourselves or fishing. The fishing was decent and we often made at least one our meals from our catch, which would be mostly made up of sunnies (sunfish) and perch, but might also include some trout or bass.

To this day, the best fish I’ve ever had was a breakfast of pan-fried filets of sunfish that we caught in the lake the day before. Catfish and pickerel were prevalent in the lake as well, and catching them was always a thrill, but we didn’t eat them.

The lake is beautiful, quiet, and peaceful. But I think my favorite thing about Lake Minisink is that it is always the same. Okay, nothing really stays the same. Sure, our side of the lake is a lot shallower and overgrown with lily pads than it used to be, some of the dilapidated boats docks have been replaced, and one of the neighbors across the lake was re-siding his cabin. But beyond that, it’s pretty much just as I left it five years ago. No road improvements, no new houses, no huge influx of people, no major changes. How refreshing!

If I left the Virginia town in which I live and didn’t come back until five years later, I’m willing to bet that some of the area would be unrecognizable. There would be changes to road infrastructure and new shopping centers and housing developments all over the place. At the lake, it’s just as it was five years ago, ten years ago, and even 25 years ago. This is remarkable, considering the lake is in what has been one of the fastest growing regions of the state! But then again, it’s in a state forest.

"the cabin"

In general, we’ve always referred to this place as “the cabin”, but over the years our family has stayed at three different cabins on the lake’s east shore. Two of them are lakefront cottages that are essentially one small multipurpose room with a roof (kitchen, dining room, and bedroom all in one) with an enclosed sun porch on the lake side. There is electricity and a wood stove, but there is no plumbing or heating/AC. Most of the houses on the lake, including these three, have outhouses. It was always an adventure to take friends there that were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the idea of using an outhouse. It really isn’t bad, though. It’s like a permanent porto-john without the volume of traffic that a porto-john gets.

the outhouse

The worse part, to me, is having to put a coat on and walk out there in the middle of the night when it is cold and dark outside. I always find myself laying in bed for a while, half asleep and weighing my options: continue to lie there in pain, pee my pants, or tough it out and go outside to the outhouse.

It was great fun taking my husband and two children to the lake, where I made so many fond childhood memories. My husband came with me the last time, which was just before we got married, but now we have a family and I couldn’t wait to see what our kids thought of the place. And of course, I snapped a ton of photos. But they weren’t just of us enjoying ourselves. I really took in the details of the place–details that for so many years I had overlooked or had forgotten about.

One of the great things about our cabin is that family members that stay there have, on many occasions, left a bit of themselves behind. You can’t be there without being reminded of all of the others that have enjoyed this place. For instance, my grandmother’s painting of the lake hangs on the wall.

So does the mounted citation bluegill that my sister pulled from Lake Minisink 26 years ago,

and the mounted pickerel that my cousin caught just a year or two later. The pickerel was huge by our standards, but was just a few ounces shy of a citation.

There are also photos displayed of some that love to visit the cabin, as well as a photo of  a special lady who also loved spending time there, and whom we are fondly reminded of while we’re there.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                The weather was amazing… perfect, to be exact. You couldn’t have wished for better conditions for fishing or being out on a boat, and my son was eager to do both.

My husband and son took the rowboat out three times during our short stay at the lake. I anticipated that as soon as my husband rowed out to a suitable fishing spot, our son would get bored and ask to go back ashore. But he really enjoyed himself and loved being on the water.

When they got back to shore he was happy to report to me that they caught three fish!

"We caught THREE fish!"

While they were out on the boat and our daughter napped, I shared a staring contest with this pickerel that was hovering in the water right by the dock. (He was much smaller than the one mounted on the wall in the cabin.)

I also took each of my kids for a walk on the trails that begin just a short distance from the cabin. Since my daughter had just begun walking a few weeks earlier, the rocky outcroppings were a bit of an obstacle for her. She had fun just sitting on the ground and picking up whatever was in her reach. She especially enjoyed the reaction I gave her when she decided to taste the leaf that was in her hand.

My son is older and much more agile, so we went for a longer walk together. He was happy to lead the way and enjoyed crawling over the rocks and trees in the woods.

During our walks my eyes were often turned downward in hopes of finding a red-spotted newt.

Red-spotted Newt (juvenile or eft stage); Photo from the PA Fish & Boat Commission

These small, bright orange-red salamanders are one of the cutest things you might ever see and when I was a child we would catch a box full of them over the course of a week. They weren’t hard to find at the time; we would often spot them waddling across the path right in front of us. I remember one summer having caught about 50 of them. (Can you imagine the fun we had, releasing all of them at once before we went home?) I didn’t find a red one, which are the juveniles, but I did see an adult in the water near the boat launch, which we always affectionately called “the swamp” and was another place we often found the salamanders.

When they are adults, their color is more of a muddy green-brown. I didn’t see this one at first, but its abrupt dart from the shoreline to the deeper water as we approached was unmistakable. I caught it out of the corner of my eye. Then I grabbed a long stick and gently coaxed him out of his hiding spot in the shallow, muddy water. The adults are quick swimmers, but this one laid still long enough for me to get a few shots.

On a side note, I had noticed in more recent years that we wouldn’t spot nearly as many of these newts as we did when we were kids at the lake in the 1980’s. I always wondered if this was just due to bad timing on our part with respect to the life cycle and metamorphosis of the newt, or if there was another factor such as pollution that had caused a decline in the species. In searching for online content about the newt, I found this PubMed abstract that seems to suggest that a relatively new fungus is infecting the newts and could be impacting their population.

Aside from newt-hunting, boating, fishing, and exploring, we were happy to simply relax inside the cabin. My kids are too small to play board games, another great cabin past time, but I look forward to those in the future. We enjoyed the childhood thrill of bunk beds, snacked, colored, listened to music, watched movies, and just enjoyed being together. I can’t wait to go back!

According to the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR), Lake Minisink is a man-made lake that covers 35 acres and has an average depth of 15 feet, offering fishing and boating opportunities. The cabins that surround the lake are privately owned, but the cabin owners lease the land from the state. Lake Minisink’s cabin owners even have their own association.

Virginia needs a new slogan

I’ve lived in Virginia for over 14 years now and I’ve grown pretty fond of it. However, I loathe their travel and tourism slogan “Virginia is for Lovers“. LOATHE it. I can pretty much nail my distaste for the phrase down to the word “lovers”. Blame it on me watching too many soap operas during the awkward teenage years, but I just don’t think real people use that word. (Do they?) I can’t say it without squirming.

Anyway, I spent my first 13 years as a Virginian in northern Virginia (NoVa), which is completely different from the rest of the state and probably doesn’t even count in most native Virginians’ eyes. For the past year, however, I’ve had the pleasure of living in central Virginia and it is absolutely beautiful. In fact, I think West Virginia’s travel and tourism slogan “Wild and Wonderful” is a much better fit than anything having to do with lovers and I think we should steal it. Though the beauty of this area is kind of romantic. (There’s another squirmy word!)

Nonetheless… walking out our back door and just looking around the house, we’re bound to find all kinds of interesting natural and wild critters. We don’t have to go far or look very hard. When we wandered around our small yard in NoVa, we wouldn’t find much of anything that was really natural–and certainly nothing that was wonderful. And the wildest thing we would encounter, in my opinion, were those darn camel crickets! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed living in NoVa and I miss it, but there is much more life underfoot here and the kid in me loves it!

The plants and animals we encounter around here may not even exist in NoVa and they are different than what I remember seeing in Pennsylvania, where I grew up. Whenever we find a new and unfamiliar creature, I grab the camera as fast as I can and try to get a photo. This is where my inner photographer and my inner treehugger come together. I get to practice my photography skills while making a record of the critter to compare to our Audobon Field Guides later. And I love making it a learning experience for my kids.

Last year Declan had his first lesson in nature’s camouflage right here on our back porch. There was a moth on the side of the house that perfectly mimicked the appearance of the changing tulip poplar leaves. How cool is that?

I was reminded of the tulip poplar moth a week ago when I came home and found these guys on our front porch. At first glance, they looked like leaves–complete with a vein running down the middle! The color and texture were perfect and they even looked like they had a water stain near the head… just like an old leaf that had been laying on the ground for a while might have. Come on, people…. that’s cool! All these guys have to do is work on finding a better place to hang out, because their camouflage isn’t as helpful when they perch on the side of my house!

The white moth below looked like it could be an immature version of, or related to, the two brown ones above, based on the wing shape and the vein, but he was doing a better job of blending into the painted wood trim.

It’s not only the moths that are trying to hide in plain sight. This guy almost looked like a rock, all curled up and sitting perfectly still on the side of my husband’s gas grill. Except there was no reason for a rock to be sitting there, so we took a closer look.

And then there are the spiders. They are all over the place, and some of them are HUGE! Last fall this wolf spider staked his claim on the hole at the base of a tree in our back yard. If you include his legs, he was probably almost the size of the palm of your hand. We visited that tree often to try to catch a peek at him, but we kept our distance.

Our back yard has a gate at the back that opens up to the woods. We like to take walks back there, but almost always carry some unwanted freeloaders back to the house with us, to include chiggers and ticks. Immediate baths or showers are often required. In the spring Shane was back there mulching up a pile of leaves for our garden and encountered this beauty, a northern black widow.

This garden (cross) spider recently spun its web, which was about 2 feet by 2 feet,  right across our sliding glass doors that lead from our kitchen to our back porch. It made for interesting dinnertime entertainment one night a few weeks ago when it was busily spinning its web at dusk. It was fascinating to watch actually, since usually I only see the finished product and instantly wonder “how do they do that?”

Then there are the insects that just leave us scratching our heads. Like this one. Seriously, I don’t even know where to begin. What IS this?

While we can find numerous interesting insects right outside our door, some of the larger animals are usually a little more distant. We found this sweet thing trapped in the corner of our raised garden bed after some heavy rains in the spring. It seemed like he found his way in but couldn’t find his way out. We’ve come across several box turtles over the past year, but this little guy was by far the cutest!

Of course, not all of the animals are afraid to come close to the house. This summer a bear climbed the fence around our yard and came up on the porch in the middle of the night to ransack our grill. He even left behind paw prints!

Ok, maybe Virginia isn’t AS wild as West Virginia, but having bear footprints on your porch is pretty wild. I’ll keep working on a new slogan. In the meantime, we’ll continue to explore all of the interesting plants and animals that live around here. They certainly are wonderful!