Tag Archives: reference

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!


Book: Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook

Last year I really wanted to start a garden, but I was very inexperienced and even a little intimidated. Despite my beginner status, I dove right in and got through the season with a lot of trial-and-error and a lot of inefficiency. I wanted to do better this year, yet there seemed to be so many things to learn and I didn’t know where to start.

This past winter I was browsing the book section at a local Plow & Hearth and found the Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook by father and daughter team, Ron and Jennifer Kujawski. It’s exactly the type of gardening book I had been looking for: one that would break a year’s worth of gardening down into small, manageable tasks, telling me what to do and when to do it.

I’m pretty much a beginner gardener and I think this book is great for beginners. The Kujawskis break down the Handbook into weeks before or after the last frost date. So, all you do is find your last frost date and then fill in the dates at the top of the first page in each section of the book. For example, one section says “9 weeks before average date of last frost”. Since my average date of last frost is around April 16, I grab a calendar and count backward 9 weeks from April 16 and put that date (February 13) at the top of the page in the handbook. In that short section, the Kujawskis tell me which seeds to start around February 13 (eggplant, peppers, and some herbs), how to design a crop rotation plan (with a table showing a typical crop rotation plan), and how to be prepared for a dry season (by making a DIY rain barrel out of a garbage can, as well as few other recommendations for prepping the garden). They even provide a list of drought-tolerant vegetables.

If you want a garden but don’t know where to start, or you have some some experience but you want a little guidance on how to improve your gardening practices, consider the Vegetable Gardener’s Handbook! Aside from being a great gardening guide for what-to-do-when, the Handbook has a lot of excellent bits of garden-related information, tips, and tutorials. It’s been my go-to reference so far this year. The authors even encourage you to scribble notes in the margin, take the book with you to the garden, and get dirty (you and the book)! As they put it, “If after the first growing season, this book has no soil smudges or pencil marks, you probably didn’t have enough fun.”


By the way, if you don’t k now your average date of last frost, there are several online sources for finding it. You could do what I did and try the frost date listing at Victory Seeds, or go straight to the National Climatic Data Center for the most comprehensive (and also most confusing) data. (Keep in mind that your last frost date isn’t an absolute; it’s just an average, so you could still experience a frost after your last frost date.)