Tag Archives: virginia

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! 🙂

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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 Lesson Learned About Poisonous Plants and Kids

Earlier this week we went to a garden store and I promised the kids they could pick out a plant for their garden. Miss D is a little too small yet to have much of an opinion, but Mr. D quickly settled on this colorful lantana.

He was very particular about waiting until he was “ready” to plant it. Here he is hard at work, patting down the soil around his new plant.

Now, I didn’t realize it until I looked up lantanas on the web, but it turns out these plants are poisonous. Actually, it turns out that a lot of plants are poisonous. No kids or pets have taken a bite out of this lantana, and it’s unlikely that they would. However, last year my daughter was quick to take a bite out of any veggie she found in the garden and so far this year she’s been plucking the heads off the pansies. Though she hasn’t put any of them in her mouth, I wouldn’t need to be concerned if she did because pansies are actually edible flowers. Lantanas are not, and several sites say the berries are poisonous. (This one doesn’t have berries yet.)

Here is my next course of action.

  1. Talk with my kids about edible versus poisonous plants and how they shouldn’t taste or eat any berries, leaves, or flowers, unless Mommy, Daddy or another trusted adult says it’s okay.
  2. Move the lantana to a (non-edible) flower garden, or pot it and put it up and out of reach. (Perhaps in a hanging planter.)
  3. Institute a new rule: edible plants only in the children’s garden (or at least no poisonous plants).
  4. Find myself a good list of poisonous plants (native to Virginia, or common household plants) and familiarize myself with it.

Phew. I was feeling like a bad mama… letting my kids put a poisonous plant in their garden. But now that I have a plan for fixing it, I feel better.

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!