A Fond Fall Farewell to the Blue Ridge

I dislike leaving a place where I have many fond memories of walks in the woods, fields and wetlands. We have spent summers at our 107 acre Virginia farm for ten years and such a long time period provides a multitude of deep feelings about the special places that we call our home or home away from home. Yet the inexorable march of the seasons compels me to pack and and seek new memories in the beaches, forests and swamps of sunny Florida. I will especially miss my "Thoreau cabin" built in a deep valley on our farm next to a pond and surrounded by forests with bright yellow birches and hickories. It is quiet now, but when we return in spring will be a cacophony of frog calls and bird songs. Fall is of course best known for leaf colors and these are present in abundance; I show a photo of a dogwood with its deep red leaves and bright red fruit. I found an unexpected botanical sight when I made the rounds to clean out the bird nest boxes and noticed the luxuriant growth of lichens on the tops but not the sides of the boxes; the photo shows a surprising variety of lichens that obviously find the pitch of the roof suitable for growth. This is a reminder of the many unexpected sights in nature that are there if we only notice them; I make a mental note to work on learning a few of the common lichens.



One of the common sights in the fields are the seed pods of milkweeds which are splitting and releasing their gossamer seeds to float away in the wind. The bright red milkweed bugs hasten to eat what they can before their meal ticket is blown away. Another insect which I enjoy watching is the large and acrobatic shadow darner which has replaced the common green darner which has migrated south. But I rarely get a chance to see the shadow darner up close and personal since it is constantly in flight around our ponds. One day a shadow darner was trapped on our porch and I got a close look at the head which is quite impressive with its massive multifaceted eyes, this is the view that insects including many mosquitoes get just before they are eaten.


Sometimes a wonderful encounter with nature happens when you are at work in the yard. While trimming a lilac bush, I suddenly noticed that a gorgeous question mark butterfly was attracted to the lilac, but not for nectar since there are no flowers now. Instead it was either probing for sap or spreading its wings to warm up on this sunny but cool day. Question marks are present in an orange morph in the fall; summer butterflies are much darker. If only thermoregulation were a reason for this, you would expect the colors to be reversed. They are unusual in that they can over-winter as adults and typically feed on ripe fruit, tree sap or fecal matter and carcasses.


An exciting happening recently was the hatching of a clutch of black rat snake eggs that were laid on July 9. The incubation period under less than ideal temperatures was about 90 days. The tiny snakes slit the egg shells with a special "egg tooth" and shyly came out into the world. They are blotched as juveniles presumably for camouflage, but gradually get darker until they seem almost pure black with some indistinct white lines. I found interesting evidence of their ability to climb trees in search of prey when I spotted a large shed skin draped in a dead tree and extending into an old pileated woodpecker hole.


Although I am not too fond of gray squirrels which can be pests at bird feeders and gnaw the bark on our trees, I have become attached to our larger and more variably colored fox squirrels. This fox squirrel (note white nose) was living wild and free in our woods and was industriously engaged in looking for hickory nuts and acorns to bury for the winter.


So enjoy the natural world wherever you find yourself. Any location provides the basis of immense emotional and intellectual satisfaction when you interact closely with nature.

Bill Dunson
Galax, VA & Englewood, FL