Living with Nature in the Blue Ridge: 1st Anniversary

It’s hard to believe a whole year has gone by since I started “Wood and Field,” and what an incredible year it’s been! Thanks to the miracle that is the Internet, I’ve made many blogging friends who have shared what’s happening in their woods and fields – as far away as Finland! I remember how excited I was to get my first follower (okay, it was my husband, but you have to start somewhere, right?). Then I got more followers and the comments started to come in, and from then on, I was hooked!

I thought a lot about what I’ve learned over the past year. The first thing that came to mind is that storms in the mountains can come on fast and furious as temperatures fluctuate. I once exclaimed to my husband in exasperation after several weeks of high winds, an ice storm, a tornado, and torrential downpours that transformed the front field into a river and swept away parts of our gravel lane, “How come we don’t ever get any regular weather?”) What I’ve learned is that when you live in the mountains, changes in the weather can be sudden and severe.

a wild South Buffalo Creek during a big storm

a wild South Buffalo Creek during a big storm

The harsh turns in the weather have made me admire the resilience of wildlife all the more. The plants and animals that call the hills and valleys of the Blue Ridge home have evolved to cope with whatever nature throws at them. The lesson for me? I have to adapt, as well. I need to be more like the animals that carry out their routine despite adversity and remember that, eventually, normalcy will return. Of course, we might need to bring in a backhoe when that happens.

I’ve learned to watch the bird activity at the feeders for signs of significant changes in the weather. A special middle-ear receptor called the Vitali organ, can sense changes in barometric pressure. When I see the birds jockeying for position at the feeders and more gathered on the ground and in the trees, I know it’s time to get out the batteries and candles because Mother Nature is on a tear again!

Dozens of birds

Fueling up for a long winter’s night.

Another lesson I’ve learned is that although we share our space with coyotes, bears, and bobcats, we can co-exist in peace. I have to admit the first time I heard the high-pitched “yipping” of coyotes in the woods, a chill went up my spine, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect. We hear them from time to time early in the morning or at dusk, but they cover a wide territory and eventually move on. We seem to have reached an agreement that they leave us alone and we leave them alone.

Coyotes move in and out of our area, but haven't caused any problems. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife

Coyotes move in and out of our area, but haven’t caused any problems. Photo by US Fish and Wildlife

Finally, it’s been six years since we stopped mowing the fields and the regeneration is incredible. What used to be a hay field is now full of native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and tree saplings. We saw an American Kestrel for the first time this year on the farm, a species that is on the decline in Virginia. The kestrel and other birds of prey benefit directly from the overgrown fields that provide habitat for mice, voles, and other small animals.

I am looking forward to sharing many more vignettes of what’s happening in the natural world as I begin my second year of “Living with Nature in the Blue Ridge.”

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Morning winter walk

Bill and I went for a walk around the farm a little earlier than usual this morning because the wind is supposed to pick up later today. We could feel heat from the sun on our backs and it felt good.

As soon as we got out a bit into the front field, I turned around and snapped a picture of the snow on top of the mountains behind the house. We didn’t get more than a dusting in the valley. The higher altitudes got more snow because of the colder temps.
Snow on the mountains

The pine trees in the front field that just a few months ago were nearly hidden by the tall grass are now very visible.

Young pine trees

There are a lot of hunters in our area, but we still have plenty of deer as evidenced by all the fresh tracks.
Deer tracks

Most of the Eastern hemlocks in our woods are dead or dying. They are under attack from the woolly adelgid, an aphid-like insect introduced into this country from East Asia that feeds on the sap of the hemlocks. The insect has infested hemlocks on the Blue Ridge Parkway for about 10 years and in Shenandoah National Park since the late 1980s. In these areas as many as 80 percent of the hemlocks have died due to infestation.

Here’s a hemlock on our property (in the very center of the picture) that is just starting to show the effects of infestation. Trees generally die within four to 10 years after infestation.
Infested eastern hemlock

Wingstem covered the fields with their yellow blossoms from late summer well into the fall. Now the dried stalks, reaching six feet into the air, are all that remain.

Wingstem stalks
Time to head back where cutting and splitting firewood is on the agenda and, of course, football playoffs. Callie was not excited about going home because she hadn’t finished checking out all the field mouse and vole hiding places. As usual, she brought up the rear as we headed home.

Callie coming home

An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.
~ Henry David Thoreau

jeepers! peepers!

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

This week we began hearing the high-pitched calls of the male northern spring peepers in our front field. They are calling to attract a female. After mating, the female lays several hundred eggs, which are attached to vegetation in permanent or vernal (temporary) ponds. In about two weeks, the eggs hatch and tadpoles metamorphose approximately three months later. When the breeding season is over, the peepers retreat upland to damp, wooded areas.

The wetlands in our front field were created several years ago when our neighbor put in a pond, the overflow from which, created a perfect breeding place for the peepers. Every evening, as the sun goes down behind the mountains, the chorus erupts. When hundreds of peepers add their voices to the chorus, the din sounds like distant sleigh bells. It’s an amazing thing to hear.

It is not half so important to know as to feel.  — Rachel Carson