In Search of Spring

Although our winter here in the Blue Ridge has actually been pretty mild, I find myself longing to see green fields and hillsides once again. With only a few weeks of winter remaining, I set out to look for signs that winter is loosening its grip on the land and giving way to the season of renewal. My last walk was several days ago and I was amazed at how much the landscape had changed.

The growing moss pays no heed to the frigid temps of the water

The growing moss pays no heed to the frigid temps of South Buffalo Creek

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Another type of moss growing up through the leaves

Immature cones forming on terminal ends of Virginia Pine

Immature cones forming on Virginia Pine

Still another kind of moss

Still another kind of moss

The birds are also giving clues that spring is on its way. The Eastern Phoebes can be heard issuing their phoebe, phoebe calls as they check out our porch rafters for the choicest nest sites. I’m also seeing the Eastern Bluebirds once again that had retreated to lower elevations to escape the worst of winter, and a Northern Mockingbird pair is busy chasing intruders out of their favorite tangle of vines.

Although the nights are cold, it’s the breeding season for many animals. Last night, my husband and I were awakened by the shrill cries of a fox in the front yard. The cries, a little higher-pitched than a coyote, went on for about a minute. My first thought was of the chickens, but I knew they were safely locked up in the coop. Possibly, the fox was calling to attract a mate. 

The lengthening of the days is obvious to our hens, who have started laying again, so it’s just a matter of time until winter blows its last gasp. I just need to be patient.

There is a way that Nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story. — Linda Hogan

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Protected Travel Corridors are Important to Wildlife

On my walks around the farm, I often notice places where the ground is soft and spongy. The softness of the turf is caused by underground mole burrows running between the mole’s den and their hunting grounds. Most of the runway system is made up of shallow tunnels one to five inches below the ground surface. This maze provides protective cover and a travel corridor for not only the moles, but also other species such as voles, white-footed mice, and house mice that move through the runways, helping themselves to grains, seeds, and tubers along the way.

Other wildlife species living on our farm also have a relatively small range. Box turtles, for instance, generally live within an area of less than 200 meters in diameter as they move around to find a mate, lay their eggs, and find food. We came across this Eastern box turtle several times last summer within an area about half the size of a football field. I knew it was the same turtle by the pattern on the carapace as each one is different.
Easternbox turtle
Similarly, rabbits live out their lives on just a few acres, moving between shrubs, briars, and fencerows to avoid detection by predators. A fox, on the other hand, claims a territory of from one to five square miles, traveling through wooded areas and hedgerows that provide protective cover.

Larger mammals such as the Eastern coyote travel longer distances as they go about searching for food and finding a mate. The size of their home range depends on the food and cover resources available and the number of other coyotes in an area, but it generally averages between 8 and 12 square miles. Black bears, which are fairly common in the Blue Ridge, have even larger territories. Females have a home range of up to 50 square miles, while males who often roam large distances to find a female can have a home range of up to 290 square miles. Source: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Black bear cub. Photo by beautifulfreepictures.com

Black bear cub. Photo by beautifulfreepictures.com

I’m lucky to live in a state that is proactive in wildlife conservation. The Rockbridge Area Conservation Council, a non-profit organization, is developing a new conservation project seeking enhanced awareness of and protection for a critical wildlife corridor in western Virginia. The project will determine where corridors exist within the Buffalo Creek watershed that provide cover and forage for large mammals as they move between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountain ranges. These linkages will provide safe passage for them to move through the watershed and under Interstate 81.

Landowners within the boundaries of the corridor that volunteer to participate will be considered by the Virginia Outdoor Foundation for purchase or donation of a perpetual conservation easement. In return for a donated easement, landowners receive a tax deduction for some or all of the value of the easement, reduce their property taxes, and sell some or all of the tax credit for cash.

Protected wildlife corridors are important to the survival of our largest mammals, often forced to travel great distances in order to find food and survive in a human-dominated world. These natural linkages will help keep motorists and wildlife alike safe.

nature is powerful therapy

Does nature have an effect on people’s health and feeling of well-being? Common sense would seem to say that it does, but there are recent studies that back up that supposition. An article in Scientific American (“Nature that Nurtures,” March 2012) cited studies showing that hospital patients with windows looking out on leafy trees healed, on average, faster and needed less pain medication than patients whose window looked out on a brick wall. Other studies documented that just three to five minutes spent looking at a view dominated by trees, flowers, or water can begin to reduce anger, anxiety, and pain.

Now I don’t know about you, but I figured this out some time ago! I used to go on long trail rides on my horse whenever I felt the need to unwind. Feeling the movement of the horse and taking in the surroundings was a sure-cure for the blues or mental fatigue. These days, I no longer own a horse, but I get the same therapeutic benefits by going for a walk. Whatever thoughts are swirling around in my brain take a back seat to the power of nature to amaze and fascinate. The photos I chose for this post weren’t taken recently, but I picked them to show tranquil scenery that makes me feel good even when I’m just looking at the pictures!

The road to our farm with the Short Hills in the background


South Buffalo Creek


Some of my best times with nature are those spent alone. With no distractions, I can breathe in the smell of wet leaves and damp earth, feel the soft ground give where the voles have made a labyrinth of tunnels underneath, and hear the faraway cry of the lone raven calling from the mountain top. As I walk, my thoughts and everyday cares drift to the joys and mysteries of nature around me.

No matter what’s going on in my life, getting outside can brighten my mood and give me a new perspective on the world. When was the last time you gave nature a chance to work its magic?

I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses
put in order. – John Burroughs

a wet year

Unlike much of the rest of the country, we’ve had a LOT of rain this spring and summer in our corner of the Blue Ridge. So much so that we lost parts of our lane from runoff water. We had to bring in a dozer to re-grade the washed out places and add two truckloads of stone. But as a result of all the rainfall, our fields are as lush as I’ve ever seen them. South Buffalo Creek has been recharged every few days and is running strong.

The high water table means that the wetland in our front field is much wetter than normal for this time of year. In fact, the field is so wet and the ground so soft, we installed a plank footbridge to protect the small stream where we cross on our walks (the stream is obscured by the large tufts of grass).

Bridge engineer Bill trying out the new footbridge

Of course, the dogs had to check it out, too…

Autumn and Callie look like they’re wondering, “How’d this get here?”

Cattails are thriving in the lush environs of the stream

This picture shows the same small stream leaving our property (again, the stream is hidden by the lush vegetation). The purple flowers are ironweed, a wildflower that grows prolifically in moist soil.

The sky is clouding up and it looks like we’re going to get yet another shower. I only wish we could send some of this moisture to the middle of the country where farmers in several states are suffering the worst drought in decades.

stumbled upon

Combine a beautiful spring day with a walk in the woods and there’s no telling what you might come across. Today I set out into the woods, following South Buffalo Creek downstream, and noticed this large brown feather lying in the leaves. It measures 16 inches from one end to the other. I think it might be from a hawk or an eagle, or maybe a vulture.

I saw several wildflowers, some of which I couldn’t identify. We just moved to Virginia a few months ago, so there are many new plants and flowers to learn about.  As I walked, I came across the stumps of American chestnut trees, a species wiped out decades ago by a blight, and how important they once were to the ecology of the Appalachian forests.

On my way back, I saw an autumn olive bush loaded with honey bees and tiger and zebra swallowtail butterflies. This accommodating zebra swallowtail stayed still long enough for me to admire its bold colors and snap a picture. I made a mental note to look for pawpaw trees, the host tree for the larvae of this species.

But no doubt one of nature’s most beautiful offerings was this native dogwood tree. The dogwood is the State Tree of Virginia, and they burst into bloom just about the time the flowers of the redbud tree are declining. This one at the edge of the woods is reaching out to capture the sun’s rays.

These walks never fail to remind me of a quote by John Muir: “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Nature is ever-changing and I am thankful to be on the receiving end of all that she has to offer.

water, water, everywhere

After two days of pouring rain, South Buffalo Creek has swollen to double its normal size. In some places, the creek has overrun its banks, sending the swirling water into overflow channels carved out during previous spring storms. Once the fields became saturated, the water streamed down both sides of our lane. Among the creatures enjoying this deluge are the northern peepers – the rain recharged the wetlands in our front field where these tiny frogs are in full mating mode. It’s spring in the Blue Ridge!

Photo by Jo Ann Abell

Swollen South Buffalo Creek

welcome to my world!

I woke up this morning to the sun rising over the Short Hills Mountains. With no other sounds to drown them out, I could hear the individual calls of chickadees, titmice, sparrows, bluebirds, and a host of other birds emerging from their roosts.

Finding the lure of their singing irresistible, I put on a jacket and went out onto the porch to take in the morning. My presence was soon noted by a red-bellied woodpecker who greeted me with a rolling churr, churr, as if to say, “Fine day, isn’t it?” In the background, I could hear South Buffalo Creek, hurrying to join the Maury River. Standing there, it came to me that this really is just another day in paradise.

In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous. — Aristotle