Rain Man (and Woman)

A rainy day is a perfect time for a walk in the woods.

~Rachel Carson

I am finally getting around to posting about our trip to one of our favorite backpacking spots, Mount Rogers, VA. My backpacking and camping queen (you know who I am talking about) has been chomping at the bit to get out on the trail since the pandemic has caused us to hole up at home. So, after spending a few days helping my mom in her home in southwest VA, we planned to do an overnight to the nearby high country of Mt. Rogers. Since it was a weekday (and there was a less than ideal forecast), we were able to secure a spot in the overnight backpackers lot at Grayson Highlands State Park without having made online advance reservations (definitely required for weekend trips). We hit the trail after lunch and planned to do a short 2.7 mile hike to an area just off the Appalachian Trail on Forest Service lands. The cool temperatures made for a pleasant hike, and the overcast skies enriched the colors of the woodland details. As is usually the case on our backpacking trips, I did not carry my camera gear, so all accompanying images were taken with an iPhone.


Frequent rains make for a lush forest floor in the highlands (click photos to enlarge)


Rosebay Rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum)


A huge mushroom with a world of invertebrates in its gills


The highlands are home to numerous fruit-producing trees and shrubs like blueberries, blackberries, hawthorn, and mountain ash

It started raining about halfway on our journey, lightly at first, but then hard enough that we sought shelter under a spruce tree for a few minutes before marching on. Fortunately, we arrived at our campsite during a lull in the precipitation, so we were able to get the tent set up without much problem. But, as we started to put up the all-important tarp, the skies opened and our spirits dampened (along with everything we owned).


That look you get when you have been waiting to backpack for sooooo long, and it rains on your parade


The tarp is a life-saver on this kind of trip (once you manage to get it set up)

We finally got the tarp up and ate dinner, but dove into the tent as the torrential downpour began. It rained most of the night and continued past first light the next morning. It eventually eased up enough to encourage us out of our still dry tent and into the wet world. With the normally expansive vistas shrouded in low clouds, it encouraged us to focus more on the small beauties along the way. All in all, not a bad way to spend a rainy couple of days.

Maple looper, Parallelia bistriaris

A Maple Looper, Parallelia bistriaris


The wild ponies help keep the meadows open


The highlands are home to amazing textures and colors of lichens…


…you just need to pause and look closely


The green colors of ferns, mosses, and lichens were richly saturated in the gray skies


Patterns and textures everywhere


The upright fertile shoots of the Fan Clubmoss contain the spores. In prehistoric times, some clubmosses reached the height of trees and often dominated the landscape.

Turk's Cap Lily

We spotted a single Turk’s Cap Lily ((Lillium superbum) on our hike


Heal-all (Prunella vulgaris), as the name implies,  has been used to treat a variety of ailments in the past


St. John’s Wort (Hypericum sp.) were found scattered across the high balds


A view as the cloud bank started to lift (barely)


We lifted a few rocks in a tiny rivulet along the trail and found three salamanders


The highlands are home to an incredible variety of fungi. I believe this is a Pigskin Earthball, Scleroderma citrinum

Upright Coral Fungus, Ramaria stricta

This beauty was growing on a fallen log…probably the Upright Coral Fungus, Ramaria stricta

Eyelash Cup, Scutellinia scutellata

I love the names of this one – Eyelash Cup (Scutellinia scutellata) – also called the Molly Eye-winker, the Scarlet Elf Cap, and the Scarlet Pixie Cup. Look closely and you can see the fine fringe of filaments resembling eyelashes along the edge of each cup.

Ponies at Grayson Higlands SP

As we left the park, the weekend crowds were starting to arrive, the clouds were lifting, and the ponies were doing what they do, adding a touch of glamour to the most beautiful mountains in Virginia





Opting Out

I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

Swift Creek Reservoir VA

Sunrise on Opt Out Friday (click photos to enlarge)

If Nathaniel had lived in our times, he might have added something to that sentiment….or by going shopping, especially on Black Friday. I think outdoor retailer REI made a huge splash with their decision to encourage people to go outside over Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and by closing their stores to allow their employees to do the same. I was trying to remember if I have ever gone shopping on Black Friday…I don’t think so. And with the publicity of #optoutfriday, I think many more people did what so many of us have done in the past, get outside with family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. This year’s weather was especially conducive to such activities. After visiting my folks in the mountains, we traveled to Richmond to spend the remainder of the holiday with Melissa’s family. They live adjacent to a large reservoir bordered by a thin conservation buffer.

Swift Creek Reservoir VA 1

Sunrise at Swift Creek Reservoir near Richmond, VA

I like to get up early and walk around the lake shore, enjoying the sights and sounds (in spite of the frequent gun shots from some nearby duck hunters this past weekend). There is something magical about being up early when few people are out, when the natural world is starting to stir. The glowing quality of the morning light is especially pleasing when a very light mist hangs over the water.

Beaver Lake, Pocahontas State Park, VA

Beaver Lake, Pocahontas State Park, VA

After breakfast we all headed over to nearby Pocahontas State Park, an 8000+ acre forested preserve with some nice creeks, a marshy pond, and a large lake. The warm weather created ideal conditions for some end of the season wildlife sightings.

Brown Snake

Brown Snake

With morning temperatures in the mid-60’s, it seemed more like late summer than Thanksgiving. The day before we had spotted a very active late season snake, a Brown Snake, Storeria dekayi, at another nearby park. Brown Snakes are common in forested areas but are often missed because they tend to move about under leaf litter and logs in search of their favorite prey, earthworms. This one was caught as it crossed the trail. A quick portrait and it was released back into the leaves. I was hoping for some other late season surprises on this hike.

Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly

Autumn Meadowhawk dragonfly

Down by the water’s edge at Beaver Lake, we saw a couple of small dragonflies darting about. One landed briefly on the dock railing and I managed a quick pic with my point and shoot Olympus. I thought it was a species I had photographed earlier back home, a Blue-faced Meadowhawk, but, in looking at the field guides later, I think this is a different species, an Autumn Meadowhawk, Sympetrum vicinum. There is little black on the abdomen and the legs look light in color, which separate this species from the other. Plus, field guides say this is one of the latest-flying of our dragonflies. The hike continued with sightings of several other insects and spiders enjoying this autumn warmth, as well as some nice birds, including a Red-headed Woodpecker feeding on acorns.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail chrysalis

Swallowtail chrysalis on tree trunk

Toward the end of the hike we started playing a nature nerd game we often do while walking in the woods…trying to identify trees just by their trunk and bark. Along a boardwalk near the lake edge I walked up and tapped a trunk and asked for an identification. Melissa quickly gave an answer (an ash) and then pointed to something right above where I had tapped (something I failed to notice, I’m ashamed to say) – a chrysalis. The overall shape, plus the way it was connected to the trunk (via a silk loop around the upper third of the body with its posterior end connected directly to the trunk) told me it was a swallowtail chrysalis…but which one?

Close up of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail chrysalis

Close up of Eastern Tiger Swallowtail chrysalis

Looking around the habitat, I could see two possibilities based on the available host plants – a Spicebush Swallowtail (some Spicebush were nearby in the low area adjacent to the boardwalk), and an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (several Tulip Poplars were along the trail). I have raised plenty of Spicebush Swallowtails from the larval stage, and this chrysalis looked different in both color and texture (those of a Spicebush Swallowtail are generally light brown and sleek-looking). When I got home, I looked online and confirmed that it probably was a chrysalis of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. The color can be variable but they often have a mixture of green and brown which makes it look like they are a broken twig covered in small patches of lichen. An impressive camouflage. And a morning well spent, to be sure. I hope all of you had a chance to get outside this holiday and enjoy the bargains that nature brings to us every day.


Mainely Beautiful


I am winding down my camping trip to the north woods and the Maine coast. It has been a glorious week of hiking, camping in almost perfect campsites, and taking in the sights of a stunningly beautiful part of our country. Unlike many of my other outings, this one turned out to be less about wildlife and more about soaking in the essence of the place – the light over the ocean at sunset, the rhythmic sloshing of the waves on pink granite boulders, and the quiet of the fragrant north woods.

And in what must be a first for me, I rarely took out the big lenses, much less the 7D. This is my first trip that I documented mainly with my iPhone…go figure. The relative lack of wildlife and the amount of hiking made it much easier to just carry the camera in my pocket.


Highlights of the trip include hiking in Acadia, especially up and over the Bee Hive by climbing a steep trail with steel ladders on the rock face, quiet breakfasts on secluded rock beaches, and the delicate beauty that surrounds you as you wander the rocky coast and the north woods. The temperatures, scenery, and forest made me think of the Maine Coast as being like an ocean on the slopes of my home states’ tallest mountain, Mount Mitchell. A great combination, to be sure.

Cellular service has been, and remains, elusive, so I will simply post a few
memories of the week. I hope to return soon.