Virginia, plain?

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So. Back in the summer – yes, we really had a summer, seems a long time ago now doesn’t it? – back in the summer, when the weather was, for the first time in living memory, genuinely summery, we went away. Can you guess where we were?

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Now you know!

We went to visit my in-laws: the Professor (hi A!) and the Rocket Scientist – how fulfilling must it be to work in a place where you can say: “It is rocket science!” But I digress, both from the truth* and from the story of our holiday. We were staying in Virginia, close to Alexandria, which in turn is close to Washington DC – hence the photo with good ole Abe.

We did many of the things you might expect tourists to do – the presidential memorials, the Smithsonian’s many museums etc, (try the Native American museum’s cafe – superb!), Mount Vernon (George Washington’s house), and some less obvious ones – Fort Washington on the Maryland bank of the Potomac, Chicago live at Wolf Trap (an interesting experience – my sister-in-law was given tickets, she thought at first for a production of the musical Chicago – when she realised that in fact it was the band Chicago, I think she thought they might be more age-appropriate for TBH and I. You know Chicago – all the hits, like ‘If You Leave Me Now’, and, erm, er…..Well anyway, TBH liked the singing, but hated the musical interludes (“Too many notes”). I felt the opposite – a bit Jack Spratt and spouse).

It was a great trip –  a fabulous family get together, great to meet two nephews who we’ve only ever spoken to on Skype before.

And….all the wildlife! Who knew? Not me certainly.

Close to where we stayed was a fabulous place called Huntley Meadows. The land here once belonged to George Mason (one of the Founding Fathers) and was farmland, but it’s now a wetland surrounded by forest.

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The wetland is amazing, with an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. The first striking thing was the number and variety of turtles around. These were relatively small specimens, but we also saw much larger ones swimming out in deeper water.

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On our first visit, we struck lucky and this fellow….

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…swam along a channel straight towards us, then under the boardwalk where we stood and into a large beaver lodge (well it seemed large to me, though I’m not really qualified to say – it’s the first one I ever saw!). The kids were adamant that it was a beaver, and they may well be right, but if it was, it was relatively small for a beaver. Maybe it’s a muskrat? B is sure that it had the wide tail characteristic of a beaver and he’s pretty sharp where natural history is concerned. Either way – we were all very excited.

Less dramatic, but equally fascinating, several bushes nearby had been completely stripped of leaves by these large caterpillars….

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..and these too….

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On subsequent visits we spotted some smaller cousins….

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And in many places we visited we saw tent webs, some quite large…

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…which were full of little wrigglers….

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Of course, where there are caterpillars, there are likely to be butterflies and moths too. And there were. We saw them everywhere we went. In the car park of the local mall, a huge dilapidated hawkmoth. In the woods at Huntley Meadows, this rather muted and well camouflaged butterfly, which perversely, is perhaps my favourite amongst the many we saw…

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And there really were a lot. Large swallowtails were most notable, but the variety in shape and size and colour was astonishing. And all of them new and unknown to us – except, surprisingly, for a handful of Red Admirals. Here’s a small sample….

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As I say, we saw butterflies just about everywhere, but most of these photos were taken at River Farm, the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society, which is on the banks of the Potomac. A wildflower meadow there was particularly rich in insect and bird life. (Imagine a British wildflower meadow on steroids – everything way over head height, huge flowers, huge bees and wasps etc)

Huntley Meadows also had a huge variety of dragonflies. but they were even more elusive than the butterflies and so will have to be represented by just one photo…

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One memorable feature of our stay was the constant loud racket of cicadas. At Wolf Trap – which is an outdoor venue – they were louder than the band. These insects live initially underground as nymphs, but then crawl up a tree to emerge, like a dragonfly does, from their skins. Here is the exuvia (discarded exoskeleton) of a cicada….

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We saw three on the bark of a tree by the Potomac in Washington. And sheltering under the bark of the same tree…

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An adult cicada.

I suspect that this is another….

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…probably of a different species. B found it at River Farm.

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It was dead, and therefore very amenable to being photographed from different angles.

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Another River Farm tenant…

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Here’s the building at River Farm….

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…taken from one of the paths through the meadow. The gnarly old tree in the foreground had my attention because I was both interested and slightly wary of the bustle of activity around the small hollow in it’s trunk…

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I had decided not to take my ‘bulky’ camera away with me – a decision which I began to regret almost immediately we arrived. The rest of the family all had point and snaps with them and at various times I borrowed them all. Some of these photos I took, but not by any means all of them.

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One insect we took a close interest in, but didn’t photograph, were the fireflies which whizzed around the garden every evening as it grew dark. Prof A organised a hunt and the kids had soon filled a jam-jar with them. (Well – not filled, but they had caught a lot.)

Of course wherever there are bugs, there are bound to be predators.

I’m not sure whether this arachnid, photographed in the woods at Huntley Meadows, is a spider or a harvestman.

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These frogs, very green and quite large relative to British frogs, were numerous at Huntley meadows…

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I think that it may be the American Bullfrog.

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These two species of tiny frogs…

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…may have been equally numerous, but we only saw a few, and then only thanks to eagle-eyed B spotting the first of them.

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I found a helpful website on the frogs of Virginia (there seem to be many species) and I think that this may be the Spring Peeper.

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The centre of these large leaves seem to be popular with small frogs. This…

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….is a green treefrog, the pale stripe is pretty distinctive. Here’s another….

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I’ve never seen a treefrog in the wild before, but this was only one of many firsts.

We saw a couple of small snakes during our visit, and quite a few lizards.

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Including a Komodo Dragon (another first)…

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But that was at Washington Zoo!

*I’m not sure that, strictly speaking, Dr A is a rocket scientist, although she is an astrophysicist and she does work for NASA, so how much closer can you get?

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Virginia, plain?