Virginia, plain?


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?


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.


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.


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


…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….


..and these too….


On subsequent visits we spotted some smaller cousins….



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


…which were full of little wrigglers….


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…


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….









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…


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….


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


An adult cicada.

I suspect that this is another….


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


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


Another River Farm tenant…


Here’s the building at River Farm….


…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…



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.




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.


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


I think that it may be the American Bullfrog.


These two species of tiny frogs…


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


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.


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


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


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.


Including a Komodo Dragon (another first)…


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?

Virginia, plain?


The day after my Langden Castle walk (so over a week ago now) and my third post-work walk in as many days. Once again, I found myself drawn back to Gaitbarrow. I had an idea that I might enjoy a brisk circuit for a change, but as usual I was easily distracted. It was just one week after my previous visit, but in the interval so much had changed. One of the principal changes was that in every sunny spot, there were hosts of damselflies…


There are several species of blue damselflies, and I can’t usually identify them, but I’m reasonably confident that this is a common blue damselfly, Enallagma cyathigerum, because in a full-size version of this cropped photo… 

Damselfly II 

…its just about possible to make out the black shape on the second segment of the abdomen which identifies it as such.

Blue-tailed Damselfly 

Blue-tailed damselfly.

Once I’d paused to photograph the damselflies, I soon noticed grasshoppers jumping and spiders scurrying about…

Wolf spider 

Wolf spider, Pardosa lugubris, carrying egg-sac.

I made a brief foray into the boggy meadow where I recently saw a roe deer. Even after some drier weather the middle section of the path has become welly territory. Some creatures appreciate some damp conditions of course…


After the ‘banded snail killing ground’ of my last visit, it was nice to find a banded snail which was clearly flourishing…

Banded snail 

In the meadow on the shore at the end of Haweswater, something drew me into a small scrubby tree in amongst the reeds. I can’t remember now what it was that first attracted my attention, but when I had thoroughly tangled myself in its branches, I discovered that it was flowering, in a very undemonstrative way….

Unidentified tree flower 

Naturally there was a resident damselfly, its silvery wings catching the light beautifully…


And now that I had started to look, I realised that the tree was also home to a troop of banded snails….

Banded snail 

More banded snails 

Yet another banded snail 

B is always excited by cuckoo spit, I think for the same sort of reasons that makes Horrible Histories in all of its many guises so appealing. I stooped to photograph a gobbet for him…

Cuckoo spit 

..and as I did so, I caught a flicker of movement amongst some grass stems beside a charred log. I didn’t see what moved the grass, but I was hopeful: I rolled away the log, and hey presto!….

Common lizard 

…a common lizard.

Another contrast with a week before: in the meadows….

The flower meadow 

..the yellow rattle is now flowering in abundance…

Yellow rattle 

From the meadows, I took a different route across the limestone pavements than I usually follow. There were still plenty of damselflies to see…

Damselfly on bleached tree root 

…on a weather bleached root stump….

Damselfly on oak leaf 

…on some oak leaves.

Equally abundant, and a delight which will bring me back this way at this time of year, was lily-of-the-valley….


Lily-of-the-valley II 

This one….

Lily-of-the-valley with spider 

…had a tiny spider clinging to it…

Spider on lily-of-the-valley

Sadly, I don’t know what species this one is.

Avocets and bugs galore by Allen Hide; ring ouzels, stonechats and reed buntings in Bowland; and a variety of delights at Gaitbarrow: my cup runneth over.


Perfect Day

Perfect picnic

I’ve whittled on before about the elements which combine to make a ‘good day on the hoof’. This was hardly a day on the hoof: a short bicycle ride to the end of Moss Lane, a picnic on a bench on the boardwalk overlooking Haweswater and then a circuit around the lake and across the fields and back to Moss Lane. A short walk; very leisurely. Lots of sitting around, lots of blackberry picking, lots of stopping to gawp at nature. But before our jaunt was even half way through TBH had already begun to describe it as a ‘perfect day’.

Whilst we were eating our lunch we were entertained by a multitude of dragonflies hunting over the grassland by the lake, and also watched several butterflies flutter by – a brimstone, a peacock and the only one which had the courtesy to pose for a photo…

Small tortoiseshell on devil's-bit scabious 

…this small tortoiseshell. It was sunning itself on a devil’s-bit scabious, which, from previous visits, I expected to find flowering here early in September, although many of the flowers were not yet open…

Unopened devil's-bit scabious 

…and as many again were only beginning to open…

Partially opened devil's-bit scabious 

It was also no surprise to find grass of Parnassus flowering…

Grass of Parnassus 

…no surprise, but absolutely delightful!

But I was rather taken aback to find this bird’s-eye primrose still flowering…

Late-flowering bird's-eye primrose

…long after it’s usual May and June season.

A picnic with S is a long, drawn-out affair, since he doesn’t like to sit still for too long: a little light grazing, a look around, another morsel of food, a bit more exploring – that’s his modus operandi. He’s keen on company on his mini-forays and whilst exploring we found this…

Hoverfly - helophilus pendulus, probably 

…dapper hoverfly, probably helophilus pendulus, meticulously cleaning itself – first wiping its abdomen with its rear legs, then its face with the front pair. ‘Helophilus pendulus’ is ‘dangling swamp-lover’ apparently. I think Mr Knipe might be described as helophilus. (I’ll leave it to Mike to do gags about ‘dangling’ – he’ll do it better then I will.)

Whilst I photographed the hoverfly, S noticed this female common darter…

Female common darter 

…which seemed very happy for me to get really close to take pictures.

Female common darter again 

There were other species of dragonfly about, big green and blue ones (that’s the official dragonfly fancier’s name for ‘em), but they wouldn’t play ball and land for a photo.

After watching a brimstone several times, seeing it apparently disappear near to a shrub, but then fail to find it’s landing spot, I finally traced one to a spot in the grass behind a bush…


When we finished our protracted repast and moved on, we found that the common darters were very fond of the boardwalk and would hover just above it before landing briefly, but for long enough for me to get several photos of both males and females, of which this was the sharpest…

Male common darter 

Male common darter.

Strangely, I had a premonition that the dragonflies might not be the only ones enjoying the sunshine on the boardwalk and sure enough…

Common lizard

…there were many common lizards sun-bathing on the timber ‘kerbs’ which run along the edges of the boardwalk. I have occasionally seen them here before, singly and briefly, but this time there were probably about 20 here and we were able to watch them for quite some time, despite S’s best efforts to catch, poke, chase and otherwise rile them.  Naturally, I took loads of photos and will include more in a forthcoming post.

Having expended lots of energy chasing after a brimstone butterfly for a photo, we now watched one alight on knapweed right beside the path. Since it wasn’t buttery yellow, I assume that it’s a paler female. If you look closely you can see the great long, black, bent drinking-straw tongue.

Brimstone feeding 

We’d seen quite a lot of tiny frogs and/or toads in the grass by the shore. In the soggy field at the end of the lake I disturbed a sizeable adult frog, quite pale, almost yellow, with really striking dark blotches, but sadly it had gone long before I had my camera ready.

With lunch over, it was time to consider tea, and to collect blackberries for a crumble.


In the meadows by Challan Hall, S and I caught one of the tiny toads…

Small toad 

..perhaps we shouldn’t. But somehow, when you’re only wee yourself, there’s something very thrilling about handling the wildlife you see.

Small toad again

Back on Moss Lane, blackberrying and slowly heading back towards our bikes, I was distracted from fruit-picking by these…erm, well, I wasn’t sure what they were…

Field garlic?

I thought of garlic for some reason, and now I think it may be field garlic, allium oleraceum. If I’m right, then these are bulbils, essentially small bulbs. Usually there would be flowers amongst the bulbils, although it being rather late in the flowering season for field garlic, maybe the flowers had been and gone.

Well – no sangria in the park, didn’t need to go to the zoo to see the animals, ‘problems all left alone’? Check. Perfect day? Pretty close.

Perfect Day

Spiders, Snails and a Puzzle

I didn’t manage six miles yesterday, but I did take a circuitous route home from the train station, taking me round Haweswater and through Eaves Wood. It took a while to get work out of my head and to start to fully appreciate my surroundings, but when I reached the open meadow alongside Haweswater I suddenly felt at home and began to relax. There were several large dragonflies quartering the area. I wandered across to the edge of the reed beds, hoping to perhaps find one at rest. I didn’t, but I did come across this magnificent spider…

Now I realise that some people don’t like spiders, but that’s a point of view which I have never understood. This is obviously an orb web spider, probably a female. Araneus diadematus have a white cross on their backs, the pattern here is not quite a cross – more a lizard splayed on a table for dissection, or perhaps a stylized aboriginal art lizard. So what kind of spider is this? – an amazing one.

This banded snail was right by the boardwalked path, and very fetching it is too.

The grass of Parnassus have mostly now finished flowering, but the devil’s-bit scabious is still going strong and the bumblebees were busy taking advantage.

The wet meadow at the end of Haweswater, at the moment partly flooded, is also a great place to find spiders and snails.

I think that this is a dark-lipped banded snail. The shell is a bit the worse for wear; I wonder why?

Having stopped to try to photograph this spider and the snail behind, I noticed this tiny caterpillar on a leaf above…

And this small, thin snail…

And another (different?) orb spider…

I was briefly in the woods…

Which gives me an excuse to post these extracts from Fresh Woods which I’ve been intending to quote for a while.

If we leave the little planting now, it will only be to go to another wood, and there are woods all round us in this rolling country, woods that have names, woods that thrust their pine spears into the sky and stand in solid ranks, woods that crowd the grey roads, woods that are silent and brooding, and others that are alive with the sounds of streams that pass through them. We are going to them all, for I want to take you stalking a hare in a wood, to glimpse the deer in the forest moor, the badger in the Welsh wood just a mile away, and the fox too. If you know how to make crab-apple jelly, or wine from the fruit of the bullace tree, come with me. Come with me to see the woodcock, the tree creeper, and nuthatch. If you are not afraid of a dish of mushrooms that were picked in the wood, or if you are in need of a faggot of kindling, we shall be in such a spot tomorrow, gathering a bag of hazel-nuts or a basket of giant blackberries.

There are other woods, fresh woods, woods in which I will stand tomorrow and the day after. There are always fresh woods, little corners of the countryside where the bird and animal kingdom hold sway, places where we can hear the dawn chorus, or the last little twitter before the birds sleep and the badger ventures on his round. Brush the moss from your jacket and throw away your whittled stick. What company you have been in! What an idle time-waster you have been these past few days! Haste you away across the field, back home with your bag of hazel nuts, your elderberries, your excuses for being where you have been.

In the meadow beyond the woods some tiny frayed edged toadstools were quite striking from above, the pale frills forming a corona around the grey cap.

Down in the grass there were a number of hard to identify plants. Is this a seed head?

This rose tinted leaf had me fooled at first – I thought it was a petal.

I thought that this was groundsel when I saw it, but now I’m not so sure.

I have no idea what this unusual plant is. Nor the tiny yellow spots under the leaves.

Spiders, Snails and a Puzzle

Sabre Wasp and Much, Much More…

Another commuting home walk. TBH wanted to take the quick route home over the golf course but I turned the other way round to the visitor centre at Leighton Moss. Standing on the duckboards peering into the dipping-pond I was startled by a movement almost under the wooden walkway. A splash and a wriggle and something which was gone almost before I had seen it. Surely a fish – but was it not too big to be swimming in this shallow reed-choked water? The water where I had seen the movement was clouded with mud but I watched and waited: the waterweed moved in an odd way, then a liquid gloop and large ripples – much bigger than the concentric rings around the pond-skaters – spread across the pool. I moved around to another vantage point and then another gurgling splash and the same frustrating half glimpse of movement. But wait – that stick hanging in the water…it has eyes! I don’t have much experience of fish beyond catching sticklebacks in buckets many, many years ago and so I don’t know what kind of fish this might be – I wondered whether it might be an eel?

I was headed for Trowbarrow quarry but before I got there I was distracted again, this time by a comma butterfly…

…and, as is so often the case, once I had stopped to take one photograph I began to notice more things around me – a large dragonfly flew past, then a couple of white butterflies. This peacock butterfly was sunning itself on the middle of the path…

…and a tiny frog crawled away from me and hid, rather imperfectly, on the edge of an old molehill…

On the notice-board at the entrance to Trowbarrow I could hardly miss this impressive creature…

…which I’ve subsequently discovered is a rhyssa persuasoria or sabre wasp:

Using highly sensitive detectors on her antennae, the female locates a horntail grub in a pine trunk and then, although her ovipositor is no thicker than a human hair, she drills through the wood to lay an egg on the grub.

So – is this wasp drilling here?

Speckled wood butterfly on a hazel leaf.

Trowbarrow was busy with climbers and carpeted with flowers, although not the ones promised on the notice-board…


From there my walk through the woods was accompanied by the calling of a woodpecker and by numerous flowers – many of which I haven’t been able to identify as yet.

This attractive mass…

…of five-petalled white flowers…

…and distinctive ring-tipped seedheads are on a plant with these…

…lobed leaves. I can’t find it anywhere in my books.

This plant is no longer flowering…

…and so I really don’t think I can identify it, but it looks like it might be interesting when it is next flowering.

It was certainly popular with spiders…

At first I thought that this was some sort of crane’s-bill…

…but then I noticed the seedheads which are all wrong for that…

…but they are attractive in their own right and must fairly rapidly decay to release the seeds within…

Considering the flowers, the seedheads and the leaves…

…together I’ve now almost convinced myself that this is musk mallow.

As a first step toward fulfilling my oft stated desire to get to grips with umbelliferae, however: I think that this very tall plant…

…with finely serrated leaflets…

…might be wild angelica…

Whilst this leaf, with a leaf-miner squiggle…

…is from hogweed.

I think that these two are harvestmen rather then spiders – note: one body part rather then two.

…but I can’t identify this bug on a chicory flower.

Wayside tractor.

This is yarrow…

…growing by the roadside like all of the remaining plants in this post.

The yarrow, with its deep, water-gathering tap roots, is one of the most persistent roadside plants. Its basal rosette escapes the mowing-machine as the cutting-blades used on grass banks and verges are set high. This means that only the flowers are lost, and the rest of the plant remains and grows again. Also, yarrows do not flower until after the spring cut and, when the autumn cut takes place, most of the plants are seeding. The species name millefolium, meaning ‘thousand leaf’, refers to the yarrow’s numerous feathery leaves.

The seedheads have an interesting structure too…


Nettle flowers.

Bumble bee enjoying tufted vetch.

As I finished the walk the light was gorgeous.

It was only a short walk, but if your eyes are open there is so much to see.

Sabre Wasp and Much, Much More…


Brimful Beck living up to it’s name.

The better weather duly arrived, although not everyone was getting it. In fact the weather was quite odd – we could often see very black skies to the east and south, where as we often had blue skies and out to the west over the sea the weather looked to be brighter still. The high tops were mostly clear after the cloud lifted early on, but some of the lower hills were occasionally half shrouded in cloud.

Our route in brief was: skirting Yewbarrow above Over Beck to Dore Head…

  Wastwater and the Screes from above Over Beck.

Yewbarrow from Dore Head…note the cows, not often seen on Lakeland Fells.

From there up to Red Pike….

X-Ray on the first (801m) summit.

Haycock and Scoat Tarn from the same spot.

Scoat Fell, Red Pike, Pillar.

X-Ray above the precipitous Mosedale side of Red Pike – note the black skies behind the Scafells.

From Red Pike we climbed Scoat Fell…

Scoat Fell. Red Pike on the right, Scafells in the background.

Then an out and back to Steeple…

X-Ray looks back to Scoat Fell from Steeple.

Pillar and Black Crag from Steeple. Great Gable in the background on right.

Looking down Long Crag to Ennerdale Water and the Sea.

On then to Haycock…

Looking back to Scoat Fell and Steeple from Haycock.

From Haycock it was a long walk out, along Nether Beck…

We saw very few other walkers all day, but now we only had dor beetles (of which we saw no end through the day) and small frogs to keep us company….

The rain, which seemed to have been threatening to arrive all day, no finally appeared, starting with the slightest of showers, but getting more persistent and with odd rumbles of thunder to accompany it.

Crossing Ladcrag Beck

Nether Beck


Coltsfoot, Greylag, Nest-eggs and Frogfest.

Last Saturday afternoon brought a social walk – three families, three adults, six children and one black Labrador. We walked from Leighton Moss, to Trowbarrow quarry and back via the golf-course – a repeat of a recent walk at our kids’ request. At Trowbarrow there was lots of Coltsfoot flowering.

The flowering stems appear before the leaves and each produces a single golden blossom as rich in colour as the yolk of a free-range hen egg.

Gabrielle Hatfield from Hatfield’s Herbal

I’ve never noticed before the striking red of the sepals around an unopened flower. The sequence continues, partly opened…

…notice the little starbursts around the centre. Then fully opened…

My friend S asked ‘Something interesting or dandelions?’ – and on a cursory glance they do look like dandelions even though on closer inspection they’re completely different. When I said that they were coltsfoot she asked: ‘Like the stuff you eat?’. I was wrong-footed by that one, but have since discovered that coltsfoot is indeed used to make a herbal rock, that the leaves were smoked as a replacement for tobacco during the war, and that coltsfoot has been used to treat respiratory ailments since the time of Pliny the Elder. (All this from ‘Hatfield’s Herbal’ which is a fascinating little reference book – well worth picking up)

On the way back to Leighton Moss I was glad to get an opportunity to photograph some greylag geese since I have been enjoying seeing them feeding in the fields on either side of the road as I drive to and from work.

There are often canada geese too, but that’s a photo opportunity which will have to wait a while longer.

  In the carelessly hidden and unattended nest which we spotted on our last visit to Leighton Moss the eggs still look fine.

There were a couple of mallards swimming about nearby – perhaps this is a mallard nest. I don’t imagine that they are particularly attentive parents.

Meanwhile from the boardwalks in the same area we had a grandstand view of a multitude of very busy frogs. Some lurking below the surface…

Some just hanging around…

Some swimming on the surface…

And some…..

….well, shall we say – full of the joys of spring? It’s perhaps not evident here, but the males are generally much smaller than the females…

Well that’s the end of the frogfest, for now at least. I hope that you have enjoyed it as much as I have been enjoying Darren’s frogfest over on Whitespider.

Coltsfoot, Greylag, Nest-eggs and Frogfest.