Huntley Meadows – A Feast of Fungi

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Huntley Meadows – A Feast of Fungi

Grand Falls and the Billy Goat Trail

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Apparently, the weather we had whilst we were in the States was unseasonably cool. Living as we do on the 54th parallel, in the North-Wet of England, we’re used to cold rainy summers, so we thought it was hot, hot, hot. With an open-air swimming pool just around the corner, I think the kids would have been happy if we’d never ventured far from our base for the fortnight.

But we did get out to explore the area a little. The wide, watery expanses of the Potomac were a bit of a draw.

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I’m pretty sure that this is a bald eagle flying high over the river…..

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I didn’t really mention birds in the last post, but the bird-watching opportunities were every bit as fantastic as the entomological  and herpetological delights on offer. Once again, I rarely knew what I was seeing, but colourful and striking kingfishers, several humming birds, red-winged blackbirds, goldfinches (quite different from our goldfinches) and the bright pink cardinals which are a symbol of Virginia.

We saw lots of mammals too. As well as the beaver/muskrat at Huntley meadows, lots of deer….

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…. a groundhog, foxes red and grey, but no racoons, which we’d been led to believe are ten-a-penny locally.

One particularly memorable outing took us along the Billy Goat Trail, alongside the Potomac, but a little upstream of where we staying.

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It was bouldering walking through low trees, but little W was determined to do it all himself.

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It wasn’t exactly a wilderness walk – Saturday morning and there were lots of people about, but we saw no end of wildlife, including a snake, lots of large birds of prey by the river, turtles, herons, fish…

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In places the path crossed entirely rocky areas, where the route was marked with splashes of paint.

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There was even one section of scrambling – where an orderly queue had formed to clamber up the rocks.

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It was a superb little outing, but the heat and the exertion had completely taken it out of W….

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But our trip wasn’t over yet, we had a picnic to come. And there was an added bonus nearby….

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…Grand Falls. Not a high waterfall, but wide with an awful lot of water flowing through. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that this photo conveys just how large and spectacular they were. I’ve certainly never seen anything quite like it.

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A final shot of the pool. There’s something very exotic about being able to swim in an unheated outdoor pool in the evening without the need to first lather-up with goose fat.

The first thing S asked me as our plan touched down in Manchester?

“Dad, when can we go to America again?”

Grand Falls and the Billy Goat Trail

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?

Virginia, plain?

Castle Rising and Cromer

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Back in August…

“Hang on, did you say ‘Back in August’?”

Yes, I know – hardly current. However, needs must when the devil drives. TBH is working full time, work seems to expand exponentially….blogging time is in short supply. Expect short posts. Intermittently. At best.

Anyway. We had a week in Cromer on the North Norfolk coast with my Mum and Dad and my brother and his family. Very nice it was too. So here’s a very partial account……

We’d been in Lincoln for a family party and called in at Castle Rising on the surprisingly long drive down to Cromer. There were re-enactors busy re-enacting everything from battles between the Iceni and the Romans to….err, battles between the redcoats and French. We liked this diddy Centurion….

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….who looked oddly familiar.

Even in the middle of summer, the North Norfolk coast has miles of almost empty beaches…

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And cliff-tops thronged with butterflies….

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Some sort of skipper?

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A gatekeeper.

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We had an unsuccessful afternoon’s crab fishing off the pier. We saw somebody catch a large eel in his crab net – a bit more than he bargained for I think. We did find large crab and lobster shells and pincers on the beach. Shellfish seems to be something of a culinary speciality of the area, so much so that even I felt beholden to pluck up the courage to try lobster, crab and crayfish. Enjoyed it too.

The weather wasn’t too bad. The company was great. I’d go back tomorrow, if I could.

Castle Rising and Cromer

Beaumaris Castle

Much as we love the beach, when the weather seems determined to spoil things and to have settled into an unpromising pattern, we fall to negotiating an alternative. A tour around a Castle is our usual wet weather option. Initially, the consensus of opinion settled on our old favourite at Caernarfon. I fancied a change, however, and suggested travelling a little further to Anglesey and Beaumaris. Much to my surprise, as you can probably tell from the title of the post, my suggestion won the day.

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Don’t be fooled by this photo, which I took later on: when we first arrived the skies were grey and the wind was bitterly cold.

Like Raglan Castle, which we visited at Whit, Beaumaris has a proper moat, a wet moat, full of water. In the kids eyes this seems to qualify it as more authentic, and I must admit that, under their influence, I’m beginning to see it that way myself.

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The outer wall is quite low and, having persuaded the others to drive past Caernarfon to come here, I was slightly concerned that it may turn out to be a disappointment.

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I needn’t have worried; this is a really imposing castle, with plenty of exploring to be done.

The boys and I toured the outer wall, whilst the rest of the party went….well in the opposite direction I think. The boys do tend to tear around at breakneck speed and ear-splitting volume. I think it’s the breakneck speed part that makes our friends inclined to be elsewhere: watching the two of them leap about near huge drops does tend to fray the nerves more than somewhat*.

The three of us were soon exploring the passages and the the wall-walk in and on the massive inner wall. I managed to convince them to stand still long enough for a photo…

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…although I suspect that S may well have maimed me with his sword shortly afterwards. I was regularly decapitated and/or disembowelled. All good clean fun.

Enclosed by those huge walls, the inner ward is enormous. A substantial gatehouse and a large keep face each other across the ward.

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Raglan and Goodrich (which we also visited at Whit), both show signs of having been lived in and adapted; Raglan is ornately decorated; Goodrich has been built in stages, by several different owners. Beaumaris is quite different; it still has the feel of an entirely functional military outpost. It’s symmetrical lay-out suggests the work of a single designer rather than an organic evolution over several periods of alterations. It also looks like it was all built at around the same time.

Beaumaris (the name is Anglo-Norman not Welsh, meaning beautiful marsh) is one of Edward I’s ring of fortifications built in the aftermath of his annexation of Wales. Apparently, the money ran out before it was finished and Edward’s focus moved to wars with France and Scotland.

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As well as views of the castle itself, the walls give great views along the mainland coast.

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Herring gull.

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The keep.

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Of course, similar terrific views can be had from the sea front at Beaumaris, The apparent island seen here is the limestone headland of Great Orme at Llandudno. Looking along the Anglesey coast we could also see Puffin Island which lies just off Anglesey.

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Carneddau across the Menai Straits

Since the weather had improved considerably, we took a little stroll along the Anglesey Coastal Path onto a slight rise, from where, if anything, the views were even better.

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The Castle

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The Crew.

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The Kids.

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Down the coast to the Great Orme again.

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Carneddau and the Menai Straits again.

Beaumaris Castle

Dover Castle

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Having had a dreadful journey down from Lancashire to the south coast, stuck in heavy traffic every inch of the way, we decided to drive back overnight. This also gave us a chance to spend an afternoon at Dover Castle, and since we love castles this was ideal.

An afternoon really isn’t long enough however. There’s a fabulous keep to explore…

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…and battlements, medieval tunnels, WW2 tunnels, a church, a pharos (a roman lighthouse) and quite possibly a great deal more.

The keep has been decorated and furnished inside to look as it might have done when King Henry II (who built the keep) lived here. Inside there were re-enactments underway and we joined Henry and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine for a meal.

There’s a terrific view from the top of the keep too, with Dover and the Channel spread out below and the downs and the white-cliffs rising around Dover.

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Parc du Marquenterre – Our Summer Abroad part 4

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A bird reserve. One of only two in France apparently (according to the Rough Guide). By the Baie de Somme. When we arrived the tide was on it’s way in and we could see, at the far end of the reserve, a distant cloud of back and white consisting of cormorants and spoonbills.

There was a lot to see and even S managed the 6km circuit of the reserve reasonably cheerfully, after some initial squabbles over our one pair of binoculars.

White Storks

We were fascinated by the storks by the entrance to the park. One pair were clacking their beaks at each other and also throwing their heads backwards along their backs.

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In flight the birds are spectacular because of their sheer size.

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Living by the sea, I often see cormorants and I love to watch them fishing in the Kent estuary, but I don’t recall seeing facial plumage quite like this before:

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Egrets too have become a fairly common sight at home in the last few years, but I have always struggled to get close enough to get candid pictures.

Scratching egret

Butterflies were plentiful too, particularly speckled woods, but few would land to pose for a photo.

Red admiral

I was excited by this fellow…

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….which I think is a holly blue and therefore not something I see regularly.

One of the impressive things about the park was the huge crowds of birds assembled there.

Oystercatchers

This is one tiny corner of a large sandy island which thronged with oystercatchers and …

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…avocets.

When something spooked the oystercatchers in another part of the reserve we had another demonstration of the size of the population here…

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Although, again this is merely a fraction of the total flock which was airborne.

A small green-blue lizard skittered across the sandy path in front of A and I. B was understandably jealous, but then he found a large…

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…grasshopper, which when spooked would hop but then fly a few yards on apparently blue wings.

We also spotted this sandy toad by the path…

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When we finally reached the area where the cormorants and spoonbills where gathered, the tide had turned and there were fewer birds present then there had been. But they were still legion.

Cormorants and spoonbills

And the fishy smell was almost overpowering.

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Another egret.

Parc du Marquenterre – Our Summer Abroad part 4