Saturday, September 2, 2017


It all began years ago, during one of my many walks through our woods. I have always enjoyed identifying tree species and this one had me stumped. I had keyed it out and my tentative id was American Plum, but without hard evidence of its fruit, I hesitated. I was never down in that area when the fruit was evident.

Now that fall is approaching, it’s time to replace old No Hunting signs along the boundary lines and I am ahead of schedule this year. Usually I don’t get down ‘there’ until the weather cools and various forest slitherers and bothersome ticks are less apt to spoil a good hike. But I felt bold today, and luck was looking upon me. As I was walking, along the property line, head down with an eye out for potential ankle twisters, I spotted something new…a red fruit, the size of a cherry, sitting on the ground. Looking up, I realized I was already at the mystery tree. And it was full of the fruit! It was certainly, to me anyway, an AHA! moment.

I gathered some up, leaving plenty for wildlife. Without hesitating, I trudged all the way home to get my camera, lest a strong wind came along and blew the fruit off the branches. Again, lucky me, I am a quick walker, and the fruit were still hanging on by the time I returned.

The American Plum (Prunus Americana) is also known as Wild Plum, August Plum or Hog Plum, and is a small native tree, often shrubby in form. It needs no special treatment and is found in uncultivated areas, often along fencerows. The leaves are alternate, simple, obovate to oblong-ovate, 2-4 inches long and serrated. The fruit is ¾ -1”, red when ripe, sweet tasting with a single pit for a seed.

I learned a valuable lesson today. When you walk the same walk, the same way each time, you will miss out on so many unique opportunities. Change it up a bit. Take a different path from the normal routine and you will be rewarded.

Submitted by Kathy Scott, Master Naturalist

                    Blue Ridge Foothills and Lakes Chapter of VMN
American Plum and Pawpaw fruits

Distinctive shape of American Plum

Ripe fruit of American Plum

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Fourth and final ECO Camp for the season a success!

Our fourth and final ECO Camp nature training session at Booker T. Washington National Monument (BTWNM)was completed this Saturday, July 29th.  The children learned about the life cycle on the monarch butterfly including their amazing multi-thousand mile migration from Mexico to the United States and Canada and the danger of losing them due to milkweed depletion.

They also learned the importance of decomposers to the life cycle of many plants and animals.  Even though we often think of decomposers like millipedes, slugs and snails as “yucky” they provide and important function by decomposing forest detritus into rich soil and providing food for their predators including birds and other insects.  The kids loved digging through the soil and overturning rotting logs to find and pick up their own “decomposers”.  All decomposers were released after this training to continue their decomposing.

We would like to thank the Blue Ridge Foothills and Lakes Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists for providing the trainer and educational material, BTWNM for providing their facilities and personnel and the Smith Mountain Lake Association for sponsoring Environmental Education in our community.

Decomposers exposed!

Monarch life cycle explained

Monarch migration simulation

ECO Camp Training at BTWNM Continues - Weeks 2 and 3

We have successfully completed 3 Saturdays of ECO Camp nature training at Booker T. Washington National Monument (BTWNM) for kids from 7-12 years old.  I previously reported on the first week of training about Stream critters and Soil erosion on May 8th.

Since then we have had 2 more training days.  On May 15th the kids eagerly learned about Camouflage & Stealth presented by Victoria Keenum.  Victoria explained how animals use camouflage and stealth to avoid predation or to be better predators. The Hidden Life of Birds presented by Mary Harshfield, Lourdes Page and Linda Cory of the Roanoke Valley Bird Club.  The children learned many aspects of the life of birds including bird song identification, how birds mimic other bird songs, drawing birds and much more.  Each participant received their own copy of the Cornell Bird Activity book.

Then on May 22 the kids learned about the Life of Seeds by Meg Brager.  There are about 300,000 species of plants on our planet each with their own seed.  Seeds vary in size from less than pinhead to over a foot in length.  Virtually all animals can only survive through either direct or indirect nourishment of plant life and therefore seeds. The Water Cycle was presented by Jean & Lee Borgman.  Like seeds, virtually all life depends on water to live.  The children learned the water cycle including clouds, oceans, streams, ground water, rivers, lakes and how the sun helps the water cycle continue.

We had about 20 kids each day and they were attentive and asked a lot of good questions.  A report on the final 2017 ECO Camp, Monarchs& Their Migration and Decomposers, will appear in a post above.

Looking and listening for birds

Exploring camouflage and stealth

Life of Seeds

Clouds as part of the water cycle

ECO Camp Training at BTWNM a Success

Each year in July nature training is offered at Booker T. Washington National Monument (BTWNM) for our kids age ranges from 7 though 12.  It is sponsored by BTWNM, the Blue Ridge Foothills and Lakes Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists and the Smith Mountain Lake Association.  This year we expanded ECO Camp training to 4 Saturdays in July.

Our first training session was conducted last Saturday, July 8th and was very successful.  About 25 knowledge hungry kids showed up and were treated to 2 topics.  The first concerned stream critters.  Connie Hylton and Dick LeRoy who are long time SOS (Save Our Streams) volunteers showed the kids how to catch and categorize stream critters, AKA macro-invertebrates.  They enjoyed getting into the stream on a hot day to catch the critters.

The second training session was about soil erosion.  Kathy Scott, President of the Blue Ridge Foothills and Lakes Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists came well prepared with various plants and some soil.  She explained what soil is and where it came from and why it is important to keep it in place.  She also demonstrated how soil erodes from running water and how plant can mitigate the erosion with their root systems.

There were 3 more ECO Camps this July as you will see in the above posts.
July 15th – A disappearing act: Camouflage & Stealth and Hidden Life of Birds – Become a Bird Detective

July 22nd – Water Cycle and Life of Seeds

July 29th – Monarchs & Their Migration and Decomposers

Capturing stream critters

Learning about soil and soil erosion from Kathy Scott

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Land Snails and Millipede Transect, 2017

Article and pictures by Beth & Paul Pautler and Charlotte Hubbard.

Beth and Paul prepare for the hunt at Mile Marker 111.1 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Paul & Beth having fun searching for critters

In spring and summer of 2017 National Park staff and citizen scientists will inventory land snails and millipedes along the Blue Ridge Parkway. A national network, Hands on the Land (HOL), acts as a platform for volunteer training and a place for data collection. HOL is supported by Partners in Resource Education, which represents multiple federal agencies, several of which also support the Master Naturalist program. To find out more about the inventory and Hands on the Land, visit

Three BRFAL Chapter members, Paul P., Beth P. and Charlotte H. participated as volunteer snail hunters! Slugs and millipedes were also inventoried during the project, and we encountered many other interesting-but-not-inventoried creatures. Beth and Charlotte attended a day-long live training held at Peaks of Otter on May 6, that included lecture, lab and field training. Paul completed the on-line training found on the HOL website. The background that follows is taken from part of the volunteer training.


Land snails are an easily overlooked and understudied part of the ecology in the southern and central Appalachians. Of the more than 1,000 species known to occur in North America, 25 have been identified on the Parkway, but another 125 are likely to be found here, some of which may be rare or even endemic.

Land snails, semi-slugs, and slugs contribute significantly to decomposition and nitrification of soils through their decaying bodies and feces. Their dead shells are a principal source of calcium. Land snails recycle forest nutrients and are prey for a number of vertebrate (amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals) and invertebrate (insects, carnivorous snails) species. Carnivorous snails feed on earthworms, insect larvae, and other snails. Some species consume dead and rotting organic materials while others eat live plants, especially seedlings and tender plants. Though poorly understood, some snails prefer to eat fungi and may be an important factor in dispersal of fungal spores.

Land snails are important environmental indicators and biodiversity predictors…snails are among the most sensitive animals to pollutants, including road runoff and acidic rainfall. Land snail populations have dwindled in recent decades, in turn contributing to the decline of some species of birds that feed on them and depend on them as sources of calcium for creating egg shells.

((Put snail photos here)) Here are some of the species we collected on our two 2-hour sweeps of assigned GPS locations.

Each specimen was photographed in anterior, posterior and from above

Juicy slug with orange slime!
We became quite familiar-in more ways than one-with the millipedes we encountered. Beth became especially skilled at telling the male millipedes frothe females using the process described below.

Millipedes: Millipedes move quite slowly and many will ball up when threatened. Centipedes are faster and will bite if threatened, so let the centipedes go. Millipedes have two pairs of legs on most segments while centipedes have only a single pair of legs per segment. You will likely need your magnifying glass to observe the millipede. Pick up the millipede and gently coerce the millipede to open up for you. Count the body segments and on the seventh body segment confirm the pairs of legs. If you find only one set of legs look for the gonopods (small modified set of legs used in the reproductive process) and if you find them, you have found a male. Upon identification, male millipedes are dropped into a vial with alcohol for preservation.
             Found lotsa millipedes, further inspection required to determine sex

Snail hunters have to brave areas that most naturalists have learned to avoid or tread carefully within: Soggy ditches, rotting logs, damp leaf-litter and drainage areas at the base of trees or rocky places. We were fortunate to avoid encountering the scarier co-habitants of snails, although poison oak, biting insects and “what do you think that scat is from?” kept us alert to the hazards around us. We hope our efforts make a contribution to the inventory data. The National Park Service can use the soon-to-be analyzed information to better understand these residents of the Blue Ridge Parkway and what they contribute to the biodiversity of the southern and central Appalachians.
Some other interesting stuff found: