What is it about Virginia?

What is it about Virginia? Just like the newspaper columnist and author Guy Friddell wrote in his witty book of that title, Virginia is timeless. Some things never change. Virginians look forward to visiting with each other around a groaning board featuring foods of the season. In the spring, it’s shad, in the summer, it’s Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs, and in the fall, it’s oysters pulled from local waters.

When an invitation arrived for a Richmond oyster roast with family and friends, how could I resist a quick trip south? At the airport, I stepped onto Virginia soil under sunny skies and 70° weather to meet friends who volunteered transportation… but Virginia transportation is never from point A to point B.  Good Virginia hospitality always involves stopping for nourishment and a short driving tour and a friendly catch-up on news from high school to the present. The Art of Visiting is still a strong Virginia tradition.

A few strings of lights over the driveway, a couple of fire pits, scattered chairs, grills, Rappahannock River oysters and a groaning board full of sides and desserts and you have yourself a Virginia Gathering.

However, Virginians can’t live on oysters and sides alone. Oyster roasts need to be accompanied by a soup, traditionally clam chowder or our family favorite, Brunswick Stew, Edwards Ham biscuits, cornbread and then then the complement of appetizers, sides and desserts.

The trip to the Old Dominion gave me a moment to reconnect and reflect and unwind before jetting back to our newly adopted state, New Hampshire…. a state full of adventures and discoveries and an abundance of new friends to meet.

A Balmy Winter Day…

While half the country was brought to a standstill by fearsome snows, ice storms and gripping cold temperatures yesterday, somehow Virginia was spared. Yes, of course, I spent the day outdoors! There was no need to wear a jacket with an amazing 71 degrees under a warm winter sun. The breezes were brisk off the river but balmy and they seemed to beckon me to the waterfront and the activities around the water. This time of year it’s impossible to imagine the river without waterfowl.  The Chesapeake Bay is located along the Atlantic Flyway for migratory water birds that winter along these coastal waters.

Camera in hand, I sat quietly on the end of the pier enjoying dozens and dozens of diving ducks, the bufflehead, canvasback, ruddy ducks and a gaggle of geese floating off the end of the pier in about 10-12 feet of water.

Plump ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) bobbed close, diving deep and long for crustaceans and plants. Their heads are large with a wide dark bill. In the summer, the male’s bill will turn a lovely blue and their mating plumage will turn ruddy. This time of year, the plumage is shades of browns and grays.

I could hear the low wailing call of the common loon (Gavia immer) far out on the river, haunting and eerie. These long-bodied birds look like ducks with their webbed feet but they are unrelated. Its bill is straight and pointed and during the winter it wears its non-breeding plumage of browns and blacks and white around the throat. In the summer when I visit my daughter in Maine, I’ll see common loons in their breeding plumage, a distinctive black/white checkered back.

A loon approaches...

On this river, it has always been a standoffish and evasive bird, swimming to the middle of the river by the time I reach the end of the pier. I have never gotten a close view of these winter visitors. Yesterday was a different story.  From a neighboring pier I spotted a solitary loon swimming slowly in my direction. I simply froze in place and watched with the camera at eye level until the bird was directly beneath me. Yikes! What a beauty!

The loon feeds by swimming underwater with powerful legs positioned toward the rear of their bodies. I watched as this loon repeatedly dove for long periods underwater, each time surfacing closer to me. And each time he surfaced, it was with some food. What was he eating?


Click the photos to see the tiny meals.

One crab, two crabs….

Three and four crabs….

I watched the loon dive for long periods, then break the surface with four small blue crabs that had been attached to the pilings of the pier. Before I knew it, the show was over and the loon was moving toward deeper waters. I could exhale….

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

The Wild and Wonderful Dragon

Wild and wonderful could describe both the Dragon Run and the enthusiastic woman who led several folks on a Saturday morning outing through trails owned by the Friends of Dragon Run, the non-profit group that supports the woodlands, swamp and stream.

Vivacious and enthusiastic, Teta Kain is energized by the pristine watershed that feeds the 40 miles of the Dragon Run stream, emptying into the Piankatank River and eventually the Chesapeake Bay. She’s a naturalist, a wildlife photographer, a bird enthusiast, a butterfly expert, a writer, and a self-professed lover of ‘critters’ that inhabit our world.  I have been fortunate enough to hear several of her talks, kayak the Dragon with her and now I have experienced the passion she has for the flora along the trails in this unspoiled wilderness, a rare ecosystem that the Smithsonian Institution ranked second in ecological significance in a study of 232 significant areas of 12,600 square miles of the Chesapeake Bay region.

Teta with her friend, Kohl, show us how to ID a mushroom using a mirror.

The Nature Conservancy, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and Friends of Dragon Run have partnered to protect the watershed but the Friends of Dragon Run provides the only access to the area for kayaking and hiking. It also provides guided tours on both to view and study the flora and fauna. Although there are posts along the trails that identify American hornbeam, mockernut hickory, bald cypress, devils walkingstick, possumhaw, fetterbush, partridgeberry, spotted wintergreen, and flowers with names like Elephant’s foot, we would not have learned all we did without Teta who would easily drop to the ground with a mirror to teach us to identify mushrooms by reflecting the differences in the gills to us, who pointed out the small differences in species of ferns, who could identify spiders and butterflies, fungus and Lycopodiums and even our feathered friends that inhabit the wilderness.

It is refreshing to know such a dedicated volunteer like Teta who is committed to teaching and protecting the unique ecosystem of Dragon Run, hoping to light a fire under others.  The future of the Dragon as a wild and wonderful watershed is not guaranteed. Development always threatens.  Let’s hope the Dragon can remain pristine and vital.  Pssst…. You could help! The Friends of Dragon Run does accept tax deductible donations to further conservation, education and protection of the watershed. Want to know more? Check it out: www.dragonrun.org.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester

A Living Fossil Goes to Seed

Ginkgo biloba seedsI saw a photo of Queen Elizabeth last month, dressed in pink with a matching pink hat, marking the 250th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Gardens by wielding a shovelful of dirt onto the base of a newly planted Ginkgo biloba tree.  In April, I read that Governor Schwarzenegger celebrated Earth Day by helping to plant a ginkgo tree in California.  These surviving relics date from the Permian period, over 270-300 million years ago, where the great forests of fern-like plants shifted to gymnosperms with offspring enclosed in seeds. The ginkgo actually predates the Age of Dinosaurs.

Two of these majestic trees, large and sturdy, grace the edge of my pond overlooking the river and a third, the runt, underdeveloped and frail, stands apart near the drive.  All three are approaching 40 years of age, mere babies for they can can live for a millennium.   When we first occupied this property, I fussed over the runt like a frail child.  Fertilizer. Water. Compost.  No response.  I eventually left it alone to grow ever so slowly until three years ago when I noticed unusual growths on the tree.  Those formations were the beginnings of seeds.  My runt had been a female all along and was finally fertilized by my robust males by the pond.  In her prime at age 36 she began to produce and drop marble-sized seeds. Dozens fall to the ground each summer and by spring, a large number of offshoots appear beneath her boughs.

Like rotting fruit under a tree, the ripe flesh around the seeds give off a pungent odor, a smell that suggests overripe cheese in my opinion.  Sadly, for this reason, the male is the preferred tree, an unfortunate fact that may impact future survival of the tree as it has made a plant endangered list.  I love my tiny ginkgo offspring and make them available for friends and neighbors who would like to adopt a baby… sex unknown for 30-plus years.

Ann Hohenberger, The Garden Club of Gloucester