Hadrian’s Wall: Getting There

I’ve always wanted to walk Hadrian’s Wall, on the border between England and Scotland. The idea of hiking along a 2000-year-old artifact for miles on end, and finishing the day at a pub just really appeals to me.

The Wall cut all the way across northern England. It still does, in fact, although in the coastal areas most of the features are gone or hidden — stones have been scavenged, the ditch and Vallum filled in and farmed. In these areas walking along the Wall is like walking along any other urban/suburban path.

With that in mind my husband and I decided to focus on the central part of Hadrian’s Wall, the part that goes up and over the northern end of the Pennine Mountains, where there is more of the Wall to see. Interspersed along the Wall are Milecastles and turrets, forts and civilian communities where you can see how people lived in the Roman Empire. Should be fun!

Entire Route

The section of the Wall that we are hiking goes from north of Corbridge in the east, to north of Brampton, in the west.



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Hadrian’s Wall: A Little History

I have always wanted to hike Hadrian’s Wall — no idea why. This summer, I finally badgered my husband into going. I figured if we didn’t do it soon, our legs wouldn’t handle it.

Route Across Great Britain

Hadrian’s Wall cuts across the island of Britain from Newcastle in the east to Maryport, southwest of Carlisle, in the west.

A Little Background

The Romans toyed with the idea of invading the island of Britain for a long time. Julius Caesar landed on the island twice, in 55 BC and 54 BC, but quickly left to put down revolts in newly conquered Gaul.

It was Emperor Claudius who committed the resources to take Britain, in 43 AD. The Roman Empire was built on conquest, and the lame, slightly deaf Claudius, who had never served in the army, needed to establish his military credentials. Although Claudius himself only stayed in Britain for a few weeks, the 4 legions he brought with him were permanent.

The plan, of course, was to take the whole island. The Romans pacified the southeastern section of the island relatively quickly. Wales, as always, was a bit more stubborn, but eventually came under Roman rule.  Caledonia, the northern part of the island, saw fighting as well. The Romans even built forts in the far north, as they did throughout the island at places like Coria (Corbridge) and Vindolanda, to establish their presence.

Just before the time of Emperor Hadrian, the machine that was the Roman Empire was reaching the maximum size that it could manage. One of the things I didn’t know before I started researching was that most of the time, some province somewhere in the Roman Empire was in revolt. After sixty years of pacification in Britain, problems in Dacia (modern Romania) meant that the Romans had to pull troops from the job of conquering the foggy island. And that meant they had to postpone Final Conquest indefinitely.

Emperor Hadrian, in fact, spent most of his reign consolidating Roman control on territory that they already controlled. That included drawing a line across Britain, and building a wall.

Why build a wall when you already have forts and roads all over the country, even into the frontier to the north? The easiest answer is: to keep the barbarians out. But that answer seems to only be partly true. After all, every milecastle had gates through the Wall. And it was possible to get over the Wall, if  you really wanted to.

The other reasons were 1) simply to demarcate a border. The Wall must have been a awesome symbol of Roman power, and it would have been a constant reminder to the northern natives that Roman Britain wasn’t to be messed with. 2) To slow down any raiders who came across. People could cross into Roman Britain with relative ease, either legitimately through a gate, or illicitly over or around the Wall itself. And once past the Roman garrisons, raiders could do some damage. But once the alarm was raised, getting back across the Wall to safety was just about impossible. You couldn’t take slaves or livestock over the wall, and you certainly couldn’t take them through a checkpoint. So why bother?

Roughly, the cross-section of the wall looked like this:

Looking at a cross-section of the Wall,  from the north, there was a berm, made of dirt from the ditch. Then there was the Wall, made of courses of local stone up to 20 feet (6 meters) high. Behind the wall was an open area, then the Roman Military Road (as opposed to the Military Way built in 1746), a north mound, the ditch-like “vallum” (which confusingly means “wall” in Latin; the word was originally applied to the earthen mounds, but here means the southern ditch), then the south mound. Nobody really knows what the vallum here was for, but it was evidently important, because it runs right alongside the Wall the entire length.

On the west end of the wall, they started building with turf, but soon replaced it with stone. On the east end, it was stone right from the beginning. They built a fort every mile, and two turrets between each fort.

When the wall was started, it was going to be about 3 meters (10 feet) wide, but as they built it, they decided it only needed to be about 2 meters (6 feet) wide, so there are sections of each — often the foundations are Broad Wall and the Curtain Wall itself is Narrow.

Whew! That’s enough history to get going with.

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Life in the mountain shrub community

Another hike, a bunch more fun photos. One of the big reasons I like walking is because I go slow enough to see interesting things.

Side-blotched lizard maybe 3

Side-blotched lizard.

If I’d know blotchiness on the side of the lizard would be diagnostic, I would have tried to get a shot.

Side-blotched lizard maybe 1

The slit on the lizard’s head is not a gill, as I keep thinking it is, even though I know better. Reptiles don’t have gills, they have nostrils and breath air.  The slit is the lizard’s ear.


Yellow brested chat

Yellow-breasted chat.

Yellow-breasted Chats look like lemon-breasted robins. But instead, they are overgrown wood-warblers, a family that includes birds like the Virginia warbler or Wilson’s warbler. Don’t recognize the names? That’s because they are too small to see easily, usually around 5 inches long, or smaller, and they prefer denser forest. Yellow-breasted chats, on the other hand, are around 7 1/4 inches long — robin-sized — and live in open shrubland.

mountain gentian-1

Fremont geranium

Fremont geraniums were all along the trail. Very nice.

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Correction: Tachinid flies

In a recent post (Butterflies Galore), I showed a picture that I said showed native bees with a skipper butterfly. But I was curious about the bees — I’d never seen anything like them before. I couldn’t find anything on the internet, so I emailed the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. According to the folks there, they aren’t bees, they are a type of tachinid fly! (Adejeania vexatrix)Native bees on Asclepias-13

Turns out that adult Tachinid flies feed on flower nectar, which means that they are pollinators, especially at higher elevations, where bees don’t live. (Alpine flowers on Mt. Evans) On the other hand, their larvae feed on other insects, including some that are harmful to crops. They are found from the tropics to the arctic, and can look like houseflies or be more unusual, like these.


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Butterflies Galore

I’m not really an expert on butterflies. But while hiking recently in the Front Range foothills , I saw so many of such varied species that I had to check into them a bit more. All these different butterflies are from just one hike.

Aphrodite fritillaries mating

Aphrodite fritillaries. Yellow-green eyes clinch that these are aphrodites. (Colorado Front Range Butterflies).

Females lay single eggs near violets. Caterpillars do not feed, but overwinter until spring, when they eat young leaves of violets.

Northwestern fritillary

Northwestern fritillary. The eyes of this butterfly are blue-grey and the wings are darker towards the body. Colorado Front Range Butterflies.

These two photos show two species of fritillary butterflies. They tend to be orange with black squiggles.

female Common Wood Nymph-1

Female Common Wood Nymph. The double eye spots are the key to identifying this butterfly. Females are larger and paler than males.

I haven’t found anything talking about this, but every time I saw this female Common Wood Nymph land, she seemed to lay her wings onto the landing surface. In late summer, females lay eggs singly on host plant leaves. Caterpillars hatch but do not feed, instead hibernating until spring. (Butterflies and Moths of North America)

Native bees on Asclepias-13

Dusted skipper butterfly and native bees on milkweed. Although here all the skipper butterfly wings are compressed, they often hold their upper and lower wings a little apart, creating an “X” effect. I am trying to find out more about these very unusual bees.

Skippers are a type of butterfly I had never noticed before I started taking pictures of everything of interest on my hikes.

Taxiles skipper

Taxiles skipper on thistle. You can see his “X” wing configuration here.

Males may defend their territory. (Butterflies and Moths of North America)

I used two websites to learn about butterflies: Butterflies and Moths of North America and Colorado Front Range Butterflies. Both are very cool, but the first has an interactive map where people can post their sightings and photographs of the moths and butterflies they see.


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Goldfinches at lunch

Much of Apex trail follows Apex Creek, and so it has lots of stream side plants growing along it. But as I was going back down the trail, I came to an open area. I looked up slope and saw a family of Lesser Goldfinches perched on top of some Canada thistle seed heads. While I watched, the female shredded a seed head. Just beneath her, a fledgling fluttered its wings for attention.

Mama & juv lesser goldfinches-07

Both Lesser and American Goldfinches rely heavily on sunflowers and thistles for both food and nest material.

Mama & juv lesser goldfinches-10

At first, I thought the female was gathering the fluffy seed fibers. But with the fledgling there, that made no sense — they no longer needed a nest.

Male lesser goldfinch on thist-3

If you look carefully in the male’s bill, you can see he has a mouthful of seeds.

The Lesser Goldfinches were having lunch.

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Hummingbird wants that flower…

Some days everything, including my camera, just clicks.

Yesterday was one of those days.

broadtailed hummingbird 1

This female Broad-tailed Hummingbird tries to get nectar from American vetch.


broadtailed hummingbird 6

But she can’t quite get her beak into the drooping flowers.

broadtailed hummingbird 5

Animals don’t usually sit still and work this hard to get something. It just makes them too much of a target.

broadtailed hummingbird 4

But the vetch is in a really cluttered area. She can’t get the nectar by hovering in front of it.

broadtailed hummingbird 3

The vetch must be loaded with nectar to make it worth her while to work on it for this long.

broadtailed hummingbird 7

But finally, she is rewarded, and gets to enjoy the nectar.

May your weekend be full of rewarding projects.

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“…Active Rattlesnake Incident…”

I was just finishing up my hike when I heard a woman scream. As a good citizen, I went back to check that everything was okay (or not). The woman was standing on the concrete path, with her two dogs. Five feet further on, a rattlesnake was stretched halfway across the concrete. The woman and her dogs were fine, but startled — she had almost stepped on the rattlesnake.


We stayed a good distance back from the snake. The sidewalk here is probably 10 feet wide, to accommodate bicyclists passing each other.

The woman told me that she often sees snakes on the trails. There are a lot of rattlesnakes along the foothills west of Denver. (Don’t Kill the Snake!) She just didn’t think about a snake on the concrete sidewalk.


Don’t be alarmed — I have a really awesome zoom lens on my camera. I am actually standing in about the same place as the first photo was taken. You can see the rattles at the end of the snake’s tail, and the distinctive pattern that helps it hide in the grass.

While we were discussing the event, two other women came up. We told them about the snake, and they became very agitated — both of them were terrified of snakes. They discussed going back the way they had come, but that would have been a long way to go back.


A really awesome zoom. I was surprised at how big the scales were on the snake — they kinda stick up from it’s body.

The woman with the dogs had us hold one while she picked up the other dog and carefully walked along the far edge of the sidewalk six feet away from the snake. She came back for the other dog, picked it up and carried it past the snake (I was impressed — these were border collie sized dogs).

The two frightened women decided to follow the dog owner past the snake. They passed safely, and were shaken, but fine. I admired them for facing their fears.

After everybody went by, the snake retreated to under a trash can. Despite what the snake thought, this was not actually a good place to hide if somebody decided to be a good citizen and toss their trash.

I called the incident in to Jefferson County Open Space dispatch to get somebody to move the snake. They told me to call Jeffco Sheriff’s Department because this “was an active rattlesnake incident”. I called JSD, who switched me to Animal Control. Animal Control wondered if the snake’s exact location might be in the City of Golden. They advised me to “spray some water on the snake to encourage it to move along.” REALLY???

By the time everybody had finished passing the buck, the snake had wisely decided enough was enough, and moved on without any further interaction from people.
At no time did the snake do anything more threatening than flick out it’s tongue — no coiling, no rattling, just prudent retreat.


This was probably the scariest photo because although I was still ten feet away from the snake, suddenly I couldn’t see it in the grass. I took this shot blind.

This incident points up a couple of things:

1. We often get so absorbed in our lives that we don’t see threats even when we are literally about to step on them. The woman who first found the snake had seen them before, and had a healthy respect for them, but had tuned that threat out of her head because she was on a concrete path, rather than on the trail. The snake was there anyway. So stay alert! This goes double if you like to put in the ear buds and zone out.

2. Snakes really don’t want to be around people. I mean, they can’t eat us, but they can be hurt by us. So what’s the point of being around us? This guy was sunning itself when we blundered onto it. Through the entire encounter, it stayed really still to see if we would just continue not seeing it. At the first possible moment, it slithered away.

3. We handled the situation reasonably well. We didn’t poke at it. We didn’t try to kill it. We kept the dogs away from it. We gave it plenty of space, and it left by itself. What could we have done better? Stayed alert and recognized it long before we got close. Backed off even more after we first encountered it and let it escape more quickly.

Here are some good websites that talk about how to avoid snakes, and what to do if you get bitten anyway. WikiHow: Avoid a Rattlesnake Attack https://runnerclick.com/how-to-handle-a-snake-encounter-on-the-run/

Enjoy the outdoors, but stay alert! It’s the critter’s home, we’re just visiting.

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Swallowtail Butterflies

Several weeks ago, we had orange and black Monarch butterflies migrating through the Front Range. They seem to have moved on.

But we’ve still got big butterflies in the area — yellow and black swallowtails. I’ve seen two different types of swallowtails. The western tiger swallowtail is lives along waterways and in woodlands, as well as suburban areas. It’s caterpillers eat aspen, cottenwoods and green ash. The eastern version of this butterfly …. hmmm…. lives in the east? That’s all I’ve found to separate the two.


Western tiger swallowtail on Canada thistle.


The other species of swallowtail that I commonly see in the west Denver area is the two-tailed swallowtail. Predictably, it has two tails.  These butterflies lay their eggs on green ash and chokecherry, although the adults evidently like the nectar from our milkweed plants.

Two-tailed swallowtail

Two-tailed swallowtail on milkweed.


It’s a hard life being a butterfly. This poor guy has survived a lot.

Damaged two-tailed swallowtail butterfly on milkweed.

Swallowtails lay their eggs on their preferred plants. The eggs hatch out into caterpillers, which proceed to feed on their host plants. When winter comes, these larva spin a chrysalis (cocoon), in which they overwinter.

Unlike Monarchs (Monarch Butterfly Migration) or Painted Ladies (Painted Ladies migrate across North America! Painted Ladies Part Two), swallowtails only produce one generation a season. The adult swallowtails emerge in May and June, and continue to be active in the same area through August, feeding on plant nectar, as the butterflies above are doing. Sometime in the summer, they lay their eggs.

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Monarch Butterfly Migration

Thanks to the nice weather, I worked out in the yard for a good bit last weekend. As I worked, I saw and heard our normal back yard wildlife — feisty squirrels, black-capped chickadees, house finches, Northern flickers, dragonflies and big yellow swallow-tail butterflies. Then I saw something unusual — an orange butterfly. I assumed it was a Viceroy, because it flew right past the big patches of milkweed we’ve let grow for the Monarchs that might wander through our yard (Bees and Butterflies).

Then I saw another. And another. None of them were landing anywhere in the yard, but I decided to try to photograph them anyway. Maybe one would alight just long enough for me to snap a shot.

As I watched them more closely,  I began to have a niggling feeling that maybe I should check my butterfly identification books. In the meantime, I took a few photos.

Monarchs are orange with black stripes. They differ from very similar Viceroys in that Viceroys have a stripe along their lower wing. Otherwise, they are almost identical. So the photo on the left, taken in our back yard, is a Monarch! I’m glad it stopped by.

Starting in March, Monarchs migrate from Mexico and Southern California to Canada every year, reaching their northern limits in late June. We get our first Monarchs about the same time.

monarch on milkweed (9)-1

Monarch feeding on milkweed in our backyard.

There are lots of astonishing facts about Monarch and Viceroy butterflies. One fact about the Monarchs is that, although they migrate long distances every summer, no one butterfly goes the whole distance. Instead, the overwintering generation heads north in early spring. They mate, lay their eggs and die somewhere along the way. The next generation of monarchs hatch and head north. They mate, lay their eggs and die somewhere along the way. It takes at least four generations to get to the northern-most point in the Monarch migration! The fourth generation then makes the return trip south, and overwinters in the same trees its ancestors did last year. As with other butterfly species (Painted Ladies migrate across North America!), nobody knows how they do it.

You can watch Monarchs as they travel at this website: Lerner Monarch Butterfly Migration Map Spring 2018. They even have a site where you can report your observations! What to Report



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