Creature Feature: Northern Bobwhite

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Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus). Photo by Baxter Beamer.

Northern Bobwhite

Colinus virginianus

Family: Odontophoridae

Other common names: Bobwhite Quail, Virginia Quail

Distinguishing Features/Description

Northern bobwhites are a small, round bodied species of quail with short legs and tails. Their bodies are finely patterned with bold rufous, brown, black and white markings. Most bobwhite populations have a striped white and black head, with a white throat, dark eye stripe, white supercilium and dark crown. The only exception to this head coloration is the endangered subspecies masked bobwhite (C. v. ridgwayi) of southern Arizona, which has an entirely black head.

The coloration of male northern bobwhites varies significantly across their range, while females look similar. Eastern males have rich rufous colored chests and flanks and a light brown back. Males from the Southeastern U. S. are much darker overall, with a nearly black chest and very little rufous on the flanks. Western birds are paler, with some light rufous underneath and a pale gray back.

Northern bobwhites are the only quail throughout the eastern part of their range; however, they do overlap with scaled and Gambel’s quail in the West. Where they overlap with other quail species, bobwhites can be easily identified by their smaller size and brighter coloration, including their rufous chest and striped head.

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Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata)

Distribution and Habitat

Northern bobwhites occur naturally in most of the eastern United States, roughly from Massachusetts to South Dakota and south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas to Florida. They also can be found on many of the Caribbean Islands and south through Mexico to Guatemala. Bobwhites have also been introduced to other parts of the world — including the Pacific Northwest and Europe — as a game bird.

In Virginia, northern bobwhites can be found statewide, although in many areas native populations have declined precipitously since the 1970s. Bobwhites are fairly rare in the Shenandoah Valley, becoming increasingly frequent as you travel east through the Piedmont and Coastal Plain. There are quite a few around Scottsville in eastern Albemarle, although some of these birds are likely hunting releases.

Northern bobwhites need early successional habitats — various natural grasslands and savannas — to do well, and the decline of these habitats in Virginia is probably a large cause of their decline. These kinds of prairies and open forests are maintained by disturbances, such as clear cutting or burning. Two plant communities that bobwhites rely on in Virginia are Piedmont prairie and loblolly pine savanna. Difficult Creek Natural Area and Piney Grove Preserve are two preserves in Virginia that exemplify these two plant communities respectively.

Piedmont prairies are a particularly diverse form of natural grassland, which makes them great habitat for bobwhites. The rich assemblage of flora that can be found in these disturbed habitats is often dominated by many species of grasses, legumes and asters. Since there are so many species of native plants, there are also many insects and seeds for the bobwhites to eat. The dense herb layer also provides cover from predators.

The diversity of flowering plants found in good bobwhite habitat also makes great habitat for pollinators. Many species of native butterflies, bees and wasps would also benefit from the restoration of natural grasslands.

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Piedmont Prairie at Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve

Ecology and Life History

Bobwhites feed mostly on seeds and nuts in the fall and winter, but in the summer when they are raising chicks, they also eat many insects. Preferred seed sources include asters, legumes, grasses, pines and oaks.

Like other quail species, bobwhites live in groups — called coveys — of 3-20 birds. Coveys feed and sleep together, and they get along peacefully for most of the year, except during the breeding season when males fight for mates.

Nests are a shallow, grass lined scrape on the ground. Bobwhites often weave grasses over the nest into a canopy, forming a dome like shape. Typically, there is only one brood per season, but up to three have been recorded. Clutch size is large, usually more than 10 eggs. The young fledge after two weeks.

Notes

As mentioned above, northern bobwhites used to be a common bird in the eastern United States, but their populations have declined by 85% in the past 40 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The IUCN Red List currently considers them “near threatened”. These declines have been attributed to widespread loss of the early successional habitat that bobwhites favor to development, forest succession, and more land intensive farming practices. Historically, the Piedmont of Virginia held extensive natural grasslands. What little remain today are widely scattered and fragmented. Bobwhites are only one of the many animal and plant species that rely on these incredibly biodiverse habitats.

Native Orchids in Cranberry Glades Botanical Area

This past weekend my family and I made our now annual trip to the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area in West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest.  I first heard about Cranberry Glades several years ago — from an orchid book by Stanley Bentley called Native Orchids of the Southern Appalachian Mountains and a blog I read called floraofohio.blogspot.com by Andrew Gibson — and we have gone every year since then.

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Cranberry Glades is a series of large, high elevation peat bogs at around 3400 feet, which contains many plants typically found in more northern regions.  Some of these plants are relicts of the last Ice Age, surviving only in this high montane valley and no where else in the Southern Appalachians.  Many species of native orchid can also be found  in and around the glades, including swamp pink, rose pogonia, large purple fringed orchid, ragged fringed orchid, and their hybrid, Keenan’s fringed orchid.

The air felt warm and fresh as we got out of the car, a noticeable difference from the mugginess of the lower elevations we had left behind.  We walked onto the half mile boardwalk that traverses part of Round and Flag Glades.  Near the parking lot, the canopy was closed with red spruce, eastern hemlock, yellow birch and black birch.  Thickets of speckled alder grew along the stream.  The ground was slightly swampy, covered in dense skunk cabbage and meadow rue growing above clumps of Sphagnum moss.  The canopy opened up around us as the boardwalk led out into the bog.  Dense tussocks of Sphagnum carpeted the ground, with both small and large cranberries growing out of them in clumps.  It was amazing to think of the many feet of dead Sphagnum and other plant materials below us — called peat— holding water like a gigantic sponge.  Bog-rosemary, one of the plants reaching the southernmost limit of its range at Cranberry Glades, grew along the edges of the boardwalk.  Small sprigs of a chokeberry species waved in the air a couple feet off the ground.  Soon the tiny, delicate pink flowers of grass pinks and rose pogonias began to appear amid the tangle of cranberry vines.

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Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides).  Unfortunately none of the pogonia plants were close enough to the boardwalk to photograph this year, so this is a photo of a plant I am growing at home.

We rounded a bend into a second glade, this one filled with clumps of giant cinnamon fern growing out of the Sphagnum.  Grass pinks bloomed beneath the ferns outstretched fronds.  As I was photographing a round leaved sundew, I heard a group of people come up behind us, eagerly searching for one of the insect-eating sundews.  They had clearly  heard about them but couldn’t find any.  I thought this was funny because sundews are all over the ground there, but they are so tiny that if you don’t bend down and look closely you can’t see them.   I pointed out sundews and the also carnivorous purple pitcher plants to the group and they were very grateful.

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Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus)

After lunch we decided to walk the cowpasture trail, which goes all the way around the glades through spruce woodlands and open, wet clearings.  In past years, we had found several species of orchids along it.

The wide, level cowpasture trail led into the woods from the road.  Magnolia and Canada warblers sang from the spruce, hemlock and rhododendron that lined the path.  I heard the slow, nasal call of a red-breasted nuthatch.  Not long after the start of the trail, the forest opened up into a large mountain meadow.  Meadowsweets and goldenrods grew thickly in the drier areas, while the wet seep in the center of the clearing was filled with rushes and sedges.  A pair of mating eastern red damsels perched briefly in front of me.

Back in the forest, mountain wood sorrel and various northern clubhouses appeared along the edges of the trail.  We arrived at a smaller clearing, and the wet ditch beside the trail exploded with vegetation.  Sorting carefully through the lush foliage, I was able to find the inconspicuous green flower stalk of a northern tubercled orchid.  It became apparent there were many more in this small ditch, the only place I have ever seen them.

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Northern Tubercled Orchid (Platanthera flava var. herbolia)

We continued hiking down the trail, listening to the songs of breeding birds that are rare in Virginia, such as hermit thrushes and several species of warblers.  I saw some of the wide, round leaves of pad-leaved orchid growing on a dirt bank under hemlocks, but unfortunately there were no flowers.  In another clearing I found one blooming ragged fringed orchid, along with one that had been eaten by a deer.

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Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Some time later we emerged back onto the road.  As we were walking towards our car, a pick up truck pulled up and a man got out and began to inspect the road bank.  My mom, always on the look out for helpful local knowledge, asked him what he was looking for.  He showed us a patch of ragged fringed orchid further up the road that we probably would have missed.

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Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera)

He told us he’d met Stanley Bentley, the author of the book from which I learned about Cranberry Glades in the first place, and about the orchids that grew right in his back yard.   In the end, he gave us directions to his “secret spot” for a patch of about 40 large purple fringed orchids, although he warned us they were “a little spent.”  This information was especially exciting because I had searched for this species every time we came, but had never found it.

 

After a bit of a treasure hunt trying to follow his directions, we thought we found the spot and parked.  We climbed over a guard rail and down the slope into a marsh.  Sphagnum grew on the ground, and there were even a few cattails.  Stunted red spruce trees grew around the edges.  The first large purple fringed orchids we found were two old withered flower stalks, almost completely obscured by a bush.  I was getting worried as I walked towards the other end of the marsh.  Where were the orchids?  Luckily it turned out they were all clustered at the other end.  Many even still had very good looking flowers.

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Large Purple Fringed Orchid (Platanthera grandiflora)

 

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What a beautiful plant!

Flora Feature: Ragged Fringed Orchid

Center for Urban Habitats recently discovered two ragged fringed orchids (Platanthera lacera) on a survey of an acidic powerline prairie in eastern Albemarle.  We found the orchid in a powerline corridor holding a remarkably diverse prairie remnant, especially notable for having multiple plants not previously recorded in Albemarle County with coastal plain affiliations.  Such typically coastal plain plants include narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius) and dog-fennel (Eupatorium capillifolium).

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Picture of the site

The goals for the June 19th survey included adding to the site’s flora list and looking for more regionally rare coastal plain disjuncts that could be growing in association with the sunflower.  The day’s survey team, Devin, Drew and I, spent the morning at the site, walking back and forth across the powerline every ten feet.  We found many species new for the location, including a couple of panic grasses previously reported only from the coastal plain.  We also stumbled across the ragged fringed orchid, growing in a sunny seep at the center of the powerline corridor.  We were particularly excited as we had predicted this species might be present there.

Ragged fringed orchid is considered globally secure, with a large range spanning most of the eastern United States and Canada.  Even so, this discovery has local significance, as there is only one other confirmed site for the species in the county.  This native orchid grows in wet, often acidic sunny areas, especially bogs, prairies and the edges of wooded wetlands.  It is in bloom from the middle of June in the Piedmont through late July high in the mountains.

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Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Ragged fringed orchids range in size from a little less than half a foot to more than two feet tall, although most seem to be a bit more than one foot.  The stems are topped with a beautiful, loosely packed, cylindrical inflorescence of several to many flowers.  As is suggested by the specific Latin name, the orchid’s pale green lip is deeply divided into three heavily fringed or “lacerated” lobes.  The thin, pale green nectar spur that extends behind the flower ranges in length from 11 to 23 millimeters.

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Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Although there are a few different species of orchid in Virginia with green flowers — small green wood orchid (P. clavellata), rein orchid (P. flava) and large round-leaved orchid (P. orbiculate) — only ragged fringed orchid has such a deeply divided and finely fringed lip, making it quite distinctive in the field.

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Ragged fringed orchid (Platanthera lacera)

Ragged fringed orchids are pollinated at dawn and dusk by several species of Sphinx and Noctuid moths, including celery looper and unspotted looper, as well as the commonly seen, day flying, hummingbird clearwing.

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Hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe), is a pollinator of ragged fringed orchid.

Bird Finding in Virginia: Greenbrier Park

Located in the Greenbrier neighborhood on the north side of Charlottesville, Greenbrier Park has the fourth-most species of any eBird hotspot in the City of Charlottesville, and some of its best birding.  Park entrances are located at the intersection of Greenbrier Drive and Kerry Lane, the end of Jamestown Road, and the Brandywine Drive bridge over Meadow Creek.  There is street parking on Brandywine Drive, Greenbrier Drive, Jamestown Road, and Kerry Lane.  The hotspot encompasses both Greenbrier Park itself, on the east side of the Brandywine bridge, and the section of the Rivanna Trail that runs through city property from the west side of the Brandywine bridge to Hydraulic Road.  Habitats in the park include floodplain forest, upland forest, fields, swamp forest, and marsh.

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From the Brandywine Drive bridge, you can walk east or west.  The east side is generally better for warblers, while the west is better for sparrows.  If you go east from the bridge along the trail that runs parallel to Meadow Creek, you will soon reach an intersection with a paved trail that leads across a wooden bridge over the creek.  A left turn takes you up a hill to the Kerry Lane entrance, while a right turn over the bridge leads to another intersection.  A left takes you on a trail that parallels the one opposite the creek, while continuing straight leads to the Jamestown Drive entrance.  Past this point, trails run parallel on each side of the creek, and form a loop at the railroad track that makes the park’s eastern boundary.  The section of trail that connects the two sides runs over a tunnel through which the creek passes under the tracks, and is steep, slippery, and overgrown, with a drop into the water below on one side.  Fortunately, there is a rock crossing about three-quarters of the way down the trail that is much safer during low water.  This entire east side of Greenbrier is very good during spring migration, with species such as both waterthrushes, prothonotary, worm-eating, black-throated blue, black-throated green, and yellow warblers, northern parula, scarlet tanager, Baltimore oriole, veery, and Lincoln’s sparrow recorded here.

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Scarlet Tanager

A marsh on the south side of the creek, opposite the rock crossing, is good for migrant green herons and solitary sandpipers.  Rusty blackbirds may also be here in the late winter, and the swampy woods on the north side can have wood ducks.  Also on the north side of the creek, a backyard that runs down to the trail has feeders which can be good for finches and other songbirds, and a brush pile next to a boardwalk here is good for wrens and sparrows.  A dead-end trail just past the marsh on the south side leads you through a moist wooded area with much undergrowth where I have seen American woodcock, white-eyed vireo and barred owl.

On the west side of the bridge, the trail runs along the creek for a short while before crossing it at some rocks where a cable has been put across the stream to hold on to.  The woods just after you cross have lots of fallen logs and are great for winter wrens.  In fact, Greenbrier is probably the most reliable place for that species that I have been.

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Winter Wren

A little farther down, you will reach a gas cut that comes down a steep slope on the left.  If you climb the hill through the cut, there is a small trail that goes off to the right.  This trail is very good for thrushes and ovenbird, the latter only in migration as far as I know.  If instead of going left up the gas cut you take a right from the main trail, you will reach a large, weedy field on your left.  This is a fantastic area in the fall and winter, with tons of sparrows.  This spot is good for swamp and field sparrows, winter wren, red-shouldered hawk, common yellowthroat, and indigo bunting.  I have found willow flycatcher, eastern meadowlark, and American tree sparrow in this field as well.  If you continue straight on the trail past the gas cut, you will see upland, oak-dominated woods on your left and floodplain forest on the right all the way down to Hydraulic Road, with some small clearings and woodland trickles.  This whole area is excellent for woodpeckers, kinglets, and songbirds in general.  Don’t forget to look up every now and then on the trail, as hawks are frequently seen here, as well as the occasional common raven and bald eagle.

Greenbrier Park is one of the best hotspots in Charlottesville, but before I started birding it, I believe there were only about 70 species recorded there.  Now at this time of writing, that number is up to 119, with plenty more new species to come.  Spring migration is probably the best time to bird at Greenbrier, but winter is quite good as well, and fall migration has the possibility of turning up some good species.  Summer is not as active, since most of the breeding birds are common species, but it’s not bad nonetheless.  I would recommend Greenbrier to beginner birders looking to see a good diversity of species, and really any birder in Charlottesville looking for a new place to bird.

You can view the hotspot on eBird here: https://ebird.org/hotspot/L1543531?yr=all&m=&rank=mrec

 

Drew Chaney, a member of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club, is writing posts about birding locations for this blog.  In addition to birds, Drew is passionate about Plants and Odonata.

Bird Finding in Virginia: Rockfish Valley Trail

Note about this post: On past birding trips I have found bird finding guides extremely helpful.  Written by people familiar with local hotspots, these books give the sort of tips and tricks for birding a location that can take many visits to figure out for oneself.  Since there is no recently updated bird finding guide to Virginia, I have decided to make an online version through writing posts like this.  I will try to publish a new one every week.  Soon I will add a page on this blog with links to all the bird finding in Virginia posts that have been published so far.  Some of my friends from the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club have agreed to help me on this project.  Welcome Baxter Beamer, Tucker Beamer, Max Nootbaar, Ira Lianez and Drew Chaney to the birdsandbuds team!  We will stick to our local area for now, as that is where we are most familiar with the birding locations, but I would like to make this a statewide project.  If anyone reading this (especially in other parts of the state) would like to contribute articles like the one below, please send me an email.

 

Just past the town of Nellysford on the Rockfish Valley Highway (151), the Rockfish Valley Trail (RVT) is currently the most birded eBird hotspot in Nelson County.  Although there are certainly other locations in Nelson waiting to be discovered by birders, the RVT will remain one of the classics.  Driving 151 South, the Rockfish Valley Trail parking lot is on your right immediately after Horizon Village Road and the Bold Rock Cidery.

The Rockfish Valley Trail traverses cow pastures, overgrown fields and floodplain forests.  Sections of the trail run along both the South Fork of the Rockfish River and Reid’s Creek.

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Section of the Glenthorne Loop Trail.

From the parking lot, the Rockfish Valley Trail runs east and west along the South Fork of the Rockfish River.  Although both sides are good, I find that the eastern side — known as the Glenthorne Loop Trail — is usually more productive, especially for sparrows in the fall. To get to the Glenthorne Loop Trail from the RVT parking lot, go under the bridge beneath 151. On the other side of the bridge you will see a large cow pasture to your right and a row of densely planted cedars to your left.  Walk down the path between the cedars and the field, watching for eastern meadowlarks and grasshopper sparrows in the field.  Once the cedars stop, the path splits off in two directions and crosses an extremely brushy field.  During the spring and summer, the willows along the river here are a good place to see orchard orioles, eastern kingbirds and sometimes yellow warblers.  In previous Octobers this field has been an amazing spot for sparrows, with large numbers of Lincoln’s and swamp present.  I also had two marsh wrens here last October.

The trails eventually meet back up to form the beginning of Glenthorne Loop in front of Reid’s Creek, and from there you can either cross the creek on a bridge into another large field, or continue on the RVT side.  This area, behind the brushy field, is a great place for fall warblers.  I’ve had multiple blackburnian, blackpoll, bay-breasted and black-throated-green warblers in the early successional forests that border the path here.  This is also a great area for olive-sided flycatcher in the fall, although the tree they used to perch on has fallen down.  The trail goes back into the woods before coming out next to the cow pasture again, now following Reid’s Creek to the south, and I’ve never found it worth continuing at that point.  Other than more grasshopper sparrows, meadowlarks, white-eyed vireos and the occasional warbler, there usually aren’t many new birds there, so I turn around and bird the west side.

If you don’t cross under 151 and instead follow the trail west from the parking lot, you’ll walk in between a large field and a small riparian corridor along the river.  Extensive jewelweed patches grow next to the river here, and people often have mourning warblers in them during late August.  As you walk this section of trail, scan exposed perches for flycatchers.  Many species of Empidonax flycatchers can be found in the fall, including willow, least, yellow-bellied and probably alder.  Olive-sided flycatchers are also annual.  In the fall, watch for warbling and Philadelphia Vireos in the willows.  The trail extends for about a mile before you have to turn around.

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Philadelphia Vireo

Good birds seen at the Rockfish Valley Trail include: Olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, least flycatcher, Trail’s flycatcher sp., northern waterthrush, mourning warbler, Connecticut warbler, blackburnian warbler, Wilson’s warbler, blue-winged warbler, black-billed cuckoo, warbling vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, gray-cheeked thrush, Lincoln’s sparrow, marsh wren, dickcissel and bobolink.

The Rockfish Valley Trail is a great place to bird any time of year, but especially in migration.  In my opinion September and October are the best months to bird the RVT, as that is when most of the warblers, flycatchers and sparrows are coming through.  I hope I’ve inspired you to come out to Nelson County to do some birding!

Exploring the Millboro Shale Formation: A Treasure Hunt for Endemic Plants

I had been wanting to make a trip to Bath County to explore shale-barrens for a couple of years, so I was very excited to finally be visiting one.  Drew and I climbed up a steep slope, trying not to dig our feet into the loose shale too much, towards the light green of the herb layer ahead.  The canopy opened up around us as we neared the top of the mountain.  The only trees in site were gnarled old eastern redcedars growing out of the rocky ground, and the occasional chestnut oak, northern red oak or Virginia pine.  Large rock outcroppings pierced the shaley ground, covered in blunt-lobed woodsia and rock spikemoss.  Would we find what we were looking for?

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Shale-barren in Bath County.  Note the shale-barren wild buckwheat (the big fuzzy leaves and stalks growing on the center of the big rock).

Shale-barrens occur on hot, dry, south facing slopes in the Mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia.  They are characterized by shaley soils, with many small pieces of broken up shale on the surface of the ground.  Shale-barrens are too dry for most tree species to grow, leading to a very sparse, open canopy.  However, many species of herbaceous plants are specifically adapted to shale-barrens, growing in no other habitats.  These shale-barren endemics are confined by the small range of their habitat, so many of them have relatively few populations, making them vulnerable to extinction.

Two of the shale-barren endemics I was most excited about seeing were the white-haired and Millboro Leatherflowers (Clematis albicoma and C. viticaulis respectively).  Both occur only on shale-barrens, C. albicoma only in Virginia and adjacent West Virginia, and C. viticaulis only in Bath, Augusta and Rockbridge Counties in Virginia.  They are both small, semi-woody plants.  They have opposite rounded leaves, beautiful drooping flowers and incredible spiraled seed-heads.

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Clematis albicoma seed-head in its full glory.

On our drive out, we had watched the road bank for interesting flowers on the long, winding road in Bath County.  Suddenly a splash of pink appeared, perhaps a phlox of some type?  We marked the spot in our memory so we could check it out on the way back.  We passed several places where the road banks were covered in loose shale flakes, telling us we were now on a shale formation.

Once we emerged from the forest onto the shale barren, we began to look around for the white-haired leatherflower, and I soon spotted a large clump growing on a nearby rock.  We were disappointed to find it had already flowered, but its elegant spiraled seeds made up for it.

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White-haired Leatherflower (Clematis albicoma)

As we were photographing the white-haired leatherflower, I noticed several clumps of Kate’s mountain clover growing on the rock above it.  Kate’s mountain clover (Trifolium virginicum) is endemic to rock outcrops in the Mid-Atlantic states, but unlike many other shale-barren plants, it can grow on types of rock other than shale.  For instance, at a site in Loudoun County that I wrote about earlier this year, it grows on a diabase outcropping.

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Kate’s Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum)

We continued to carefully pick our way through the barren, pausing here and there to examine plants.  Large mats of shale-barren pussytoes (Antennaria virginica) grew everywhere — sometimes we had to work hard to avoid stepping on them.  Clumps of shale-barren wild buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii) were also abundant; their large, leathery leaves stood out against the wiry leaves of the pussytoes.  The brilliant purple and yellow flowers of downy wood mint and Maryland hawkweed added the occasional splash of color to the scene.  I examined one of the large rocks closely, finding maidenhair spleenwort and moss phlox mixed in with the blunt-lobed woodsia and thick mats of rock spikemoss.

All too soon it was time to go, as we had one more important stop planned.  As we drove back down the road, we kept our eyes out for the mystery phlox we’d seen on the way in.  Suddenly a flash of bright pink appeared on the road bank.  We scrambled out to take a look.  This plant had brilliant pink, five-petaled flowers and super narrow, lance-shaped leaves.  A quick look at the key in the Flora of Virginia confirmed our suspicions: this was the state rare sword-leaved phlox (Phlox buckleyi), an endemic of shale woodlands.

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Sword-leaved Phlox (Phlox buckleyi)

Our final stop of the day was another road bank, also in Bath County.  This stop was the site for Millboro leatherflower, one of the rarest plants we could see that day.  We hoped it would sill be blooming, as its seeds are not nearly as beautiful as white-haired leatherflower, in my opinion.  We turned onto the road and began slowly driving up it, scanning the shaley banks on either side for leatherflowers.  We were getting close to the end of the road when Drew spotted the first one.  We leapt out of the car and ran over to check it out.  It was still blooming, its drooping, purple, tube-shaped flowers in pristine condition.  Soon we found several more nearby.

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Millboro leatherflower (Clematis viticaulis)

The Millboro leatherflowers were growing right out of the shale flakes with common wild quinine and New Jersey tea.  The leatherflowers were so close to the roadside that it looked like one bad land slide was all that it would take to destroy the population.  I wondered how many other sites for this rare and beautiful flower there could be given its very specific habitat requirements and its tiny, three county range.  They seemed to be thriving on that road bank despite conditions too harsh for many other plants.  Hopefully they will continue to do well…

 

Nelson County Big Day

Big days are an old birding tradition.  During a birding big day, individuals or teams compete with each-other as they try to see the most species in a given 24 hour period.  Often big days are used by conservation organizations as fundraisers, like the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory’s (CVWO) Kiptopeke Challenge.  Teams collect pledges for the CVWO for every species that they see during the big day.  I participated in last year’s Kiptopeke Challenge, and my team, Team Turnstone, raised over $400.  Other members of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club (BRYBC) and I enjoyed the Kiptopeke Challenge so much that we decided to do our own big day, as a fundraiser for our club.

Since I moved to Nelson County four years ago, I have been frustrated with the lack of knowledge about how and where to find birds in the County.  I couldn’t just look on eBird like I usually do when I’m looking for new places to bird, because very few people submit bird sitings from Nelson County.  Nelson has 2,243 checklists on eBird at the time of this writing, compared to adjacent Albemarle’s 18,248.

Learning more about birding my local area is a very rewarding experience, as it puts me in touch with my surroundings.  Whenever I’m walking or driving in Nelson, I’m always looking for new and interesting habitats and wondering what birds might live in them.  I’ve already found one first Nelson County record, a canvasback at Lake Nelson, and I expect more will follow.

I figured since our club was doing a big day as a fundraiser, I might as well use it as an excuse to learn more about Nelson County.  There are still so many places I look at on google maps and wonder about what birds could be there.  I hoped the big day might help me answer some of those questions.  I invited my friends Drew, Tucker, Ander, Paul and my brother Theo, and got planning.

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Our group (minus Theo and Ander) at Rockfish Valley Trail at sunset.  Photo by Galen Staengl

Our big day started at 6:00 PM on Saturday April 28th.  As the count time started, we were walking down a steep trail into a rich river gorge just below Wintergreen Ski Resort.  Spring ephemerals such as sessile and perfoliate bellwort, Solomon’s seal, wild geraniums and showy orchid carpeted the ground around us.  Drew called out that he saw spring coralroot, a leafless orchid that gets all of its nutrients from parasitizing fungi.  Drew and I had found the first county record of this plant nearby in 2016.

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Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

The flowers were beautiful, but there weren’t many birds out.  In fact, I hadn’t heard a single species since we started birding.  No matter, I knew from last year that as soon as we crossed the creek we would get to better habitat and the activity would pick up.  As we descended into the ravine, the noisy rushing of the creek — freshly swollen from recent heavy spring rains — reached our ears.  We came out of the forest at the bank of the creek, and I realized that the water was too high to cross.  So much for that.  We decided to cut our losses and get to Rockfish Valley Trail for the rest of the evening.

The Rockfish Valley Trail, running next to the south fork of the Rockfish River, is the best known birding spot in Nelson.  Parts are forested, but most of the land is open pasture and brushy fields.  We took our time birding, as we had no where else we needed to be before dark.  We saw 36 species, including eastern kingbird, eastern meadowlark and a beautiful Cape May warbler.  We left the Rockfish Valley Trail at 7:30, and headed south towards Shipman, where I had a nightjar spot staked out.

We arrived at Sturt Park, a large tract of land near Shipman, just as it was getting dark.  We walked up an old trail through a dense forest of loblolly and shortleaf pines.  The loblollies were no doubt planted, but they had grown up in such a way as to appear almost natural.  Spring peepers called loudly from the puddles in the path.  The occasional dry trill of an upland chorus frog came from the surrounding pines.  A prairie warbler sang, its rising buzzy trill cutting through the loud frog calls.  Once it was totally dark, besides the bright full moon which was rising above the pines, we heard our first eastern whip-poor-will singing.  Soon there were many calling simultaneously, their voice intertwining from all directions in a loud cacophony of whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will…

The next morning we fell out of our beds at 4:30 am, hoping we would be able to hear rails, bitterns, or marsh wrens before the sun rose at the wetland impoundments at James River State WMA.  As we pulled into the dirt parking lot overlooking the muddy James River we heard the songs of common yellowthroats coming from the marsh.  A wild turkey gobble drifted out of the fog.  Yellow-breasted chats whistled and grunted from the field across the wetland from us.

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Yellow-breasted Chat (Photo taken at James River State WMA later in the day, after the sun rose)

We walked out along the marsh impoundment as the sun slowly began to light up the eastern sky.  Soon it was light enough to see a little bit of color.  Someone spotted a small rufous colored bird hopping around in the base of a willow.  Could it be a marsh wren?  It was only a swamp sparrow — still new for the day — but not as exciting as a marsh wren.  Finally the sun rose, and the marsh came alive with bird song.  We began adding species to our day list left and right.  Prothonotary and yellow-throated warblers and a warbling vireo sang from the large maples, ashes and sycamores along the river.  When we reached the end of the wetland, we turned around and walked back towards our car.  A northern waterthrush sang in a thick tangle of brush next to the marsh.  We stopped briefly by the same willow clump that we’d seen the swamp sparrow in earlier, and to our surprise a small rufous bird was once again hopping around.  I raised my binoculars and saw that it was a marsh wren.  It was Nelson County’s 3rd record, and the first one in the spring.

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Marsh Wren

We left James River State WMA half an hour later, with our big day total being 70.

Our next stop was the parking lot for Crabtree Falls, where we hoped to get some mountain breeding warblers.  I had never birded there before, so like most of the big day, it was an experiment, but after our highly successful morning along the James River I was feeling pretty good about it.  As we drove up into the mountains, the Tye River rushed and crashed over rocks right next to the road.  Suddenly, someone yelled, “Go back, I see ducks!”  We quickly turned around and were thrilled, if somewhat unsurprised — there are only so many ducks that can be found in a small mountain river in central VA during April — to find two common mergansers sitting on a rock in the middle of the river.  Unfortunately, they flew away before we could get any decent photos.

The Crabtree Falls area was a bit of a disappointment.  We added a few species, including black-and-white warbler, ovenbird, blue-headed vireo, and black-throated green warbler.  The next stop, Montebello State Fish Hatchery, was slightly more successful.  A small, slow sandy bottomed stream flowed next to the road.  We heard the high buzzy song of a blackburnian warbler coming from a group of old pines.  A Louisiana waterthrush sang from the stream.  We drove up onto the Blue Ridge Parkway, keeping our eyes and ears peeled for warblers.

Wind whistled up the valleys towards us as we drove along the parkway, obscuring any faint warbler song we might’ve been able to hear.  We did manage to see some raptors fighting against the wind, including broad-winged hawk, red-tailed hawk and American kestrel.  Periodically, we stopped at areas sheltered from the wind and got out of the car to listen, but there just wasn’t much singing other than the occasional American redstart, black-and-white warbler or black-throated green warbler.  I wondered if the lack of warblers was because we were too late in the day, too early in the season, or perhaps it was just too windy?

We exited the Blue Ridge Parkway at Wintergreen Ski Resort, where we hoped to find breeding dark-eyed juncos or common ravens.  We drove up a winding road to a parking lot called Devil’s Knob, overlooking the ski slopes from the top of the mountain.  Sure enough, we quickly heard the rattling, musical trill of a dark-eyed junco, and we soon found a few more.

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Dark Eyed Juncos are a common breeding species at high elevations in the Appalachians, but they are completely absent from lower elevations during the summer.  Photo by Theo Staengl

Just as we were getting ready to leave, the distinctive shape of a common raven appeared over the ridge.  At least that stop went as planned.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur.  It was hot, and we were getting tired.  We birded several more locations without finding any new species, including the Rockfish Valley Trail and the adjacent Horizons Eco Village.

Things finally began to pick up around 4:00 PM as we got to Schuyler.  We found a spot where the road went over the dammed Rockfish River, and got out to look for cliff swallows.  I was excited to see about twenty of them swirling around over the water, every now and then carrying an insect under the bridge to their nests.

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Cliff swallows often nest under bridges over rivers.  The only place I’d heard of them breeding in Nelson was the Howardsville Bridge over the James River, which was too far out of our way to go for the big day, so it was especially lucky to find a new colony that day.  Photo by Theo Staengl

An osprey flew over the reservoir, shrieking loudly and scattering the swallows.  I added up our list for the first time since the morning, and found that we were at 94 species, significantly more than I expected.  Could we make it to 100 before we had to be back in Charlottesville for the tally/potluck at 6:00 PM?  I was happy with our Nelson County birding, feeling that I had gained significantly in my knowledge of Nelson’s bird life, so I decided we should spend our last hour in Albemarle, where we hoped we’d be able to add a few more species more easily.

Our first stop was King Family Vineyards, where two artificial ponds often hold shorebirds.  I quickly found a spotted sandpiper in the scope, along with the hooded mergansers that have bred there for the last two years.  As we drove toward Charlottesville we talked about the easiest way to get four more species.  We decided on the Secluded Farm Trail at Kemper Park, where both kinds of tanagers and Kentucky warblers are usually reliable.  With any luck, we would stumble on another new bird as well.  We ran up the trail into a large field with old growth tulip populars scattered in the middle.  Tucker led us down a path into the woods where he often had Kentucky warblers.  Just as we were giving up hope of finding any new birds before we had to go, the three rising whistles of a black-throated blue warbler reached our ears.  A scarlet tanager started making chick-burr calls to our left.  We knew we had to leave then in order to be in time to get to Ivy Creek, so we sadly trooped back to the car.  Just our luck to have an amazing day of birding and end up just two short of 100.  Oh well.

On our drive to Ivy Creek I looked over the tally one more time, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  To my surprise, I saw I hadn’t counted the whip-poor-will.  99.  Then I realized I didn’t remember putting down wild turkey.  With mounting excitement, I looked back through the checklist, and sure enough, wild turkey wasn’t marked.  We’d made it to 100 after all.  We were thrilled, probably more so than a two bird difference should have made.  I handed the list to Paul and Theo to count, and they added an additional two species that I’d forgotten.  We finished the day with 98 species in Nelson County, plus an additional 4 in Albemarle County.

Spring Butterflies at Quarry Gardens

The hairstreaks and elfins in the genus Callophrys are some of my favorite butterflies.  They are tiny, usually not much bigger than a dime.  Their wings range in color from brilliant green to iridescent brown, blue and even pinkish.  Elfins especially fly only early in the season, so I was anxious to try to see and photograph some before they disappeared for the year.  A late April trip to Quarry Gardens at Schuyler provided the perfect opportunity.  Extensive stands of short-leaf and Virginia pine with eastern juniper in the understory — the host plants of pine elfin and juniper hairstreak — grow there.  Brown elfins have also been recorded, although their host plants, blueberries, are less numerous.

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Golden Ragwort at Quarry Gardens

Quarry Gardens is a botanical garden designed to showcase the flora and fauna native to Schuyler, VA and the surrounding area.  The Center for Urban Habitats inventoried the plants and animals naturally occurring there, and used that information to design and plant gardens representative of particular native plant communities.  It lies partly on top of a formation of soapstone rock, and several abandoned, water-filled, soapstone quarries are on the property.  It is home to fragments of a state rare plant community — ultramafic woodland — which only grows on magnesium rich (ultramafic) rocks like soapstone.  Many locally and regionally uncommon species have been documented there.  For more information about Quarry Gardens’ unique history, geology, plants and animals, see my older post: Quarry Gardens: Ecosystem Modeling Under Geological Constraints.

Bernice Thieblot and Devin Floyd — the owner of Quarry Gardens and the director of the Center for Urban Habitats, respectively — met my brother, Theo, and me at the gates.  My friend Drew and a photographer named Emily soon arrived.  We walked down to the visitor center, where a large patch of golden ragwort was in full bloom.  We hoped to find elfins nectaring on the ragwort, as Devin had seen them there last year.  Juvenal’s dusky-wings and native bees buzzed around.  It wasn’t long before we spotted what would be the first of many juniper hairstreaks, drinking from a ragwort flower.  We all pressed forward, hoping to get a picture of this stunningly green little butterfly.

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Juniper Hairstreak (Callophrys gryneus) on golden ragwort (Packera aurea)

We decided to meander down the path that led around the old quarry pits.  It was cool and shady under a thick canopy of pines.  Lichens carpeted the ground in places.  The mulch covered trail led down rock steps into an area planted with rich forest spring ephemerals.  Mayapples, Solomon’s seals, wild geraniums, dwarf larkspur and wild ginger bloomed near the path.

We emerged from the trees into a small meadow, sloping down towards the edge of the water in the quarry pit to our right.  The white flowers of pussytoes and wild strawberries were just beginning to open.  Suddenly, Theo called out that he saw an elfin.  Drew and I rushed over, and we watched it land on a barely opened pussytoes flower.  One of its hindwings was damaged, but it was able to fly well enough to make getting a good photo difficult.  Eventually it settled down, and we watched as the brown elfin tilted its wings into the sun.  For a moment, the color seemed to change from plain brown to a rich assortment of pinkish and orangey hues.

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Brown Elfin (Callophrys augustinus) on pussytoes (Antennaria sp.)

We left the brown elfin and continued down the trail.  We looked for mountain bellwort, one of the rare plants growing at Quarry Gardens.  We were excited to discover all 10 of the plants growing there in full bloom.

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Mountain Bellwort (Uvularia puberula)

Drew, Theo and I walked to a swale planting, filled with golden ragwort, swamp rose, marsh marigold, skunk cabbage and various sedges.  Emily, who had been wandering around separately from us, showed us a picture of a pine elfin she had just seen.  Pine elfins look like brown elfins, but their wings are covered with intricate pink and brown mottling.  They are also less common and more difficult to see than brown elfins.  We fanned out, scanning the ground and the sky trying to re-find it.  I decided to walk down by the edge of the quarry pits, where I found my first of year Selys’ sundragon, but no pine elfin.

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Selys’ Sundragon (Helocordulia selysii)

Just as I was getting back toward the seep, I heard Theo yelling his head off about a pine elfin.  I ran toward him, and arrived just as he lost the butterfly into the trees.  We set about walking around once again, desperately trying to re-find it.  I caught movement out of the corner of my eye.  Turning, I saw a nickel sized butterfly bouncing away from me.  We chased after it, and soon the pine elfin landed.  The sunlight sparkled off of its metallic wings in a way that photos never seem to do justice to.  The white bands and mottling flashed in the light.  Then, before I could even reach for my camera, it was gone.

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Pine Elfin (Callophrys niphon), Photo by Emily Luebke.

As I was walking back, still hoping for another pine elfin to photograph, I looked at a small brownish butterfly sitting on an American holly leaf.  I assumed it would be another juniper hairstreak — they were one of the most common butterflies out — or a brown elfin.  To my surprise, I saw a white band on the hindwing, meaning it was not a brown but a Henry’s elfin — a first Quarry Gardens record!

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Brown Elfin (Callophrys henrici) on American Holly (Ilex opaca)

In retrospect, I probably should have realized it might have been a Henry’s sooner, as it was sitting on a holly leaf, which is a host plant for Henry’s elfin.  With three species of elfins in one day, I was ready to forego my dreams of perfect pine elfin photos.  Maybe next year…

Red Crossbills at Briery Branch Gap

We stood at the intersection of Briery Branch Road and 85, near the summit of Reddish Knob, watching and listening to the red crossbills feeding all around us.  Crossbill flocks roved about the mountaintop, chattering and singing constantly.  Some birds dangled from the cones of table mountain and pitch pines, using their long, sturdy, crossed bills to pry the seeds out from deep within the cones.  Other crossbill flocks gathered in the dirt road not more than five feet in front of us, squabbling and moving constantly as they ingested little bits of gravel to aid in their digestion.

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Red crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) eating rocks in the road.

Red crossbills are fairly rare throughout most of Virginia — they are most common during irruption years, when large numbers come north during the winter — but they can usually be found in the tall mountains along the VA/WV border in Rockingham County.  The crossbills are present all year round, including the breeding season, and have raised young successfully in the Reddish Knob Area before.

The red crossbill is an extremely complex species.  Many subspecific taxa, commonly referred to as crossbill “types” have been named, and it is possible that some of them will be elevated to species status in the future.  Indeed, just this past year the Cassia crossbill — endemic to one county in southern Idaho — was split out from the red crossbill.  One of the most variable features of crossbill types is bill size, as it seems different types have evolved different bills to allow them to specialize on different conifer species.  The types also differ in body size and call.

The red crossbills at Briery Branch Gap had previously been recorded and identified as Appalachian red crossbill (type 1), but I wanted to make sure our birds were as well, so I took some recordings.  When I got home, I sent my red crossbill recordings to Matt Young, a scientist who’s been studying them.  He told me that I had recorded both type 1 and type 2, the ponderosa pine crossbill, which had not been documented in Virginia recently.

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Red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra), type 1 or 2

Seven young birders had met for the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club field trip to Briery Branch Gap early in the morning at the Rockfish Gap Hawk-watch.  The trip to Briery Branch was uneventful until we got to Airport Road, just south of the town of Bridgewater, in Rockingham County.  Suddenly, three massive, lightly-colored birds crossed the road in front of us.  I only got to see them for a few seconds before they were obscured by the trees, but I had enough time to make out their huge, black-tipped wings, light bodies, tiny tails, and massive bills.  They were American white pelicans, a 2nd county record.

We encountered the flocks of red crossbills as soon as we got to the pull off for Briery Branch Gap.  It was by far the most I’ve ever seen at once, and the best views.  After the crossbill show, we walked up forest road 85 in search of other mountain birds.  Pines, hemlocks and oaks grew over a dense layer of mountain fetterbush next to the trail.  Blue-headed vireos, dark-eyed juncos and black-capped chickadees sang from the branches.  We walked into a field surrounded by red spruce and eastern hemlock.  A few more red crossbills flew over our head, accompanied by American goldfinches and pine siskins.  Black-and-white warblers sang their whispery, greasy wheel song.  Someone flushed an American woodcock, which flew twenty feet and then landed deep in a fetterbush colony.  We decided we should turn around so we’d have time for a few stops in the valley on our way home.

For some reason, the field at the end of Lumber Mill Road in Dayton is one of the most reliable places in the valley for the introduced Eurasian collared dove.  Why the doves prefer this particular manure-covered field to a million exactly like it all over Rockingham County is beyond me.  We found three Eurasian collared doves perched on the powerlines next to the road.

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Eurasian Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto)

Our final stop of the day was Oakwood Pond, where we found two pectoral sandpipers.  We headed home, happy with our morning’s birding.

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Our group photographing the red crossbills.

Salamanders at Maple Flats

The Maple Flats area in southeastern Augusta County is home to a strange array of flora and fauna.  Many organisms occur in and around the Shenandoah Valley Sinkhole Ponds at Maple Flats but no where else in Virginia.  Plants that usually grow in northern bogs and the southeastern coastal plain can be found growing side by side there.  A few species of animals also have disjunct populations that live in the sinkholes.

Maple Flats is underlain by dolomite, a calcareous (calcium rich) rock formed during the Cambrian Period.  On top of the dolomite lies a deposit of more acidic quartzite weathered from the nearby mountains, which is responsible for the many plants found growing at Maple Flats that typically grow in more nutrient poor soils.  Over time, the dolomite is dissolved by water, leading to its collapse and the formation of the sinkhole ponds.

Many of the sinkholes at Maple Flats could also be called vernal pools, as they dry up in the summer, protecting the numerous species of amphibians and insects that depend on them from predation by fish.  All the salamanders in the mole salamander family, including tiger, spotted, marbled, Mabee’s, Jefferson’s, and mole need good quality vernal pools to breed in.  Other species that occur only in vernal pools include wood frog and fairy shrimp.  Spring peepers also commonly breed in vernal pools, but they can tolerate other types of wetlands.

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Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer)

The eastern tiger salamander, which has a fairly large range in the coastal plain up through the mountains of Kentucky has a disjunct population in the vernal pools at Maple Flats.  Tiger salamanders are state endangered, have very few other populations in Virginia, and most of them are far away in the coastal plain.  Eastern tiger salamanders spend most of their time deep underground, coming out only on warm, wet nights in February to breed.  They stay near the vernal pools for a few weeks afterwards before they disperse back underground.  Some friends and I decided to go to Maple Flats in late March to look for tiger and other salamanders.

When I stepped out of the car into the warm, damp spring air at Maple Flats I felt good about our chances of finding salamanders.  If I was a salamander, I’d be out on a day like today.  I breathed in the damp air, smelling the gentle spring scent of the forest.  We started down the dirt road — overgrown in the summer by black huckleberries and common greenbrier.  To my right a trickle of water ran through the sandy soil underneath a canopy of black gum and oaks.

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Seepage Swamp

A pine warbler sang, the musical trill of its voice coming from an old pitch pine growing next to the trail.  Looking up, I caught a flash of bright yellow as the pine warbler flitted in between dense clumps of pine needles.  It sang again, and Tucker noticed the chip of a second pine warbler coming from across the path.

We came to the first sinkhole, a deep pit in the landscape, but barely twenty feet wide.  We made our way down the steep banks to the water’s edge, listening to the faint chorus of spring peepers in the background.  The water in the pool was crystal clear — I could see every leaf at the bottom.  A northern cricket frog hopped across a rock in front of me, pausing long enough for us to see every wart on its back.

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Northern Cricket Frog (Acris crepitans)

Emily said she had heard that this particular pool sometimes held fairy shrimp, a species of fresh water crustacean that lives in vernal pools, but none were present that day — perhaps it was too early in the season.

As we walked back toward the trail, I reached down to lift a log as I had been doing all morning.  To my surprise, I saw a three-inch long marbled salamander curled up under the log.  Further down the length of the log, the head of a second marbled salamander poked out of its burrow.  The silvery blotches along the salamanders’ damp backs sparkled in the sun.

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Marbled Salamander (Ambystoma opacum)

Like tiger and spotted salamanders, marbled salamanders breed in vernal pools, but unlike the other mole salamanders they breed in the fall instead of the spring, so I hadn’t thought we would see one.  I guess they were out to feed near the surface in the damp weather.  I carefully put the log back, making sure not to crush the salamanders.

We set to work flipping over rocks and logs, always restoring them to their original position after looking underneath, slowly working our way toward the next pool.  We found a few more marbled salamanders, but nothing else for a while.  Suddenly, Theo yelled, “I have a salamander, but I don’t know what it is!”  By the time we got there the salamander had disappeared into the ground.  Theo said he was pretty sure that he had seen a slimy salamander.  I moved a particularly large log off the ground.  Underneath lay a particularly large salamander.  It was longer than my hand and fairly chunky; its body was black with tiny white spots.  I didn’t know until I picked it up, but its body was also covered in thick super sticky slime.  I called over my friends and showed them the slimy salamander as we discussed its ID.

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Slimy Salamander

Around 10 species of slimy salamander live in the Southeastern US, and most of them look very similar.  Lucky for us, only two species, the white-spotted and northern slimy salamanders live in our area, but they are almost impossible to identify.  We settled on a tentative ID of white-spotted slimy salamander, based on habitat.  If anyone has any insight into the identification of slimy salamanders at Maple Flats, please let me know.

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Slimy Salamander

After we let the slimy salamander go, I was beginning to worry we weren’t going to find a tiger salamander, as I felt like we’d flipped every good-sized rock in the area already.  We decided to walk around the pond in search of more promising salamander habitat.  The pond on our left was a large artificial one, half filled with water and half covered in a dense thicket of buttonbush.  Four green-winged teal flushed suddenly out of nowhere as we rounded a bend.  On our right lay another pond, probably also artificial, this one full of water and bordered by smooth alder.  I saw a small trickle of water running through patches of lush Sphagnum moss in front of us.  A few minutes later, we’d found a northern dusky salamander under a log in the seep.  On our way back up to the trail, someone kicked over a rotting log.  Underneath lay a large sleepy spotted salamander, its eyes covered by a dirty membrane.

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Spotted Salamander (Ambystoma maculatum)

Two mole salamanders in a day was exciting, especially since the spotted was a lifer for my friend Tucker, but where were the tigers?

We spent the rest of the day walking to Spring Pond, the largest of the ponds at Maple Flats.  We never did see an eastern tiger salamander, but we did see six other interesting species.  Next year, I think it might be better to go earlier in the year.