Piney Grove and the Dismal Swamp

Piney Grove Preserve is the only place in Virginia where the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker lives. It is also the furthest north site for this species.  As we drove down the narrow entrance road to the preserve, we could hear the rising song of Prairie Warblers from almost every clump of vegetation by the road.  Eastern Towhees, Black-and-white Warbler, and Ovenbirds also sang along the road.  Old Loblolly and Long-leaf Pines towered over the understory of Wax Myrtle and young Black and Water Oaks, creating the beautiful habitat of southern pine savannah. We photographed several Pink Lady’s Slippers that grew in the thick mat of decaying pine needles covering the forest floor at the entrance to the Nature Conservancy’s Darden Nature Trail.


Pink Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule)


Very pale Pink Lady’s Slipper

I saw a couple of Brown-headed Nuthatches foraging in the smaller pines.  This small species only lives on the Coast, so I don’t get to see them very often.  Theo, my brother, brought my attention to a very distant, slow, “yank yank yank” call, clearly a Red-breasted Nuthatch.  Soon after, I heard the faster, jerkier call of the White-breasted Nuthatch.  It was the first time I had ever seen all three eastern Nuthatches in the same day!  We saw Ovenbirds and Yellow-throated Vireos, but no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  We decided to drive the main road of the preserve to look for the spot we had seen them the last time we came here, over a year ago.  As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Theo spotted a Blue Grosbeak sitting on a tree beside the road.  What an unexpected treat! They are a common breeder in this habitat later in the year, but this was the first one I had seen this season.   We walked down the main road, seeing plenty of Pine Warblers, Prairie Warblers, Palm Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, and Yellow-throated Warblers, but still no Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.  Suddenly, two “footballs with wings” exploded out of the brush in front of us, their feathers making a tremendous noise.  Bobwhite! This was a very long awaited lifer. After lunch we decided we’d better head to the Dismal Swamp if we wanted to have much time there, so with much regret, we gave up on the Red-cockaded Woodpecker and got into the car for the drive.

Our first stop at the Great Dismal Swamp NWR was Jericho Ditch, a famous spot for the elusive Swainson’s Warbler.  When we got out of our car, the sight that greeted us was not exactly spectacular.  A long path stretched into the hazy distance with a ditch nearly hidden by dense, shrubby vegetation beside it.  Heat shimmered off the gravel parking lot.  We heard and then saw several Prothonotary Warblers, their brilliant yellow bodies contrasting with their slate grey wings.  As we walked along the ditch, giant Swamp Darners and other dragonflies swarmed all about us.  Eventually, we heard a Swainson’s Warbler sing about 10 feet off the trail.  We stood and waited patiently, tried “pishing,” and even tried to enter the dense brush and briers that made a wall at the edge of the trail, but nothing we did let us see the bird.  After we waited for a good half hour, we gave up seeing it and went to Washington Ditch.  Washington Ditch was much nicer than Jericho Ditch, with real coastal swamp forest instead of scrub.  Mature Red Maples, Willow Oaks, and Water Oaks cast a cooling shade, with lush Devils Walking Stick and Cinnamon Fern carpeting the forest floor.  As we walked along the wide cool path, we heard the noises of a mixed flock off to the left.  Soon Yellow-rumped and Prothonotary Warblers sang on either side of us.  Then we heard the distinctive “whee whee whee whip-poor-will” song of a Swainson’s Warbler.  I found the bird this time, due to the more open canopy, and enjoyed my first views of it.


Swainson’s Warbler

After the Warblers had moved on and we were walking back to the car, we heard a Barred Owl call through the distant swamp woods.

Exploring the Southern Piedmont in Amherst County

The other day me and a friend explored Beck Creek in Amherst County in search of Odes (short for Odonata, the dragonfly and damselfly order) and anything else we could find.  We had high expectations for the springtime dragonflies, with almost every interesting early April flying Ode, including Eastern Red Damsels and Southern Pygmy Club-tails, supposedly abundant and easy to see here.  We drove down the dusty gravel road looking for a spring off to one side in the forest.  When we found the small trickle of crystal clear water and got out of the car, a giant logging truck came roaring by, spraying us with dry, sticky dust. We escaped into the lush green vegetation surrounding the seep and started to gently knock the many sedges for red damsels.  The diversity of the native wildflowers around us was immediately apparent, and they soon made up for the near total lack of Odes. Royal Fern, Sensitive Fern, Field Horsetail, Tall Scouring Rush, Trout lily, White Turtle Head, Cut-leafed Coneflower, Cardinal Flower, Golden Ragwort, Bulbous Bittercress, Appalachian Foam Flower, Dwarf Ginseng, Robin’s Plantain, Wild-blue Phlox, Eastern Solomon’s Plume, and Solomon’s Seal were some of the herbaceous plants that grew in and around the spring.


Bulbous Bittercress


Dwarf Ginseng

We walked down the road in search of other Odes like Uhler’s Sundragon and Brown Spike-tail, but sadly the only dragonfly we saw was a single Springtime Darner.  My friend found a large colony of Yellowroot and Leatherwood growing next to the creek.  These were life plants for both of us.


Yellow root



I spotted an Elfin butterfly of some type flying next to the road.  We rushed to get pictures, but another huge truck came through, plastering us with more dust, and scaring it away. Eventually we refound it, and were able to determine that it was a Brown Elfin.  Fire Pink and Green-and-gold grew profusely on the rock outcrops above the road. I had never seen Green-and-gold before, despite it apparently being rather common, so it was nice to finally see some.


Fire Pink



When we got back to the car, we decided to have one more go at the odes in the seep around the spring before we had to leave.  It was a good thing we did! We very quickly found a teneral Southern Pygmy Club-tail resting on a clump of sedge as its wings dried out.  This was our most wanted dragonfly for the trip so it was a good thing we eventually found one, not that it would have mattered much with all those great plants!  We photographed it until we had to go.


Southern Pygmy Club-tail

Briery Branch Gap

I finally made it up to Briery Branch Gap, on the Virginia-West Virginia border, again.  It’s the only place in Virginia where Red Crossbills are seen regularly.   The last time I came up here, in March, we didn’t see any Crossbills, even though large flocks of them had been seen recently.  Snow covered the ground that day, but the air was warm enough (about 50 degrees), so we figured we’d be fine.  As we started up the trail, a group of huge, noisy, monster trucks came roaring through the six inches of muddy slush and snow carpeting the narrow dirt road.  Well, so much for being dry, but the sun was still shining and it was still warm (relatively), so we kept walking.  As we got up to the campground where the Crossbills usually are, a dark, ominous, storm cloud started to roll in from West Virginia.  The temperature dropped noticeably, and it started to drizzle.  I did my best to ignore these signs, despite faintly remembered warnings about rapidly changing mountain weather.  The further we hiked, the colder it became.  We navigated around huge pockets of mud colored slush covering deep pools of frigid water.  My foot slipped into one of these pot holes.  It started to rain — cold, hard, persistent rain, soaking our long sleeve shirts and threatening to ruin our cameras.  We turned and ran for the car, which was, unfortunately, at least half a mile away.  Both of my feet were numb.  I couldn’t feel them as I ran clumsily down the mountain.  Right as we got to the car, the rain stopped and the sun came out.  The temperature rose twenty degrees and the snow started visibly melting.  I had a hard time believing that just a few minutes ago, we were in the middle of a winter storm.  Looking down at the thick blanket of dark clouds in the valley far below us, though, I could see where the storm had gone.  Needless to say, no Crossbills that day, but I did enjoy seeing interesting high-elevation plants, such as Mountain Fetterbush and Red Spruce, and strange, introduced, exotics, such as Red Pine and Norwegian Spruce.


This time, in April, the snow was all gone.  We got out of the car and ate lunch.  As we were finishing, we heard the distinctive flight call of a Red Crossbill in a large Chestnut Oak just on the other side of the hill.  I tried to find the bird, but ended up walking in a big circle.  Fortunately, my brother spotted a male sitting on top of a little clump of sumac a few feet from us.  It stayed still and let us photograph it for awhile, before flying onto the road right in front of us, to peck at the gravel.   Crossbills are very approachable when they “gravel,” and this one was no exception, as I was able to get within ten feet of it.



Photo credit: Theo Staengl

After the Crossbill flew away, we had a nice, thankfully rain free hike (not that we were so unprepared this time!), up the road for a couple of miles.  We saw the usual high elevation species, like Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadee, and Common Raven.  There were also many Fox and Chipping sparrows.  When we got back to the car, we heard two Blue-headed Vireos singing.  We quickly found these beautiful birds and enjoyed looking at them until we had to go.