Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve

A friend, Drew, and I started planning our trip to Halifax County’s Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve in January. Difficult Creek is a former Pine savanna with hardpan soils, making it a very unique site in Virginia. Recently the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) announced on Face Book their discovery there of a new colony of Tall Barbara’s Buttons, a southern piedmont endemic with only one other known extant site in the world and one of our main targets for the trip.

On our way down Route 15 just north of Farmville, Drew spotted a huge mass of white wands of flowers in a power cut. Excited at the thought of what they might be, we quickly stopped. Hundreds of White Colicroot (Aletris farinosa) grew in the power line cut along with Green Milkweed, Smalls Ragwort, Carolina Rose, and Sundrops.

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White Colicroot is much rarer further north so we had never seen it before.

Shortly after entering the preserve on a windy road, we crossed Difficult Creek, its water muddy and torrential after all the recent rain. Southern Sugar Maple (Acer floridanum) and Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) grew in the forest around the creek. Soon we came to a large power line crossing the road. Underneath it bloomed the richest assortment of colorful wildflowers I had ever seen in a power line prairie. Carolina Thistle (Cirsium carolinianum), rare in Virginia, was one of the most abundant species. Plumed Thistle, Butterfly Weed, Dogbane, Green Milkweed, Green-and-Gold, Sundrops, Hyssop-leafed Skullcap, Mad-dog Skullcap, Pale spike Lobelia, and many asters, goldenrods, and other composites that were to young to identify were also plentiful.

Soon, we also found White Milkweed (Asclepius albicans) and Carolina False Dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus), both life plants for me. As we explored the power cut, we kept finding southern piedmont specialties, plants that hardly ever occur elsewhere in the state. For example, American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata) is listed by the Digital Atlas of the Virginia Flora to occur in Virginia only in Halifax and Wise Counties.

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American Ipecac

Other interesting plants we saw there were: Narrow-leaved Bluets (Houstonia tenuifolia), Old Field Milkvine (Matelea decipiens), Sampson Snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata), and Lobed Coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata).

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Smooth Coneflower

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Old Field Milkvine

The birds we saw and heard were species typical of southern piedmont pine lands, with the most common species being Summer Tanager, Prairie Warbler, Pine Warbler, Blue Grosbeak, and Brown-headed Nuthatch, always a treat to see away from the coast.  We also heard a Northern Bobwhite call a couple of times, only the second time I have ever encountered it.  Other notable birds were Yellow-breasted Chat and Hooded Warbler.

When we finished exploring the power line prairie, we accessed the preserve at another point, to keep looking for Barbara’s Buttons. Loblolly Pines grew above us, Willow Oak, Blackjack Oak, Post Oak, and Sourwood made a dense shrub layer. The herbaceous diversity was not nearly as high as it had been in the open power line corridor.

As we were finishing our lunch, heavy clouds came in and it started to pour. We quickly ran back to the car to finish eating, complaining about how difficult the rain would make photography, and how generally unpleasant it was. Right when we were about to go out again, a DCR truck pulled up and its driver asked if we were looking for wildflowers. We said we were, and asked him if he could show us the site for Tall Barbara’s Buttons.  It turned out the driver was Chris Ludwig, Chief biologist of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage. He showed us a small colony of Tall Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia legrandii), which, despite the still heavy rain, we photographed profusely.

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Tall Barbara’s Buttons

The pouring rain necessitated that we keep moving if we did not want to get soaked, so we asked Chris if he would show us a colony of the much more common (but still new to us) Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia obovata), which also grows at the preserve. He took us to a large colony, and I was surprised at how different the two Barbara’s Buttons were from each other. I had been prepared to measure the height of the stalk in order to tell one from the other, but found that Tall Barbara’s Buttons had deep pink flowers and Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons had pure white flowers. I am sure flower color in these species is somewhat variable, and I am very curious as to the color of Tall Barbara’s Buttons at the other site it is known from in North Carolina, and to the color of other colonies of Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons.

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Piedmont Barbara’s Buttons

Chris then showed us the few other plants we had missed on our first exploration of the power cut, such as Rattlesnake Master, and Glade Wild Quinine (we had seen Common Wild Quinine earlier, so we were able to compare the species). He also identified the strange sheep like sound of an amphibian we had been hearing all day as a Eastern Narrow-mouthed Toad (Gastrophryne carolinensis).

 

Chris also told us how DCR was managing Difficult Creek.  About 40 years ago, the preserve had been converted to a Loblolly Pine plantation from hardwood forest.  As the Pines grew, they forced the herbaceous flora into the adjacent power line clearing that we had just explored. The power line cut was mowed every couple of years, which kept woody plants from encroaching and cutting off light.  DCR’s plan is to restore the preserve to pine savanna, an open canopy of pines, oaks, and hickories maintained by fire, that would have historically occurred throughout the southern piedmont before the colonial period.  They hope to accomplish this by prescribed burns and Loblolly Pine removal, which would let more light reach the ground, allowing the plants to recolonize the preserve from the power line clearing.  In addition to this restoration regime providing fantastic habitat for so many rare southern piedmont plants, it would create ideal habitat for Northern Bobwhites.

We were thrilled by the success of our trip, and the thought of that rich power cut prairie spreading throughout the entire preserve.

 

 

The Biggest Week in American Birding 2017

Last year at the Biggest Week in American Birding in Northwest Ohio, I remember seeing warblers everywhere I looked from the Magee Marsh Wildlife Area boardwalk.  By the end of the festival, we had seen 31 species of warblers, including rarities such as Kirtland’s and Mourning Warblers.   Other migrants were also abundant: Whippoorwill, Black-billed Cuckoo, Curlew Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, and White-rumped Sandpiper to name a few.  Magee Marsh and other wildlife areas that line Lake Erie in that area serve as migrant traps, where many birds stop to rest and refuel before crossing the lake.  I was very excited to be going back.

As we drove to the festival, though, I started worrying.  Migration was late this year and we had to get back to Virginia to attend the Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally.  These plans meant that we couldn’t stay till the end of the week when the rarer warblers and flycatchers would be expected even under more typical migration timing.

Our first morning, we started early at Magee Marsh.  Unfortunately, compared to last year, the boardwalk was dead.  It seemed like there were more warblers back in Virginia.  We found 41 species of birds that morning and I was able to photograph this posing Black-throated Green Warbler.

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Black-throated Green Warbler

Feeling a little depressed at having birded the self proclaimed “Warbler Capital of the World” for an hour yet seeing only 6 warbler species, we headed to the nearby Metzger Marsh Wildlife Area.  As we pulled into the small, empty parking lot, we saw 4 Sandhill Cranes fly overhead, their strange rattling calls filling the sky.  We found a muddy trail on a narrow stretch of ground just barely elevated above the water on either side of it, leading off into the wide open marshlands.  As we walked onto this little dike, we heard several Sora.  We saw American Coots and Common Gallinules in the open sections of water.  Suddenly, something sprang into flight from some grass next to my brother’s feet.  As it flew, I registered the small size, little trailing feet, and tannish coloration of a Least Bittern.  It landed at the top of some marsh grass, and we had a few seconds to look at it before it slid down the stalk and disappeared.  This Least Bittern was only the third one I had ever seen.  Marsh Wrens sang along the trail, but sadly we were never able to see one.  Not bad marsh birding at all: Sora, Common Gallinule, Marsh Wren, Sandhill Cranes, and Least Bittern!

We returned to the car and checked the Biggest Week twitter feed.  Someone had reported two Upland Sandpipers, a lifer for me, at Grimm Prairie at the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge.  When we got there, we saw a line of birders with scopes standing in the parking lot staring into the empty field.  The birds hadn’t been seen for awhile and were probably behind a clump of grass.  We got our scope and scanned the field, but the heat haze was so thick that we couldn’t see much in the distance.  Deciding that we would bird the rest of Ottawa and keep our eyes on twitter in case the birds were re-found, we packed up and left.

Hundreds of swallows of 5 different species surrounded us as we started down the foot trail around the impoundments at Ottawa.  I saw a Bank Swallow among the much more prevalent Tree, Northern Rough Winged, and Barn Swallows and Purple Martins, but my brother, who had never seen one, missed it.  I was therefore distracted the rest of the afternoon by the necessity of scanning every swallow that came by to try to find another Bank for him.   We didn’t see another one.  Nevertheless, I did enjoy seeing Black Tern, Least Flycatcher and a Black-crowned Night Heron there.

Back at Grimm Prairie, we saw the Upland Sandpipers (if you can call the horrible, distant, distorted scope views we had ‘seeing’) although certainly not as well as I would have liked through the heat haze.

The next morning, we started by stopping at the intersection of Angola and Raab Roads, which had a Curlew Sandpiper last year.  This year we had 5 swallow species including Bank and Cliff on the wire by the road.  My brother was very happy about finally finding a Bank.

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Bank Swallows by Theo Staengl

We spent the rest of the morning birding the metro parks of Toledo.  At Oak Openings Metropark, we got Lark Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Least Flycatcher and Nashville Warbler.  At Pearson Metropark we saw almost nothing.  Later in the afternoon, we headed back to Magee to see if anything new had shown up.  There was more Warbler activity, with Blackburnian Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Orange Crowned Warbler, and Cape May Warbler, but it still didn’t compare to last year.

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Blackburnian warbler

The next day (Wednesday), things were finally really starting to get better as far as migrant passerines were concerned.  We had 60 species of birds on the Magee Marsh boardwalk, with 19 species of warblers.  Prothonotary, Blue-winged and Hooded were some of the better ones we saw.

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Blue-headed Vireo

That afternoon, we went to Maumee Bay State Park, where birders had spotted a Clay-colored Sparrow.  As we waited for it to stick its head out of the grass, we watched Purple Martins gracefully wheeling overhead and landing on the artificial gourds that had been set out for them.  Just as we were getting ready to bird the Maumee boardwalk and come back for the Sparrow later, it flew out of the grass, circled its crowd of gathered admirers and landed in a leafless tree right in front of us.  It was the second time I have seen a Clay-colored Sparrow, but this time provided, by far, the better looks and photos.

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Clay-Colored Sparrow

We spent the  rest of the day slowly birding the Maumee boardwalk, enjoying the peaceful swamp forests.  Veerys seemed to hop on every other fallen log.  We  saw the well-known red morph Eastern Screech Owl that reliably roosts in a box next to the trail.  Ovenbirds, Nashville Warblers, and Yellow Warblers sang in the willows and cottonwoods.

We had to leave for Virginia by 10am Thursday morning, so we didn’t have much time to bird.  We decided to bird Magee Marsh for the whole time in hopes that migration would have picked up.  It was the best day so far, and at times it was almost as good as it had been last year.  One of the best things about Magee Marsh, second to the bird themselves, is that you can see warblers only feet from you at the edge of the boardwalk.  And even when they are not posing perfectly, they are never very high in the canopy like they are back home.  The birds’ proximity and diversity make this an exceptionally good location for warbler photography.  Here are some favorite photos that I took that last morning in Ohio:

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Chestnut-sided Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

We also got great looks at Bay-breasted Warbler that day, and so many other warblers.  By the end of the trip, our trip list was 130 species, and we had seen 22 species of warblers.  Not as good as last year, but we had a lot of fun, and saw plenty of birds.

Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally Part 2: Sullivan Swamp at Grayson Highlands

From the parking lot, we looked out on the windblown landscape of Grayson Highlands State Park.  We saw huge rock outcrops surrounded by beautiful meadows and balds.  On the hill directly in front of us, scattered Red Spruce and Highbush Blueberry grew, fading into the mountains behind them.

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View of Grayson Highlands

All around us, breeding birds with northern affinities sang, Black-Throated Green Warbler, Chestnut Sided Warbler, Dark eyed Junco, and Black-capped Chickadee.  We were here to visit Sullivan Swamp, one of only thirty known Appalachian Shrub Bogs in the world.  Upon entering the small valley of Sullivan Swamp, my feet started to sink into the marshy ground.  Huge, furry fronds of Cinnamon Fern, just beginning to unfurl, grew on the tufts of earth that rose a few inches above the surface of the bog.  We walked through thick matts of green and red Sphagnum moss, trying not to think about all the plants we were stepping on.  Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata) and Northern White Violet (Viola macloskeyi)  grew everywhere in the sphagnum mat.  I photographed a patch of Thymeleaf Bluet (a different species than the bluet common in the piedmont, (Houstonia cerulea)) growing on some rocks.

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Thyme leaf Bluet (Houstonia serpyllifolia)

The weather was gray and rainy, perhaps the reason none of Sullivan Swamp’s famous butterflies were out, but we did find a new species of plant for the location, Pink Lady Slipper.

Growing on the higher, drier ground off to one side of the bog, underneath a thick layer of Rhododendron, were a few Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum).

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Painted Trillium (Trillium undulatum)

It was a beautiful place with rare and interesting plants, but I think that later in the summer when more things are blooming and more butterflies and Odonates are flying would be a better time to visit this fantastic ecosystem.

See the Blue Ridge Discovery Center blog here and here for more information on Sullivan Swamp.

 

Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally Part 1: Salamanders at White Top Mountain

All we could see from the Elk Garden parking lot at White Top Mountain was a thick blanket of fog.  It covered the meadows and mountains to our left, and obscured the distant Yellow Birches of the forest on our right.  It wasn’t exactly raining, but we could feel the heavy wetness in the cool air.  It was around 40 degrees Fahrenheit, an average temperature for this elevation even on a summer morning.  White top Mountain’s peak is the second highest peak in Virginia at 5,525 feet, but we were only at a bit over 4,000 feet.  As our group assembled in the parking lot, our guide, Kevin Hamed, Professor of Biology, at Virginia Highlands Community College, told us interesting things about salamanders.  He said that in addition to being able to regrow lost tails, many salamanders can regrow legs and even large parts of their heart.  He also told us that the total biomass of salamanders in the Southern Appalachians is greater than the biomass of all the mammals and birds in the area combined.  That’s a lot of salamanders! As we walked down a small gravel road on our way to the salamander spot, I noticed how different the flora was from Shenandoah National Park back home.  Instead of White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), the common trillium carpeting this forest was Red Trillium (Trillium erectum).  IMG_1266_edited-1.JPG

Also Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) was abundant, in contrast to the Virginia Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) common back home. In general, the wildflowers on the forest floor were extremely rich and diverse, even more so then in Shenandoah National Park.

After 40 minutes of searching around a rocky moss covered slope, our group found 7 species of salamanders in an area less then one acre. We saw the regional endemic Weller’s Salamander, which lives only in the Mount Rogers area of Virginia and North Carolina and far eastern Tennessee.

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Weller’s Salamander (Plethodon welleri)

We also saw: Yonahlossee Salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee), Northern Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus organi), Northern Grey-cheeked Salamander (Plethodon montanus),  Blue Ridge Dusky Salamander, (Desmognathus orestes), Northern Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus fuscus), and Blue Ridge two lined Salamander (Eurycea wilderae). 

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Yonahlossee Salamander (Plethodon yonahlossee)

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Northern Pygmy Salamander (Desmognathus organi)

After finishing at that site, we headed to a fast flowing mountain stream to look for aquatic species.  By turning over rocks in the stream we found more Grey-cheeked and Northern Dusky Salamanders as well as Blackbelly Salamander (Desmognathus quadramaculatus) and Seal Salamander (Desmognathus monticola), which were both new species for the day. Interestingly, the previously abundant Weller’s and Yonahlossee Salamanders were completely absent.  Upon returning to the Konnarock Community Center, the home base for the Mount Rogers Naturalist Rally, we heard about a Northern Red Salamander under a wooden board.  It was our 11th species of Salamander for the day.

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Northern Red Salamander (Pseudotriton ruber ruber)