Green Swamp Preserve: Orchids and Carnivorous Plants

Every year, my family makes a trip to Emerald Isle in the outer banks of North Carolina. This year, one of the birds that I most wanted to see was the secretive Bachman’s sparrow of southern pine savannas.  Two young birders from the Carolinas whom I met in Glacier National Park earlier this summer told me that the most reliable spot to find Bachman’s sparrows nearish Emerald Isle was the Green Swamp Preserve in Brunswick County, near the border of South Carolina.  A quick look at ebird confirmed this information.  The Nature Conservancy’s website’s claim of “many orchids and insectivorous plants” was all the extra encouragement I needed to make the two-hour drive.   When we pulled into the small dirt parking lot, it was already getting hot.  We briefly scanned a small pond next to the road, and found one anhinga, an overdue NC lifer for me.

As we started down the trail, the sun beat through the sparse canopy of longleaf pine.  After awhile, the path started to become more wet and boggy.  Theo spotted the first venus flytrap growing in a little muddy ditch.  A few minutes of searching revealed many more, in small sphagnum clumps, their colors and sizes ranging from little green plants just an inch wide, to three or four inch plants with rich red traps.  This photo shows one of my favorites.


Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula)

The dense clumps of pineland threeawn grass thinned out more as the ground became boggier.  I saw some tiny bug eaten yellow pitcher plant clumps, and rushed to photograph them.  Just as I was almost there, I spotted a small brilliant orange lily in the grasses.  Correctly assuming it was pine or Catesby’s lily, I switched plants and went to photograph it.  What a colorful little lily.


Pine Lily (Lilium catesbaei)

Next to the yellow pitcher plants, there were several southern purple pitcher plant clumps, their foliage tinted a deep red from the relentless sun.  I have seen the purple pitcher plant species in West Virginia, but those plants belonged to the northern subspecies, (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea), not the southern subspecies (Sarracenia purpurea subsp. venosa) that grows in pine savannas.  Over the pitcher plants, the tall, white, ball-shaped flowers of ten-angled pipewort bobbed back and forth, disrupted by my movement.  I looked up in time to see a female Amanda’s pennant flit up and perch on a stick, a lifer Ode for me.  Poking around the clump of grass, the orange inflorescence of an orange fringed orchid caught my eye.  I would have been thrilled about this only a few days before, but we had stopped and photographed a roadside colony in Croatan National Forest on the drive to Emerald Isle.  The orchids I was really hoping to see were the other platanthera  species that grow in savannas like this, such as white-fringed, yellow fringeless, or orange crested.  Despite my previous sighting, it was still an exciting plant, and maybe it was a good sign of better things to come.


Orange Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris)

The longleaf pines opened up even more as we walked through a brightly lit glade.  Large, lush carpets of pineland threeawn grass and other herbs carpeted the wet ground, interspersed periodically with the bright spike of an orange fringed orchid.  Huge clumps of healthy, yellow pitcher plants rose out of the grass.  It’s been a few days, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating in saying that some were more than 2 1/2 feet high!


Yellow Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia flava)

Grass-leaved Barbara’s buttons, blazing star, elephant’s foot, many species of meadow beauty, and other colorful flowers bloomed in the meadow around us.  We finally found a clump of hooded pitcher plants almost buried in the grass.


Hooded Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia minor)

Nearby was a small red pitcher plant group, completing our four pitcher plants for the day.  Leaving the sunny glade behind, we plunged into a thick tangle of southern swamp growth.  By this time, the trail was a stream of blackwater bordered by impenetrable vegetation.  We could not see when the path would leave the swamp, and indeed didn’t know if it would.  We pressed on, as we didn’t yet have our guaranteed Bachman’s sparrow, the original reason for this trip.  We continued through a series of openings into the longleaf savanna and than plunged back into the dark, wet, swamp.  In one such opening, we heard the high, trill of a Bachman’s sparrow and then spotted it.  I had thought they wouldn’t be singing this time of year, so I was quite surprised to hear it.  We were able to watch the bird for a long time, before it finally hopped back off its branch and returned to the grass.


Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis) Photo Credit: Theo Staengl

A few plants still eluded us, so we decided to follow the trail to its end.  That was a mistake.  Just as we were finally getting ready to turn around, my brother strayed a little further down the trail.  When he came back, his legs looked like they were covered in dust.  He had stepped in a tick nest for the third time this summer!  I did the natural thing, looked down at my legs, and was hardly surprised to see that I had some on me as well.  But just a few hundred, nothing like Theo or my dad.  After half an hour of inefficiently picking ticks off our legs, we decided to go back and try not to worry about the rest till we got to the beach house.  Walking back through one of the forest openings, I found this one, pathetic, tiny, awful, old, orange crested orchid.  It isn’t much for a life plant, but it is the only one we found.


Orange Crested Orchid (Platanthera cristata)

An excellent trip, minus the ticks.


Center for Urban Habitats Survey of a Oak/Heath Woodland in Orange County

We looked around at the hard greens and browns of the heath, breathing in the crisp morning air.  Today, despite being only late July, was one of the first days that you could begin to smell the cool, musty scents of fall.  The Center for Urban Habitats was conducting a biological survey on a small property in western Orange County.  Our first task was to walk the perimeter of the land and locate sample plots that appeared to best represent their given plant community.  Later, these would be surveyed exhaustively; with every plant being identified and counted in order to best classify the plant community.  

Devin, Drew and I walked a small trail through dense thickets of Black Huckleberry, Deerberry, and Hillside Blueberry under a forest dominated by small Black Gum, Black Oak, and White Oak.  I reached down and pulled a long, slender snakeskin off of the huckleberry, thinking it looked like the perfect shape for a Rough Green Snake.  Closer examination revealed little rows of keels on the scales, a feature that only a couple other snakes have.  We put the snake on our fauna list for later confirmation, and continued.  The trail under the heaths was covered with a dense layer of mosses and lichens as the forest opened up into a small clearing.  The herb layer was very light, allowing a good view of the dense carpet of mosses and lichens below.  Looking down, we could see more than ten species of bryophyte right by our feet.  


British soldiers (Cladonia cristatella)

Deciding to come back and sample this area thoroughly just for the incredible bryophyte diversity, we continued down the property line, which was soon marked clearly by a large power cut.  Usually, Powerline right-of-way meadows are filled with native prairie wildflowers and pollinators, a vibrant community that no doubt once existed at this site.  Unfortunately, in the wake of sprayed herbicides, the powerline right-of-way resembled more of a wasteland than a piedmont prairie remnant.  Large stretches of brown earth were visible, interspersed only with stumps and the deformed unhealthy looking native herbs that managed to survive.  Ironically, periodic disturbances can be important or even necessary for the survival of this plant community, as in the lack of human or naturally occurring disturbances, succession would take it back to a forest.

Leaving the mutilated power line corridor, we walked into the dry heath forest.  Dry acidic habitats such as Oak/Heath forests are not known for their biological diversity.  The mean species richness for our area is only about 30 plant species per survey plot, one of the least species rich communities in our area.  Trees growing on heath soils never get as large as trees growing on richer substrates.  We didn’t see any trees bigger than two feet in diameter, even though some of those were likely older than 75 years.  

After we had finished our walk of the property, we decided on the location for our heath woodland survey plot, and set to work outlining and getting familiar with it.  The ground was carpeted with dense stands of Deerberry, Black Huckleberry, Hillside Blueberry and Common Greenbrier, which gave us quite a hard time moving about the plot.  The (relatively) big trees were mostly Scarlet Oak and White Oak/Post Oak hybrids (Quercus x fernowi) that were much more prevalent than either of the parent species.  In the understory, Black Oak, White/Post Oak, Black Gum, and Sassafras were the dominants.  Diffuse light filtered through the dense shrubs and huckleberries, making dancing patterns on the dry loam of the forest floor.  Each of us chose a layer of the forest to survey.  We identified and counted every plant, and then estimated how much of the ground that plant’s canopy covered.  We would later use this information to classify the plant community.  Occasionally, an insect or bird would fly by, interrupting us from our work to chase it, as the plants would stay still, and the animals wouldn’t.  I found a Maple Looper Moth (Parallelia bistriaris) in the leaves, a small surprise, as its main host, Red Maple, was quite uncommon in the plot, with only two young ones being observed.  


Maple Looper Moth

We also saw a Red-spotted Purple ovipositing on a Deerberry, an interesting observation of what host plants it’s caterpillars favor.

As we were finishing up, we talked about other plants, including Pink Lady’s Slipper, American Chestnut, and Large Whorled Pogonia, that we might expect to find as outliers from our plot in the surrounding woods, given the habitat type.  Sure enough, Devin soon found an American Chestnut.  Like every other remaining chestnut in Virginia, it was a small shrub with its old dead trunk looming over it, killed by the chestnut blight.  Right as we were turning to leave, I glimpsed a pale green whorl of leaves out of the corner of my eye.  The leaves were too pale and stubby to be Indian Cucumber Root, and the venation was wrong as well.  Soon we had found more Large Whorled Pogonias (Isotria verticillata) in the area.  Although I have only seen this species of orchid once before, it is apparently fairly common, known from every piedmont county.  Still, I am always excited to see a native orchid thriving, especially in such an interesting and challenging environment as acidic woodlands.  


Large Whorled Pogonia

A little further on, a ravine cut through the slope.  In this area the forest changed slightly, with some species more suggestive of a base rich substrate than the surrounding heath.  We found one tiny ash seedling at the very bottom, a Wild Yam, and a small grove of Tulip trees, a species that had been present in much smaller numbers all day.  Thinking this might represent a transition onto a more calcium rich geologic substrate and classify as a different plant community, we decided to investigate further another day.  

Moving back through the power line clearing, we photographed and identified some of the asters and goldenrods in more detail, while keeping our eyes out for insects.  We found several indicators of a once healthy ecosystem, with nice prairie flowers like goldenrods and Godfrey’s Thoroughwort, Wild Bergamot, and Toothed White-top Aster present in small numbers.  Hugging the ground, we collected several different species of Dicanthelium grasses to identify later.  One that particularly caught my attention was bushy and compact with interesting super slim lance shaped leaves.


Godfrey’s Thoroghwort

Our final location for the day was a brief check of the property owner’s mint garden to add butterflies to our fauna list.  Gray and Red-banded Hairstreaks and Hoary Edge Skipper were some of the more interesting species that loved the mint.  Silvery checkerspots were also present, along with more common butterflies like Silver-spotted Skipper, Pearl Crescents, and Zabulon Skippers.


Zabulon Skipper

On our final day of survey, we only had a morning in the field to inventory the bryophyte area and survey the ravine sample plot, as we needed the afternoon in the lab to enter our data and sort out more complex species identifications.  We started with the bryophyte area.  While Drew fully inventoried the herbaceous and shrub layers, Devin collected samples from the mosses and lichens to attempt to identify later in the lab.


Cup Lichen (Cladonia asahinae)

Done with the bryophyte spot, we headed down through the heath woods to the ravine where the dense Black Gum shrub layer thinned out and the area became more open.  The ground was richer and more diverse, with White Snakeroot, a bugleweed, young Hackberry, and even a young Spicebush sapling.  We quickly marked the parameters of the plot and divided up the layers of the forest to survey.  I took the shrub layer, and it was much more enjoyable than my attempt at the thick shrubs of the heath plot yesterday.  In this plot, there was almost double the species in the shrub layer, but not nearly as many individual plants, making for more interesting, less tedious work.  In the whole plot, I only counted three Black Gums.  The dominant shrubs were the White/Post Oak hybrid, Pignut Hickory, and Mockernut Hickory, but there were also White Ash, Eastern Redbud, Ironwood, American Persimmon, and Red Mulberry.  There wasn’t much Hillside  blueberry and no Black  Huckleberries at all, unlike in the heath.  On one of the three Red Hickory in my layer, I found a small, fuzzy white caterpillar with massive black and white spikes of hair.  I photographed it, and in the lab we determined it was a Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar (Halysidota tessellaris).


Banded Tussock Moth Caterpillar

It remains to be seen whether or not we will classify the ravine plot as a separate plant community from the Oak/heath plot, but it definitely had many different and unique characteristics.  

After lunch, we got to work on data entry and identifications.  I worked on confirming the identity of the snakeskin we found on the first day.  From size, scale keeling, and scale count I determined it to be either a Rough Green Snake as we had expected, or a Northern Brown Snake.  Since we only had the skin, and the head scales were missing, we couldn’t confirm the identification, but since it was in bushes in a dry, acidic habitat, (a common haunt for Rough Green Snakes but fairly poor habitat for Northern Brown Snakes), we are fairly certain it was a Rough-Green Snake.