Creature Feature: Common Buckeye

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Common Buckeye

Junonia coenia

Family: Nymphalidae

Distinguishing Features/Description

Common buckeyes are medium sized, brightly colored and strikingly patterned butterflies.  Each of the buckeye’s four wings have two dark colored eye spots circled in a thin band of yellow.  The eye spots are positioned along the edges of the wings, and the two central ones on each side of the body are the largest.  The large eye spots on the forewings are surrounded by a thick white band, the shape and color of which are important identification features for separating this species from the other two North American buckeyes.  The leading edges of the forewings between the body and these white patches are brown, interrupted by two orange to red vertical lines parallel to the body.  The hindwings are mostly brown around the eye spots, with orange and yellow bands on the trailing edges.  The underside of the forewings is similar to the upperside, while the underside of the hindwings is much duller, with smaller less colorful eye spots and less patterning.  In the fall you might see common buckeyes “Rosa” form, with much brighter, pinkish hindwings.

The common buckeye is named after the resemblance of its eye spots to the eyes of male deer (bucks).  Interestingly, Native Americans named the buckeye trees with an indigenous word meaning buck eye, due to the nuts’ resemblance to bucks’ eyes, but there is no other apparent connection between the tree and the butterfly.

Common buckeye is the only buckeye in Virginia, so it is difficult to confuse with other butterflies in the state.  Two other buckeye species do live in the United States however, the mangrove buckeye in Florida and the tropical buckeye in Florida, Texas and the Southwest.  Both other buckeye species are duller, with smaller eye spots and not as bright colors compared to common.  Mangrove buckeye has orange instead of white bands on the forewings, which are bordered on the inside by black.  Tropical buckeye has very thin pinkish bands on the forewings and is much darker than common in general. 

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

Distribution and Habitat

Common buckeyes can be found throughout the southern United States year-round, but their range extends up to southern Canada in the summer months.  They are absent from much of the west, including Montana, Idaho and the surrounding states.  They are also present in Mexico and some of the Caribbean.

In Virginia common buckeyes can be found in a variety of open sunny habitats throughout the state.  They are present in many disturbed habitats, such as roadsides and pastures, as well as the many types of natural grasslands in the state, such as woodlands, savannas and prairies.  Common buckeyes can be found anywhere their generally prairie affiliated host plants can be found.

Ecology

Caterpillars are generalists on a wide variety of herbaceous plants, including plantain and wild-petunia.  Adults feed on nectar from a variety of plants, but the Asteraceae seems to be a favorite family.

On September 26th, 2018 CUH surveyed a piedmont prairie growing in a powerline right of way in Albemarle County.  We observed common buckeye caterpillars feeding on Agalinis purpurea (purple false foxglove), and adults in great numbers on Euthamia graminifolia (common flat-topped goldenrod).  The flat-topped goldenrod was growing in a large patch in the middle of a large and exceptionally biodiverse piedmont prairie remnant in a high-tension powerline right of way.  It was in the peak of its bloom, and the flat clouds of yellow flowers stood out from the surrounding broomsedge and other prairie grasses. Butterflies, moths and other insects including fiery skippers and swarms of common buckeyes fed from the flowers. Almost every flat-topped goldenrod flower had several buckeyes on it, the eye spots on their wings reflecting the sunlight in a dazzling array of iridescent colors.

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Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) on Common Flat-topped Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia)

The scene above illustrates a couple of ecological relationships between the Piedmont prairie plant community and the common buckeye.  Many possible host plants for the buckeye grow in the prairie, including wild petunia and purple false foxglove, the latter of which we directly observed the buckeye caterpillar eating.  The prairie is also full of good nectar plants for migrating and resident adult butterflies, with the flat-topped goldenrod stealing the show in this scene.  The buckeyes, like other insects that feed on nectar, are inadvertently pollinating the plants they are feeding on.

Although we did not observe any predation of adults or caterpillars, they undoubtable serve as food sources for birds and predatory insects living in the powerline right-of-way.  The caterpillars are covered with thick dark spines, possibly serving as a physical defense from such predation, and of course the adult butterflies have the brightly colored eye-spots, which may serve as a distraction to predators.

Like the famous monarch, common buckeyes are at least partially migratory, with the first brood in the south of their range moving up into the northern US and southern Canada in the spring.  Different individuals fly back south in the fall, causing a peak in the numbers of common buckeyes in Virginia during their migration period.  Common buckeyes fly in Virginia roughly from May to October, with pupae surviving the winter.  They fly all year in the deep south but only briefly and sporadically in the northern part of their range during summer.

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 animals and plant species that rely on these incredibly biodiverse habitats.

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.

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…

Loudoun County Piedmont Diabase Barren: A Rare Ecosystem Faces Threats from Development

I have been fascinated by plants and the natural world for as long as I can remember. Since I was a toddler, my mom would take my little brother and me to a nearby park almost every day to play in the woods, fields, and creeks.  These days, a fellow plant-loving friend and I meticulously research and plan trips all around the state to look for new plants and plant communities.  More than a year in advance, we planned a trip to the amphibolite outcrops of Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve to see hundreds of blazing star plants in bloom.  That trip was soon followed by an exciting late May trip to Difficult Creek Natural Area Preserve to see the diverse southern piedmont prairie and search for rare tall Barbara’s buttons (which we found!)  Piney Grove Preserve, Chub Sandhill Natural Area Preserve, Shenandoah National Park, George Washington National Forest, and Grayson Highlands State Park are some of the other preserves and natural areas that I have visited this year looking for plants.  

One reason I like plants so much is because they form the basic, tangible foundation for nature.  Native plants create and define different ecological communities, which host all the other life forms, which have co-evolved with the plant species in the community.  Witnessing the seemingly never-ending diversity of plants and the rich multi-species relationships of native plant communities is a source of great joy and mystery for me.  There are few things I find more rewarding than researching and planning a trip to find a rare plant and then successfully discovering it growing where I thought it would.  I also love the challenge of learning and identifying the huge number of plants native to our state.  

I recently learned that Loudoun County’s Board of Supervisors is voting on January 18th on a proposal to raze a Piedmont Mafic Barren growing on a diabase formation on the banks of Goose Creek, in order to build a 750,000 square-foot data center.  These barrens consist of two small separated outcroppings of diabase bedrock.  Around the two barrens grows a stunted forest of eastern redcedar, white ash, eastern redbud, and fragrant sumac.  The outcrops themselves are covered in dense patches of mosses and lichens, and sparse herbaceous plants such as Appalachian phacelia, awned flatsedge, and the state rare Central Appalachian endemic, Kate’s mountain clover.  

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Kates Mountain Clover (Trifolium virginicum) © Lonnie Murray

I was greatly disturbed by this news, as there are only 10 documented occurrences of Piedmont Mafic Barrens in the world, all of them in the Piedmont of Virginia.  The Goose Creek site has the additional distinction of being the most northern example of this plant community, defining its range.  The Piedmont Mafic Barren plant community is ranked by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation as G1/S1, which means that it is critically imperiled globally.

Virginia is broadly divided into five physiographic provinces.  From east to west, these are the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, Blue Ridge, Ridge and Valley, and Allegheny Plateau provinces.  The landform, geology, and plant community types define the character of each of these regions in much the same way that historic buildings and architectural districts define the distinct character of cities and towns.  Loudoun County, of course, is in the Piedmont province.  Destroying the plant communities that make the Piedmont unique, such as the Piedmont Mafic Barren in Loudoun, degrades the essence and character of the Piedmont province.

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The Loudoun County Piedmont Mafic Barren, © DCR-DNH, Gary P. Fleming.

I hope the Loudoun Board of Supervisors will deny the rezoning application and do all they can to protect the Piedmont Mafic Barren area.  Whether I ever have the opportunity to visit it or not, its existence enriches my sense of place and offers an open invitation for exploration and discovery.  While I’m interested in all plants, the ones that grow where I live are the most important to me.  Knowing the plant communities of the piedmont makes me feel at home and helps give me a sense of belonging to the natural world.  It heightens my appreciation of my surroundings every time I go outside.

I think if more people had the chance to experience the natural beauty of the Piedmont they would appreciate it more, and work harder to protect it.  While we don’t know all the contributions any particular species or community makes to the ecosystem services we all depend on, we do know that each piece of the puzzle is valuable to the functioning of the whole.  I hope that the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors won’t take away the opportunity to experience and learn from the Piedmont Mafic Barren from present and future generations.

Quarry Gardens: Ecosystem Modeling Under Geological Constraints

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The Quarry Gardens property was used as a soapstone quarry between the 1950s and 1970s.  After the soapstone industry abandoned it, the community used it as a dump until Armand and Bernice Thieblot bought it in 1991.  In 2014 the Thieblots embarked on a mission to create a publicly accessible native plant botanical garden, showcasing the unique local native plant communities of the quarry’s soapstone geology.  The Thieblots hired The Center for Urban Habitats (CUH) to plan and plant the gardens.

CUH has a very unique approach to landscaping, ecosystem modeling, which involves replicating naturally occurring plant communities in garden settings.  When CUH approaches an ecosystem modeling project, they observe factors such as geology, topography, elevation, drainage, existing plants, and lighting to help them infer from experience gained during prior surveys elsewhere what plant community is best suited to each exact location.  Their specialty is figuring out the “ecosystem trajectory” of an area based on these existing site conditions.   CUH studied the Quarry Garden project area for six months prior to planting, conducting an extensive biological survey to identify and map the distribution of existing plant communities.

Today, the 40 acre Quarry Gardens consists of nine main sections, each with numerous native plant gardens.  Two huge, semi-rectangular water-filled pits, the remnants of the old quarries, dominate the center.  If you look closely at the tall, vertical soapstone walls of these quarry pits, you can see the grooves in the soapstone left by the quarrying process.  Piles of giant discarded soapstone chunks are distributed around the property.  From the parking lot, the land slopes gently down towards the quarry pits. It continues to slope down on the other side of them, all the way to a small, meandering creek, which flows through a sunny, wet clearing just off the property.  Two gravel roads lead around the quarry pits from the parking lot, one traveling the parameter of the property, and the other forming an inner loop around the quarry pits.  From these roads, one can see most of the beautiful plant communities that have been planted here, from the bright flowers of the viewing platform prairie to the dull greens of the piedmont hardpan forest.  The planted gardens blend perfectly with the surrounding natural plant communities.

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Native landscape installation at the Viewing Platform, including niches for barrens, 
hardpan swales, and prairie.

CUH learned about the geology of Quarry Gardens mainly from observing sections of exposed rock and the existing plants.  They saw piles of soapstone boulders left over from the quarrying process, and the huge portions of rock that were revealed in the walls of the quarry pits.  They also studied the present plant communities to infer the type and location of the underlying geology.  They found that the plant communities could be divided into two main groups based on their tolerance of either ultramafic, a high mineral soil type with more magnesium than calcium, or acidic soil conditions.  Ultramafic soil is so high in magnesium that it is toxic to many plants.  CUH knew that soapstone bedrock, which includes many different types of ultramafic rocks and minerals, had to underlie plants that could tolerate ultramafic conditions.  Similarly, CUH inferred that the Charlottesville Formation, which consists of mineral poor sedimentary rocks, must underlie the observed plants in the “heath” community, which occur in acidic, nutrient poor soils.  Later in their process, CUH conducted soil tests, which provided more details about the geology.

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View from the prairie below the viewing platform. Monarda, Solidago,
Eupatorium, and Pycnanthemum command this view.

The soapstone bedrock that underlies most of Quarry Gardens supports some very rare plant communities, including ultramafic woodland.  Fragments of this nearly vanished plant community, dominated by old post and blackjack oaks over an understory of little bluestem, remain around the parking lot of Quarry Gardens.  The most abundant tree in the ultramafic woodland at Quarry is Virginia pine, a species that under natural fire regimes would have been less prominent.   Ultramafic woodland is so rare in Virginia because it can only be found on ultramafic rocks, like soapstone, and it requires periodic disturbance in the form of fire to keep less fire-adapted plants like the Virginia pine from encroaching.  Since soapstone is such a rare and commercially desirable rock, quarries have almost completely destroyed ultramafic woodland in Virginia.

Two other plant communities that grow over the soapstone bedrock at Quarry are piedmont prairie and hardpan swale.  Gardens showcasing these communities are prominently located in front of and behind a viewing platform that overlooks the large quarry pits.  Under the thin soils of the prairie and hardpan swale lie huge soapstone boulders, remnants of a filled in quarry.  The gaps between the boulders are filled with smaller bits of soapstone, such as pebbles and soapstone silt.  Due to this, the drainage in the viewing platform area varies extremely widely.  The piedmont prairie drains immediately and is hot and dry for most of the year, while the hardpan swale is virtually always wet.

The extreme drainage conditions and high magnesium levels of the prairie combine to make this area only inhabitable by the toughest species growing in piedmont prairies.  CUH chose species that could survive the extremely dry and high magnesium present by selecting piedmont prairie species that have been found growing on serpentine barrens and ultramafic barrens, which share these harsh conditions in an even more dramatic fashion.  Forbs chosen for their toughness and tolerance of magnesium include hoary mountain-mint, gray-goldenrod, tall thoroughwort, white colicroot, and glade wild quinine.  Important grasses included poverty dropseed and little bluestem.

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Center for Urban Habitats staff, Soizic and Rachel, inspect the prairie installation 
during its first season. Non-native grass seedlings and forbs are plucked out and replaced by 
dominant ultramafic prairie species like little bluestem.

Looking at the viewing platform prairie, one would never know how challenging a growing environment it is.  Most of the plants have flourished here, creating a colorful testament to the resiliency of native ecosystems.  Bold clumps of hyssop-leaved thoroughwort with feathery white plumes buzzing and humming with insects towered over smaller species.  Gray goldenrod, showy goldenrod, sweet-scented goldenrod, and wrinkle-leaved goldenrod all bloomed profusely.  Over to one side, near a quarry pit, the triangular leaves and strangely shaped flowers of spotted bee-balm accented the area.

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Silvery checkerspot butterflies, along with 40 other species of butterfly have been noted at Quarry Gardens.  Many of them enjoy the mountain-mints there, including narrow-leaved, hoary, and short-toothed mountain-mint.

Plants were selected for the hardpan swale that tolerate poor drainage, and that had been documented locally in magnesium rich hardpan swales.  Winterberry, golden ragwort, and blue mistflower were prominent.  The blue mistflower was especially noticeable in September, as it created brilliant cushions of blue flowers that seemed to float above the wetland sedges.  Lush longhair and sallow sedge blanketed the ground.

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Blue Mist flower is a guaranteed success in the harsh conditions presented by storm water 
management swales. It does well in the magnesium saturated hardpan swales at Quarry Gardens.

Khabira Wise’s Garden: A Story of Native Ecosystem Modeling

Khabira Wise’s gardens in northern Albemarle County are a stunning example of the Center for Urban Habitat’s (CUH) unique approach to landscaping through native ecosystem modeling.  When planning a garden, CUH considers factors such as geology, elevation, aspect, and lighting in order to decide which native plant community is best suited to each exact location.  The plant communities modeled in Khabira’s gardens are acidic oak-hickory forest understory, piedmont prairie, low elevation acidic outcrop barrens, and alluvial floodplain swales.

I visited Khabira’s Gardens on Thursday, August 31, and was amazed by their vibrancy and beauty.  In front of the house lies a large, colorful prairie entrance bed, with gravel trails leading through it.  If you follow these trails around the house, you come to an alluvial floodplain garden, where water from the roof supports a diverse and thriving community of wetland plants.  Behind the house lies the site for another planned local native prairie, called the megafauna meadow, and a swimming pool.  Below the megafauna meadow and pool is a vegetable garden and a small shed.  

I explored the entrance beds, enjoying the small, feathery, yellow spikes of gray goldenrod as they blended into larger clumps of mountain-mint and tall, white billows of hyssop-leaved thoroughwort.  Species like hyssop-leaved thoroughwort, short-toothed mountain-mint, gray goldenrod, early goldenrod, common yarrow, spotted bee-balm, butterfly weed, and New-England aster were most striking at this time of year.  Underneath these, grew many other less obvious prairie species, such as Pennsylvania sedge and Carolina rose, adding to the richness of the garden.  The plants in this section, as well as those in the uncompleted mega-fauna meadow, were closely modeled after the nearby acidic prairies at Albemarle County’s Preddy Creek Park.  Indeed, the mega-fauna meadow project will attempt to mostly use seeds gathered from Preddy Creek Park, making it a true extension of that local native ecosystem, whereas the entrance prairie beds use plants from a wider region.

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The entrance bed prairie with New-England aster and hyssop-leaved thoroughwort

Walking through Khabira’s gardens, I felt like the air was alive with the vitality of native insects.  As they zipped by, their tiny air currents brushed my skin.  Glistening, iridescent, colorful wasps and beetles, glittering like gems, crawled on flowers.  A bright yellow clouded sulphur butterfly sipped nectar from an orange butterfly weed.  I saw more than six species of wasps, eight species of butterflies, and innumerable hoverflies, native bees and beetles.  When I looked around, at any given time, there might have been more than ten bugs on any tiny bit of flower.  Native ecosystem modeling leads to this abundance by carefully selecting  native plants sourced as locally as possible, and by creating  the conditions needed for the plants to thrive, such as periodic disturbance and the reduction of invasive weeds.  Such careful attention to detail allows the natural community, in this case, Piedmont prairie, to establish, laying a firm foundation for maintaining and increasing biodiversity.

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Clouded sulphur on butterfly weed

I walked around the side of the house, to the next garden area, the alluvial floodplain-modelled garden, a water catchment system from the roof.  Khabira told me this was her favorite part of the gardens.  Rachel, the CUH employee who designed and planted this section, said that when she does an installation, she first chooses plants based on their tolerance or need for the varying moisture conditions present in swale gardens.  Within those habitat parameters, she enjoys considering “growth form, bloom time, and color, and painting with the plants on the ground.” She also pointed out that over time, new native species arrive on their own and add tremendously to the planned richness of the garden.  Looking at the alluvial floodplain garden, I could easily see how her skill has payed off.  Massive clumps of hollow joe-pie weed, cardinal flower, blue mistflower, white turtlehead, and cut-leaf coneflower created explosions of reds, blues, and yellows.  Behind the intense wildflowers, thick mats of bottlebrush grass and various other sedges and rushes formed a solid backdrop.

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Swale planting

Khabira heard about CUH from a friend who had hired them in 2012.  She was very impressed with her friend’s beautiful wildflower garden, and with how CUH provides a plant list specific to each location’s needs.  When she moved into her new house two years ago, she decided to plant her gardens for their beauty and ecological value as thriving native plant communities.   I asked her if she had had any early experiences in life that led to her love of nature, and ultimately contributed to her decision to plant the gardens.  She said that she would never forget a particular afternoon when she was about 8 years old, and really noticed the life and environment around her.  She called this “an indelible experience with the interconnectedness of all things,” and said that she could “feel the pulsing of the earth and how we were all really one being.”  Khabira’s gardens serves as a visual and living symbol of her deep love of nature and desire to contribute to the greater world.  

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Gray Hairstreak on clustered mountain-mint

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.  

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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.  

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.