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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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.

 

 

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)

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.

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Pink Lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

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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.

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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.

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Bulbous Bittercress

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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.

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Yellow root

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Leatherwood

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.

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Fire Pink

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Green-and-gold

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.

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Southern Pygmy Club-tail