Quarry Gardens: Ecosystem Modeling Under Geological Constraints


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.


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.


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.

Invasive Species Assessment_Ultramafic Prairie.JPG

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.


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.


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.

Mexican Butterflies at the National Butterfly Center

On our last day in Texas, we visited the famous National Butterfly Center (NBC), located near McAllen, to search for south Texas butterflies and odonates.  The NBC is a huge native plant garden, managed for the incredibly diverse butterfly fauna of south Texas.  To date, they have recorded 235 species on the one hundred acre property, which is probably more than anywhere else in the United States.  When we stepped out the back door of the center into the gardens, butterflies swarmed everywhere.  I watched more than one hundred queen butterflies clustered on a flower-laden bush.  Lesser numbers of monarchs and soldiers were mixed in with the queens.  Smaller sulphurs, skippers, crescents and hairstreaks darted through the air around us.  Many of the species that were most common there were nearing the northernmost extent of their range, making them special prizes for the butterfly enthusiast that doesn’t plan on going to Mexico.  All the new and exotic looking butterflies made it hard to concentrate on photographing just one species at a time.  As soon as one of the more abundant species, such as a little yellow, or a large orange sulphur landed, something else of interest would fly right in front of my face.


The little yellow (Pyrisitia lisa) is not one of the “south Texas specialty” butterflies, having a range that extends across much of the East, but it was still the first time I had seen one.

We wandered through the garden towards a trickle of water coming out of the woods, which we hoped would hold some dragonflies.  Sure enough, as we approached we saw rosette and carmine skimmers flying long fluid loops above it.  When we inspected the pool more closely, we found a desert firetail perched on a rock.  I slipped my leg into the pool to get closer for a photograph of this completely red southwestern damselfly.  Suddenly, I began to feel movement on my legs.  Looking down, I realized I’d stepped in a fire ant nest for the second time in two days.  I was able to get them off me before they really started to hurt, but so much for my desert firetail photos.  A dazzling mallow scrub-hairstreak perched in perfect lighting nearby quickly made up for it, though.


Mallow Scrub-hairstreaks (Strymon istapa) can only be found in the United States in south Texas and south Florida.

We turned away from the open gardens, onto a sand trail that led through subtropical hackberry woodlands.  We saw logs, coated in some sort of sugar goop, propped up next to the trail every hundred feet or so.  These logs were always swarming with tropical leafwings and hackberry and tawny emperors.  Occasionally, a three-inch long, iridescently colored wasp would buzz by or land on one of the sugar logs.  A sign farther on advertised them as tarantula hawks, (Pepsis sp), capable of the second most painful sting of any insect in the world.  They apparently prey mainly on the Texas brown tarantula in North America.  Off to our right, a brilliant blue flash caught my eye.  Turning, I saw a medium sized blue butterfly flitting about, the filtered sunlight glinting off its wings.  It was a Mexican blue-wing, one of the species I was most excited about seeing.


Mexican blue-wings (Myscelia ethos), live no where else in the U.S but the Rio Grande Valley.

Soon, we approached a group of people standing on the trail and looking at something in the trees above them.  They pointed us to a malachite, a huge spectacular butterfly, the color of the mineral it was named after.  Black mottling accented its light green wings.  Unfortunately, it flew off before I could get a picture.  We came out of the woods on the other side into more gardens swirling with butterflies.  Someone showed us a clytie mini streak perched on the tiny flowers of a bush.  Hairstreaks are my favorite group of butterflies, so this little gem was a special treat.


Clytie Ministreaks (Ministrymon clytie), are another Rio Grande Specialty.

We wandered back through the gardens, stopping every now and than to photograph something new.  When we reached the NBC building, we stopped at a little concrete lined pond in front of it.  We knew a damselfly called the Caribbean yellow-face could be found around here somewhere, but we weren’t sure exactly where.  We checked the pond, and to my surprise, we saw a tiny blue damselfly with a bright yellow face zipping away from us.  By mid afternoon, I was feeling ready to fall asleep in the heat, especially after getting up at four AM for the past five days.  We had seen forty-one species of butterflies.  Most of them were new for me, and many of them were very rare in most of the country.  I wasn’t able to include all the pictures I took at the NBC, but if you are interested, you can look at more of them here: RGVBF 2017 flickr.

Birding the Upper Rio Grande Valley

We drove into the parking lot of the Harlingen Convention Center at 4:30 AM.  The huge fifty plus person bus that would take take us west along the Rio Grande Valley into Starr County idled at the curb.  We grabbed the lunches the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF) had prepared for us, and hurried to join our friends on the bus.  We were very excited about this festival field trip to the “Upper Rio Grande Valley” because that area hosts some rare specialties that can’t be found closer to Harlingen.  Particularly, we were hoping to see white-collared seedeaters, red-billed pigeon, and wild muscovy ducks.  Despite these birds being very rare and local Rio Grande specialties, we figured we would get at least one.  In addition, Starr County has large stretches of desert, which host an assortment of southwestern desert species, such as greater roadrunner, black-chinned sparrow, cactus wren, and pyrrhuloxia.

The overcast sky began to brighten as we neared our first birding location, a preserve along the Rio Grande called Salineño.  We walked down an old, cracked road, through thick, green vegetation.  The cool morning mists drifted off the ground, obscuring the old buildings and trees that lined the road.  Our guides told us that we would have to split up into groups to seek the seedeater, because too many of us would scare it.  As another group branched off, we continued down toward the river to watch for red-billed pigeons.  We came to a small boat launch, where we set up our scopes and waited.  Mist rose off the muddy waters of the Rio Grande in front of us.  Audubon’s and altamira orioles called from the feeding station behind us.


Altamira Oriole (Icterus gularis)

Green jays constantly flew over the river in front of us.  Double-crested and neotropic cormorants flew overhead.  We saw northern pintail, gadwall, blue-winged teal, lesser scaup, and the “Mexican” subspecies of the mallard on the river.  We waited patiently for the seedeater group to come back, without seeing a pigeon.  When the first person from their group wandered into view, we asked them if they’d seen the seedeater.  They nonchalantly replied that they had.  We asked our guide if our group could go and look for the seedeater.  He said he didn’t personally have much interest in it, but eventually led the way.  We walked up a trail over sandy bluffs overlooking the river, scanning the cane patches where our guide said the seedeaters liked to hang out.  As we worked our way upriver, we encountered a mixed flock, mostly blue-gray gnatcatchers and orange-crowned warblers, but we also found a Nashville warbler, a Bewick’s wren, and a verdin.  We stared down into the thick cane for hours, not daring to move for fear of scaring off the supposedly super timid seedeaters.  Every few minutes someone would raise their binoculars, and invariably they would mutter “common yellow-throat” as the bird slid back out of sight.  At noon our guide announced we had to return to Harlingen.

The next day, my friends and I decided to make the two hour drive back to Salineño one more time, in hopes of seeing the seedeater with a smaller group.  My friend Max also knew a place nearby where we could get scaled quail, and other desert birds that we had been hoping for on yesterday’s trip.  When we arrived at the boat launch, we were glad to find we were the only ones there.  We walked slowly up the path toward the cane stands, listening for unusual calls and watching for unaccounted movement.  As we stood staring intently at the largest patch of cane, my friend Ander said he thought he saw one.  We turned, and not twenty feet away, in a small mesquite bush, sat a tiny, cinnamon brown bird.  At long last, a white-collared seedeater!


White-collared Seedeaters (Sporophila torqueola) have become increasingly hard to find in Texas, despite being reasonably common as recently as the 1940s.

Just as we all got on the bird, it flew out of the bush, flashing it’s white wing-bars and small tail.  We followed the bird away from the river, into a small, rocky gully, where we suddenly heard a whistled down-slurred “chew” call from the trees above us.  Looking up, we saw the White-collared seedeater perched in another tree.  No wonder we hadn’t found them the day before by looking in the cane stands.  At the sound of another “chew,” we looked down to see a second bird hoping on the rocks.  We watched the two birds forage and chatter for a while, before they flew off across the river.  It was amazing how much easier they were to find without a huge group of people.

As we drove toward our next stop, a nursery specializing in the plants of the south Texas desert called Rancho Lomitas, the landscape became increasingly desolate and arid.  Huge cacti and thorny bushes grew next to the road.  Black-throated sparrows perched on emergent vegetation.  When we stepped out of the cars onto a soil of hard-packed sand, we were greeted by a man named Jim, who told us about the Ranch and showed us to chairs in front of his trailer that looked out on a well-stocked feeding station.  He told us that if we waited long enough, we should be able to see cactus wrens, pyrrhuloxias, and scaled quail right there.  As soon as we sat down, green jays began swooping in five feet in front of us.  The incredibly close proximity allowed me really appreciate their intricate and gorgeous blue, black, and green patterning.


Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)

After about five minutes, a movement behind a large flower pot next to me caught my eye.  A cactus wren hopped out from behind the flower pot, and flew up to a platform hanging from a huge cactus, right in front of my face.  It was a life bird for many of my friends.  Suddenly, something moved in the dense brush behind the feeders.  Than a cute plumed face came out into view.  Before long, there were five scaled quail scratching on the ground right under the feeders.  When someone walked past, they would fly up into a tree above our heads, and slowly come back down.


Scaled Quail (Callipepla squamata)

We watched the birds at the feeder for a while longer, and than decided to bird the nearby roads to see if we could find a pyrrhuloxia.  Sure enough, just on the other side of the clearing from Jim’s trailer, we found the desert cardinal perching in the top of a dense, thorny bush.  Pyrrhuloxias are mostly a waxy gray color, with a bright yellow bill and a red crest and face, and red flight feathers.  As we continued down the road, we heard a Bewick’s wren chattering in the grass.  As we paused to watch it, I saw another bird fly across the road.  As it flew, it flashed white edges of its tail.  When it landed, we saw it was a female lark bunting, a lifer that I had not expected on this trip.


Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys)

When the lark bunting finally disappeared back into the grass, we turned and saw a great horned owl perched on the power line farther down.  We approached as much as we could without bothering it, and photographed it.  What a great end to a great day of birding.

Birding Big Day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Thick mist rolled off the spiny limbs of unfamiliar tropical vegetation as strange calls pierced the stillness of the early morning.  We crossed over a small channel of water, watching for green kingfishers, and then walked into the woods on the other side.  Large oak branches draped in Spanish moss hung over the trail.

We were at the famous Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, located in the very southern tip of Texas.  Birding at Santa Ana and other locations in southern Texas had been a long awaited dream for me, and it felt unreal that it was finally happening. My friends and I were participating in the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival (RGVBF), and had scheduled this day to be a “big day,” an attempt to see as many species as possible in 24 hours.  We had all agreed in advance that we would be extremely relaxed about the pace, as we wanted to have as much time as we wanted with each new species.

As we continued walking through the old, tropical woodland, we heard the calls of great kiskadees, plain chachalacas, long-billed thrashers, and golden-fronted woodpeckers.  Mourning, white-winged, and Inca doves foraged on the ground.  Up ahead the trail opened into a large, wet marsh, called Pintail Lake.  As we walked out on an elevated dike towards the water, we heard American pipits, and spotted a vermillion flycatcher and two tropical kingbirds perched on projecting sticks.  We set down our scopes and started scanning the many ducks on the water.  We quickly found 11 species, including black-bellied whistling duck, mottled duck, redhead, and the lakes namesake, the northern pintail.

As we were about to get back into the cars, a small, gray Buteo flew low over the parking lot and landed in a nearby tree.  It was a gray hawk, a lifer for most of us.


Gray Hawk (Buteo plagiatus), photo by Theo Staengl

I had never been to our next stop, a small city park called Anzalduas, before, but I had heard it was a good place for zone-tailed hawk.  We drove there on roads on top of high dikes overlooking the Rio Grande.  Border Patrol vans were everywhere, but most just waved at us as we drove past.  When we finally got to Anzalduas, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  A far cry from most of the natural areas we were birding in the Rio Grande Valley, Anzalduas was a large expanse of sparse grass under periodically spaced trees, broken only by decrepit playground equipment.  The only other people around were twenty or so border patrol agents.

A local constable drove up and unpleasantly informed us that the road we had driven on into the park was closed to the public, despite the complete absence of signs saying so.  He warned he’d give us a citation next time.   We walked up a side road to another dike, across the park from the Rio Grande that was supposedly a very reliable spot for zone-tailed hawk, and possibly for hook-billed kite.  After several uneventful minutes, two things happened very quickly.  First, I noticed the constable’s car coming up the road toward us, and a large, thin-winged, mostly black raptor, a zone-tailed hawk, flew low over us.  We ignored the constable, and had beautiful looks at the hawk.


Zone-tailed Hawk (Buteo albonotatus)

When we looked down from the hawk, we saw the constable talking with my mom and our unofficial guide, who knew the local area well.  The constable pointed to two huge signs in front of the road we had just walked up, that said “no public use.”  We had honestly missed the signs because we had approached from the side, but from the constable’s perspective it sure looked sketchy.   In the end he let us go, and we hurried quickly off the dike.  The only other notable bird we saw at Anzalduas was a house finch, locally uncommon in the Rio Grande Valley.

Forty minutes later, we pulled into the gravel parking lot of the Frontera Audubon Center’s small tropical reserve.  We walked the short, dirt trails through dense undergrowth, scanning the bushes around us for warblers and clay-colored thrushes.  As we neared a small feeder station near the visitor center, we found our first thrush flock, with about five clay-colored thrushes.


The range of the clay-colored thrush (Turdus grayi) just barely extends into the United States in the very southern tip of Texas.  Clay-colored thrushes and many other predominantly central American species that just extend into the southern Rio Grande Valley are what makes south Texas such a birding hotspot.  These species are often referred to in the US as Rio Grande specialties, even though many of them are much more abundant further south.

We continued on the trails deeper into the woods, listening and looking for warbler activity.  That morning, someone had spotted a tropical parula there, which would be a life bird for all of us.  Soon we came to a wooden platform overlooking a small lake.  Warblers, mainly orange crowned, chipped and flitted in the dense willows.  We scanned the flock to the best of our ability, and were able to add Nashville, black-and-white, and black-throated green warblers to our day list.  We spent another hour roaming the trails looking for the tropical parula, but it proved to be a waste of time.  I was able to photograph a buff-bellied hummingbird, another fairly range restricted species, at one of the feeding stations, though.


Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis)

As we got out of the car at Estero Llano Grande State Park, I was beginning to feel worried we had spent too much time at Frontera, and we wouldn’t have enough day-light at South Padre Island, an important shorebird spot, later in the day.  Evan so, I couldn’t help enjoying the bountiful ducks at the visitor center lake at Estero.  Wild ducks swam peacefully about, clearly used to humans being nearby.  A vermillion flycatcher foraged from a dead stick over the marsh, its brilliant red belly and crown contrasting beautifully with its brown back and eye-line.  We added cinnamon teal and least grebe to our day list.  One of the birds I was personally most excited to see here was the common pauraque, a large tan nightjar of Central and South America.  While it is locally extremely common in south Texas, it is so cryptically patterned that one could easily walk within a foot without seeing it.  We were walking along a dusty dirt road near where pauraques have been known to roost when I almost stepped on one.  Once we noticed it, we were so focused on photographing it, we failed to see two others within a yard of it until some kind older birders pointed them out.  What a weird looking bird!


Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis)

We raced along the highway as the sky became cloudier and the sun sank ever lower toward the horizon.  Our rental car’s tinted windows probably did not help our feeling of impending darkness.  When we stepped out of the car at the mudflats above the South Padre Island Convention Center, wind coming off the Laguna Madre buffeted us and tore at our clothing and scopes.  We hurried over the muddy sand toward distant shorebird flocks, hoping the incoming tide wouldn’t strand us.  As soon as we could, we put down our scopes and started scanning.  We quickly found most of the common shorebirds we needed, along with two piping and snowy plovers.  It was only the second time I had ever seen a snowy plover, and it was a lifer for some of my friends.  We ran back to the cars across what were now inches of water, soaking our shoes.  We spent the rest of the daylight birding around the slightly more sheltered trails of the convention center.  Our list for the day was 126 species, the most I have ever seen in a day.


Fallout at Rockfish Gap

As we drove up the long, winding road to the Rockfish Gap hawk watch, the barely risen sun revealed a striking scene in the valley below us.  We looked down on a solid layer of dark, heavy clouds.  The gap of clear air that we were driving through quickly gave way to more clouds above us, obscuring the taller mountain peaks.

A light drizzle filled the cool air as we reached the parking lot of the Inn at Afton, where the hawk watch is located, and where our young birders club planned to meet for the day’s field trip.   Our plan today was to bird the Rockfish Valley Trail, a local hotspot in Nelson County, and than head back up into the mountains and bird the road known as State Route 610, or the Swannanoa road.  I was even more excited than usual as today’s trip would be the first time I served as trip leader.

When I got out of the car, I heard the flight call of several warblers. Dylan, an eight year old who recently started birding with us, quickly joined my brother and me.  He pointed to a dilapidated, old road sign above our heads, and said he had seen birds in it.  The sign had once read “The Inn at Afton,” but the front had long since fallen off, revealing the sign’s bright interior lights, shining like a beacon to migrating birds.  When I raised my binoculars, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  More than 20 wood warblers sat on and near the sign’s lights.  Occasionally, another would drop out of the sky and join them, explaining the chips I had heard earlier.  Just than, the rest of the trip’s participants pulled up and joined us, making seven young birders total.

We found blackpoll, bay-breasted, black-throated blue, Tennessee, chestnut-sided, yellow-rumped, and black-throated green warblers, northern parulas, and common yellowthroats.  We even found a Nashville warbler in the sign.


Nashville Warbler (Leiothlypis ruficapilla), with Northern Parula (Setophaga americana) inside the sign at the Inn at Afton.  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

We were excited by what this abundance could mean for the rest of our day.  If so many warblers were in such a small area, in such strange conditions, maybe today could be a fallout.  Fallout is a condition where due to sudden, severe weather, large numbers of birds migrating at night are forced down in a small area.  Fallouts are highly sought-after events for birders, as they can result in rare species and unusual numbers of birds.

As the sun rose, the light revealed a more gruesome scene.  Little bodies of black-throated blue warblers and common yellowthroats littered the parking lot, a sad reminder of the many dangers birds face on migration.  These birds were probably attracted to the bright light of the sign and the Inn, and met their death by flying headfirst into these obstructions.

My brother and I had scouted the Rockfish Valley Trail the morning before the trip.  There had been sparrows everywhere, roving about the abandoned fields and brushy hedgerows in large flocks.  We had found five Lincoln’s sparrows, the first two white-crowned sparrows observed in Nelson that year, and tons of song and swamp sparrows.  As we scanned the flock, a strange chip suddenly came from the vegetation by our feet.  Looking down, I saw a blob of rufous feathers fly into another bush — a marsh wren!  Excitedly, we waited for it to make another appearance.  We soon found another one, and enjoyed fabulous views of both.


Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris)

It was the highest number of marsh wrens ever observed in Nelson County.  I hoped one would stick around for the next day’s field trip.

The thick cloud-cover had not thinned out much as we pulled into the parking lot at the Rockfish Valley Trail, a good sign for songbird activity.  We walked under Route 151 towards the Glenthorne Loop trail, which is usually more productive for sparrows.  When we arrived at the field I had seen the marsh wrens at the day before, I was disappointed to see that most of the sparrows were gone, and the marsh wrens were no longer present.  Even so, we quickly found some swamp sparrows, and two gorgeous white-crowned sparrows.  I walked ahead of the main group, and was relieved to have a Lincoln’s sparrow, one of my favorite sparrows,  hop out on a branch in front of me.   Its gray face, buffy malar and crisp black streaking is so beautiful.  I called to the rest of the group, and was very frustrated when it flew off before any of them could get on it.  Luckily, we soon found a few more in with a sparrow flock on the Spruce Creek side, and we all had fantastic views.


Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)

As we were wrapping up at the Rockfish Valley Trail, I spotted a small, dark falcon flying quickly overhead.  It turned out to be a merlin, which was the first one seen in Nelson County that year.  The merlin circled once, giving us a fabulous view, before it shot off down the ridge.

As we drove back toward Swannanoa road and the hawk watch, we felt like we were racing against time.  The clouds were finally beginning to give way, and blue holes were appearing everywhere.  It was also slowly getting warmer.  When we got out of the car at the end of the Swannanoa road, it seemed our fears had been confirmed.  The beautiful Fall foliage was silent.  A turkey vulture soared lazily overhead.

However, a closer inspection revealed our fears that the birds would no longer be active were unfounded.  Warblers slowly foraged every tree, and many were surprisingly close to the road.  We quickly found blackpoll, black-throated green, Tennessee, and Cape-may warblers, as well as unseasonably large numbers of black-throated blue warblers.


Cape-may Warbler (Setophaga tigrina).  Photo by Tucker Beamer.

As we walked farther down the road, we saw more and more birds.  Late wood thrushes feasted alongside more seasonally common Swainson’s thrushes in thick tangles of summer grape vines, laden with purple fruit.  We found a late black-and-white warbler and an American redstart.  Scarlet tanagers swooped over the road, and black-throated blue warblers chipped over our heads.  We eventually also found magnolia, palm, pine, and yellow-rumped warblers.

Our final destination for the day was a golf course in the Old Trail neighborhood of Crozet, where someone had seen a clay-colored sparrow the day before.  We had directions to the clump of pokeweed he had been in, and we soon found it.  As we arrived, Baxter saw the bird hop down into the dense brush.  We waited several anxious minutes for it to return, but we needn’t have worried.  It soon returned and sat preening itself on a poke stem while we watched.  The clay-colored sparrow was an Albemarle lifer for everybody, and a lifer for Max and Drew.


Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida)

When I totaled up our day list that evening, I found we had seen 72 species.  We had experienced a late Fall migration fallout, and we enjoyed ourselves very much.  What an incredible day of local birding!


Pocosin Cabin: Spectacular Fall Migration in Shenandoah National Park

I recently attended the first ever Blue Ridge Young Birder Club field trip to Pocosin Cabin in Shenandoah National Park.  I had heard great things about Pocosin, and I was very excited to finally be getting up to Greene County to visit it.  The trip was well attended, with 11 young birder participants.


Members of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club on the Pocosin Cabin Field Trip

As we drove up the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, numerous species of asters bloomed by the roadside, creating beautiful drifts of blue and white flowers.  When we got out of the car at the Pocosin Cabin Fire Road, the air felt cool and crisp, a refreshing change from the repressive heat of summer.  Around us, the black gums and tulip populars were already starting to change color to deep reds and yellows, while many of the other tree species remained green.  We encountered our first mixed species flock just after we passed the clearing containing Pocosin Cabin.  Birds flew everywhere I looked.  Swainson’s and wood thrushes were common, but try as we might, we could not find the more uncommon gray-cheeked thrush.  Blue-headed vireos flew and sang from seemingly every branch.  Later season warblers foraged the canopy around us, with Tennessee, blackpoll, and bay-breasted warblers being the most common species.  We also saw blackburnian and black-throated-green warblers, and a northern parula.  In a jewelweed-covered ditch next to the trail, a gorgeous brilliant blue, black, and white male black-throated blue warbler hopped and flitted.  Good bird activity continued down the trail, and just as we were talking about how great a Philadelphia vireo would be, Max called from up ahead that he had one.  We all rushed to him, but by the time we got there, the bird had disappeared. Panicked, we started thoroughly searching the abundant blue-headed vireos for the vanished Philadelphia.  Finally the bird was re-found, and everybody had fabulous views as it foraged in a shrub directly above our heads.


The Philadelphia Vireo eating a grub

We walked back up the fire road at a more leisurely pace, stopping periodically to look for salamanders under rocks and in the little creeks that crossed the path.  Aside from many common red-backed salamanders, Carson and Robert were able to turn up a southern-two lined salamander, and some monstrously sized northern dusky salamanders.


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.


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.


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.


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.  


Gray Hairstreak on clustered mountain-mint