Naked Mountain Visit by Three Vegetation Ecologists

I feel like the most fortunate person in the world!  On May 6th, vegetation ecologists from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage (DCR-DNH) came to Naked Mountain.  Here they are:

From Left: Kristin Taverna, Gary Fleming, Karen Patterson taking a photo of Spring Forget-me-not, Myosotis verna

The principal reason for the visit was to introduce Kristin Taverna to the Naked Mountain preserve because, over the summer months, she is going to conduct vegetative mapping of the whole preserve! I am very excited about this endeavor as we will then have a real sense of the different natural communities across the whole preserve. We will not only understand even more than is known now about the two important, and globally rare, natural communities that have long been identified on Naked Mountain, but will also learn about areas no professional ecologist or botanist has yet seen.

Plant communities in the two areas that Natural Heritage staff, especially vegetation ecologists Gary Fleming and Karen Patterson, have visited many times are:  Mountain/Piedmont Basic Woodlands and Low-Elevation Basic Outcrop Barrens. You can read more about these specific natural communities on the DCR-DNH website here. But to get a sense of the process and prodigious ecological data gathering behind the development of these natural community classifications, read the background on the effort here.  In brief, the classification is based on data collected from 4,500 standardized plots in much of the varied topography across the state and also the region. The resulting classification hierarchy that has been developed has four levels:

1) Systems:  based on gross hydrologic features e.g, Terrestrial, Palustrine, Estuarine, and Marine

2) Ecological Class: “…based primarily on gross climatic, geographic, and edaphic similarities, e.g., High-Elevation Mountain Communities or Non-Alluvial Wetlands of the Coastal Plain and Piedmont.”

3) Ecological Community Group: “… based on combinations of topographic, edaphic, physiognomic, and gross floristic similarities. This level is comparable to the level at which many natural community classifications define their basic units, e.g., Northern Red Oak Forests or Low-Elevation Basic Outcrop Barrens.”

4) Community Types:  “… are the fundamental units of the classification system and are nested within the Ecological Community Groups.” Virginia ecologists assess all vegetative layers in determining community types:  canopy/tree, understory, shrub and herbaceous.

The extensive plot data that Virginia’s Natural Heritage program has compiled is also being used in combination with similar data from other states to define the ecological communities of North America and then rank them with regard to rarity and conservation status/needs. The ranking system begins with Global/State rankings established through NatureServe of the rarity of specific natural resources found at  given sites and then a B ranking is given based on the G/S rankings that signals the site’s overall biodiversity significance. G1/ S1 rankings mean critically imperiled and G5/S5 mean demonstrably secure. Here, for example, is how the Naked Mountain NAP is described by DCR-DNH in a recent letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) with regard to the proposed Atlantic Coast Natural Gas:

The Naked Mountain Conservation Site is located immediately adjacent to the centerline. The Naked Mountain Conservation Site has been given a biodiversity significance ranking of B2, which represents a site of very high significance. The natural heritage resources of concern at this site are:

 Pycnanthemum torreyi  Torrey’s Mountain-mint  G2/S2?/SOC/NL

Central Appalachian Basic Ash – Hickory Woodland  G2/S2/NL/NL

Central Appalachian Mafic/Calcarous Barren (Low-Elevation) G2/S2/NL/NL               

Inner Piedmont/Lower Blue Ridge Basic Oak – Hickory Forest  G3G4/S3S4/NL/NL”                                             

When Kristin is done with her work, all the ecological community groups, based on the community types within them, will be mapped in color for the boundaries of the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve. I can’t wait!

But below is a photo senior DCR-DNH vegetation ecologist, Gary Fleming, took of an ecological value on Naked Mountain that isn’t fully captured in any classification system. In fact, the tens of thousands of Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) on Naked Mountain, that bloom all at once like a conducted orchestra (One, two, three:  Bloom!), aren’t noted as a community type species for Low-Elevation Basic Outcrop Barrens. It is just one of those unique happenings in nature that is a wonder to behold!

Shooting Stars (Primula meadia) blooming a few weeks ago in one of the barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

A close-up of one of the Shooting Stars (Primula meadia) blooming a few weeks ago on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

 

Dear Tim,

My husband, Timothy Bell

It has been six years since your spirit left the Earth on this day in May.  I wanted to write to you and give you an update on how things are here on Earth.

First, the most important news is that your beloved daughter, Susan, is getting married on June 27th. She is marrying Steven.  You remember Steven:  steady, supportive, a rock under Susan’s sometimes slippery feet. The wedding will be at Helen’s house. They will take their vows under a gazebo by the pool surrounded by cascading roses.  You will be there in our hearts, but you are also welcome to eat cake and drink champagne!

     I am okay.  It has been six and a half years since I finished chemotherapy and I have not had a recurrence of my cancer.  In fact, I have done so well that my Hopkins’ oncologists discharged me from their care at the five year mark. I live now like a freed prisoner cherishing my unbelievable good luck. If only you could have shared in that providence and stayed with me. So unfair…
     Do you remember when your life was ebbing away, in the intensive care unit at Hopkins, you told me I should re-marry?  You said, “You will be sad for awhile, but then you will meet someone else and move on.”  Well, I am still sad, but the worst of the grieving finally subsided three and a half years after you left the Earth. You are still with me; I will never stop loving you, or missing you.  But, I want you to know that I have moved on, although wonderful widow’s groups I have found in books and on-line would replace that phrase with “moved forward” because we never leave behind our beloved deceased spouses.  I think you would be amazed, surprised, and pleased with who my new love is.
     Do you remember how you used to say, as we drove up our long gravel road to our beautiful little house on Naked Mountain:  “This is the place where all is well, and that Is all?” All is still well on Naked Mountain, but there have been some challenges. Last year around this time I received a letter from a subsidiary of Dominion Power telling me they wanted to access our property to conduct a survey for placement of a 42 inch natural gas pipeline. Their map showed it coming right across the top of the mountain about 150 feet from the house. Panicked, I called Natural Heritage and they went to work. Engaging their parent agency, the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), they met with Dominion, and followed up several times, telling them that the pipeline must not come across Naked Mountain, that it is one of their dedicated Natural Area Preserves.  So far, Dominion appears to have honored that request and I have heard nothing further.  Our passion to protect Naked Mountain, “in perpetuity,” by following through with the easement with DCR-Natural Heritage was tested to the limit and it looks like it has been sustained.  We did a very good thing!
     But Dominion still intends to build this massive pipeline and run it through 550 miles of Virginia, devastating  pristine forest, streams and wetlands, people’s farms, homes and places of business.  It has proposed several possible routes, one would cut right through the back of the Acorn Inn – remember how we used to stay there, with Kathy and Martin Versluys, when we were building the house? Some routes cut through John Ed Purvis’ farm at the base of Naked Mountain. Do you remember how kind he was to arrange to get us a “land use” tax rate? One route would plow through the end of our dear friends’ Chapin and Janice’s driveway, steps away from their house.  If that happens they will move; I will miss them terribly.
     Why is this happening?  Believe it or not this seems to be the unforeseen consequence of good climate change policy. Under President Obama’s second administration – he was re-elected by a wide margin – stringent carbon emission policies have been developed that will effectively shut down dirty, polluting coal fueled power plants.  Facing this prospect (the regulations are under legal challenge), companies like Dominion are scrambling to take advantage of new drilling technologies that allow them to access previously untapped riches of natural gas locked in shale formations far beneath the Earth’s surface.
     Is this fracked natural gas cleaner? Probably not. Methane is considered a significantly more harmful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and methane is released directly into the atmosphere during  the fracking extraction process.  In addition, leaking of natural gas that occurs during transport, and processing offers significant polluting opportunities to both air and water while adding to global warming.
     Could Dominion turn to clean solar or wind technologies instead?  Yes, but they think spending billions on fracking, building pipeline infrastructure, and processing is more profitable right this minute. They are not investing in logical, sustainable future technologies, even though those technologies are now coming on fast and are challenging power companies that fail to take the lead in production in sun-drenched states like Arizona.
     You should know that sleepy, charming Nelson County is fighting this pipeline like a pack of ferocious lions. I have never, in my entire professional lobbying career, seen anything like it! We are all in this together, fighting side-by-side.  And who knows, we may just win.  It won’t, and hasn’t been, easy because, as you know perhaps better than anyone, the United States is not a democracy that is “of the people, for the people, by the people.”  Long ago, money in politics began corrupting this process, the corruption now accelerated by the Supreme Court’s decision in the “Citizens United” case.  Our country is run by wealthy individuals and corporations.  In fact, you would be gratified to know that, a few months ago,  political scientists at Princeton University published a well-designed study of the political power structure in the United States and formally declared our system of government an oligarchy.  Believe me, no one in Nelson County is surprised by this.
     But here is some good news. Natural Heritage ecologists, botanists and stewards have visited Naked Mountain often over the years since you have been gone. The stewards have helped me manage the invasives, an on-going head-ache that I know you remember well.  The ecologists and botanists have been establishing vegetation plots to study changes over time, and re-found , then marked with GPS, the rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint in the barrens. That was an exciting day!
     And later this week two ecologists will come to Naked Mountain to begin a wonderful project:  they will do vegetative mapping of the entire preserve! Natural Heritage got a grant to do this as a pilot project and then decided, for a lot of reasons, to do it on Naked Mountain:  close to Charlottesville where the principal vegetation ecologist on the project lives; manageable size; not too disturbed by invasives.  Do you know what this means?  When they finish their work over the course of the summer, we will know every single tree species, shrub layer species, and herb layer species that grows in the entire preserve! Isn’t that fabulous?
      And… I am nearly done with my memoir.  You remember. I started it when I was diagnosed fearing I would not live long enough to write the story of how we bought the mountain, or as you liked to say, how you bought the mountain for me; how we kept encountering charming creatures that lived there; how we discovered the thousands and thousands of Shooting Stars and how, fueled by our growing conservation passion, we sought out Natural Heritage to help us protect it forever.  I have been working on the memoir with a wonderful editor and we are nearly done. I am very hopeful it will be published!  Guess what it’s called:  Naked Mountain.
     I have also developed a powerpoint presentation about the mountain called, “Naked Mountain:  The Delights and Challenges of Owning One of Virginia’s Natural Area Preserves.”  It is multi-media, featuring some interesting video clips, audio of bird sounds and some gorgeous photos that Gary Fleming, one of the wonderful ecologists that comes to Naked Mountain, has shared.  It also features some of my own photos.  My new love has been helping me learn how to take pictures. I enjoy trying to capture the blossoms, especially the context they show up in — their space. I give the talk to the various chapters of the Virginia Native Plant Society.  It has been well-received and I absolutely love doing it.
     Do you remember when we first learned your pancreatic cancer diagnosis and I was so terrified at the thought of losing you?  To comfort me you said, “Scatter my ashes among the wildflowers; that way I will always be with you.”  Susan and I did as you directed.  Here you are, growing so beautifully in the small barren right near the house:

Lyre-leaved Rock cress (Arabidopsis lyrata) and Spiderwort (Tradescantia)

Until next time, my love,

Marcia

 

 

See What’s Blooming on Naked Mountain

Early Saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis)

After finally finishing pulling the major patches of Garlic Mustard on Naked Mountain, I took a little time on Thursday, April 16th to photograph some of what was blooming that day on Naked Mountain.

In the barren near the summit, at about 1950 feet elevation, there is a lot of Early Saxifrage (Saxifraga virginensis) blooming in mossy layers that forms across the surface of the outcrop of bedrock.  That bedrock is mafic in nature,  amphibolite to be precise.  It not only creates a natural opening in the woodland on the summit, but has chemical qualities, particularly high amounts of calcium, that support biodiverse plant life.  This site is a changing display of flora from early spring through early fall.

On the actual almost 2000 foot summit of Naked mountain, on April 16, Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) was blooming in many spots and in at least one spot was tangled up with still blooming Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica).

Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) growing right through an old tree trunk.

Star Chickweed (Stellaria pubera) and Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) entertwined.

Downey Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) was blooming here and there in the woodland and forest, but there seems to be much less of it than in years’ past.  This photo was taken very near the summit.

Downey Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

The Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia), for which Naked Mountain is “famous,” were about half-way up at this site along the upper road. (When a few people, mostly professional field botanists, know about a natural floral display like this, does it really support the applleation famous?). This site has seeping rock and occurs at about 1800 feet in elevation.  Everything green in this photo are Shooting Stars.  There are about 20 sites like this one across the Southeastern face of Naked Mountain. So, the estimate is there about 10,000 plants altogether.  And, they mostly bloom all at once putting on quite a show!

Emerging Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia)

Here is a close up of Smooth Rockcress (Arabis laevigata) in full bloom taken right at the summit of Naked Mountain.   I am very fond of this plant which is prolific on Naked Mountain because it reminds me of a person with two arms reaching up and out from the center stem, topped by a bowed head that I imagine is cloaked, like a monk.  Huh??   Just what happens when I see this plant, even when it has gone into fruit.

Smooth Rockcress (Arabis laevigata)

I was surprised to see Fire Pink (Silene virginica) already beginning to bloom.  This photo was taken along the road bank at about 1400 foot elevation.

Fire Pink (Silene virginica)

Other things blooming on Naked Mountain on April 16, 2015:  lots of Red bud (Cercis Canadensis), some Dogwood  (Cornus florida) although it has significantly diminished from when Tim and I first bought the property in 1988, and Perfoliate Bellwort (Uluvaria perfoliata) just beginning to bloom.  There is a colony of this plant that covers a quarter acre.

I won’t be back to Naked Mountain until May 3rd, which is the sixth anniversary of my husband, Timothy Bell’s, death.  I would not want to be anywhere else on this difficult day. I will fill it with sweet memories of our times together exploring and loving Naked Mountain.

April May Mean Spring, But It Also Means Garlic Mustard Season

Virginia Natural Heritage stewards, Adam Christie, Shenandoah Valley Region Steward and Wes Paulos, Mountain Region Steward pulling Garlic Mustard 4/8/15 on Naked Mountain. Author photo.

Last week, five of us worked for four hours pulling Garlic Mustard in the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve.  Two of the workers were Natural Heritage Division stewards, Adam Christie and Wes Paulos, and three of us were volunteers.  One, Nancy Muzek, came all the way from the District of Columbia to help me with this annual task. The next day, Janice Jackson joined Nancy, Janice’s husband Chapin Wilson, who had helped us the day before, and me for another two hours of pulling in another area of the preserve.

This was not the first Garlic Mustard outing this year. In March, another helpful neighbor and Master Naturalist, Anne Colgate, joined me to pull the weed in an area far away from the house and requiring nearly a mile hike with a backpack full of weed up straight up the ridge.  Anne is a strong, regular hiker who often tramps up and down mountains, and frequents the Appalachian Trail. Because she does, I had to ask her to either wash her boots, or use a pair she doesn’t use on the AT.  Why?  Because of the presence there of a new, very threatening invasive plant called Wavyleaf Grass.  The seeds of this invasive stick to your shoes and clothing to enhance its distribution.  Since 2005, it has been documented as occurring in Shenandoah National Park, especially along the Appalachian Trail where hikers unknowingly transport it on their shoes.  Here  is an excellent flyer on this new threat produced by the Virginia Natural Heritage Division.

All invasive plants can spread through foot traffic in and around natural areas.  This presents a real challenge for me since I literally live (part-time) in the middle of the Naked Mountain NAP. I now have Japanese Stiltgrass in my parking pad area, and in my front yard, and yet I go regularly into the nearby woods to do what:  pull invasives!  It is not surprising that on the hike into Garlic Mustard sites I have been pulling for years, the weed shows up here and there right along the path I, and my volunteers, walk.  I have started to clean the bottom of my shoes after each weeding session, but perhaps I should adopt the technique a fellow landowner-friend, Jean Kolb, uses:  before leaving an invasive species site, find a small stick and dig out the soil caught in those nice, otherwise helpful, treads on the bottom of your hiking boots.

Anyone else have helpful suggestions?

Here are some more photos from our Garlic Mustard sessions last week:

Forest Floor in a saddle area just below the summit of Naked Mountain: 4/8/15. Author photo.

This photo shows the abundant plant life on Naked Mountain on the forest floor.  Cutleaf Toothwort (Dentaria lacinata) is the most abundant plant in this photo, but you can also see May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum) pushing up, as well as a corner of a Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis).  This same area also has Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense) and Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and, I am sure, many more plants I have not identified as it is a very tough spot to get to and especially get out of. Adam, Wes and I hauled all of the Garlic Mustard out in bags and back packs — probably 150 pounds of it, straight uphill for 200 feet to the summit. As you can see, It was worth it; it is important to get the Garlic Mustard out of this botanically rich area where Adam Christie says the soil is among the richest he has ever seen.

Another denizen that is pretty wide-spread on Naked Mountain:

Downey Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens ?). What is that deeply cut and variegated leaf next to the violet? What else do you see? Author photo.

Here are some of Naked Mountain’s intrepid Weed Warriors:

From the left: VNHP Stewards Adam Christie and Wes Paulos; friend from D.C. Nancy Muzek; Nelson County friend and neighbor, Chapin Wilson,  Author photo.

An finally, the next day, April 9th, on our way out of  a Garlic Mustard site which is lower down on the mountain at an elevation of about 1200 feet, we encountered this charming denizen of Naked Mountain:

Red eft, the juvenile phase of the Eastern red-spotted Newt. Photo by Janice Jackson.

This small 3.5 inch long creature is in the land-dwelling juvenile phase of a 12-15 year life span that starts in the water as larvae and finishes in the water as a 5 inch olive-green newt.  There are no ponds on Naked Mountain, but there are a number of seeps near the spot where we saw this charmer. You can read more about the Eastern Red-spotted Newt here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_newt

Oh, and I heard my first Wood Thrush sing early Thursday morning, April 9th.  Such a lovely voice piercing the foggy mist!

Spring Finally Arrives on Naked Mountain!

Thanks to the effects of human-caused global warming, 2014 was the warmest on record in the western United States and parts of Florida. Ironically, most of the eastern United States experienced one of the coldest winters in recent history, but the actual amounts of circulating cold air were the smallest ever recorded.  Evidence of a cold winter can be seen in the timing of the emergence of the flora on Naked Mountain – about a week late.

But they are coming on strong now.  Here are some photos of spring ephemerals, taken earlier this week, very near the summit of Naked Mountain, so an elevation of about 1,950 feet.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooming this week at an elevation of 1,950 feet (Author photo)

Yellow Flumewort (Corydalis flavula) just beginning to bloom on Naked Mountain at an elevation of 1,950 feet. (Author photo)

Very first Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica) blossom, that had just opened on 3/31
on the summit of Naked Mountain. Notice the still curled up leaves. (Author photo)

Cutleaf toothwort (Dentaria lacinara) in full bloom. This is the most prolific spring ephemeral on Naked Mountain. It literally blooms over the entire nearly 300 acre property. In some places it almost blankets the brown leaf duff with green and white. (Author photo)

This week also saw the emergence of Mourning Cloak butterflies, but not Eastern Tiger Swallowtails or Zebra Swallowtails which usually show up when the spring ephemerals begin blooming. I expect, though, to see them very soon.

Mourning Cloak butterfly (Wikipedia photo)

Bird activity is also suppressed so far. The first “migratory” bird I have heard is an Eastern Towhee. I used to call this bird Rufous-sided Towhee, but recent DNA research confirms the Eastern Towhee is a distinct species from the Western occurring Spotted Towhee. Both species were lumped together and called Rufous-sided. In Virginia, Towhees don’t really migrate great distances, but they will occupy lower ground in winter and gravitate to higher ground in spring for the nesting season. So, for Naked Mountain, I consider them a migratory bird and, this spring, the gentle directive, Drink Your Teeeeee, was the first migrant song of the season.

Eastern Towhee (Wikipedia photo taken in Quabbin, Massachusetts)

Natural Heritage Stewards Conduct Easement Compliance Visit

I had a very special visit yesterday from two of the Natural Heritage Division’s stewards:  Ryan Klopf, Mountain Region, and Adam Christie, Shenandoah Valley Region. It was an assessment of my compliance with the terms of the deed, held by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), dedicating my property — Naked Mountain — as a Natural Area Preserve. The Natural Heritage Division of DCR manages the state’s system of Natural Area Preserves, now numbering 62.  My property, Naked Mountain, is No. 49.

Here is an excerpt from the DCR monitoring procedures document that describes the overall purpose for the visit I had yesterday:

“The legal instrument that establishes a property as a natural area preserve is called a deed of natural area preserve dedication.  For non-DCR-owned properties this deed serves as a conservation easement, requiring the perpetual protection of the property as habitat for rare species and significant natural communities.  These easements specify compatible and non-compatible uses of the property and grant DCR the right and responsibility of ensuring the terms of the easement are upheld.  Easement monitoring is the process of determining if the terms of the easement are being upheld and documenting changes (or lack of change) to the property.  It also serves as an opportunity to nurture the relationship with the landowner, who is a very important partner in biodiversity protection.  Maintaining accurate records on the condition of the property and on communications with the landowner is essential for consistent enforcement of the terms of the easement and long-term protection of the property’s natural heritage resources.”

The terms of our deed, which my husband and I helped to draft and agreed to, are pretty simple:  leave nature alone!

Of course, the one area where we have never left nature alone is in battling invasive species that don’t belong on Naked Mountain.  Natural Heritage stewards and I do that work together.  And so, the main focus of this first time monitoring visit was to check on our invasive species progress and talk about a developing a management plan for their control going forward.

We walked around the property visiting areas where we continue to pull up Garlic Mustard, have pulled up Wineberry and then spread locally gathered Bottlebrush grass seeds, and where we have done cut stump or hack and squirt treatment on Ailanthus trees.. Adam also marked a two acre area near an old house site that is infested with creeping periwinkle to monitor how quickly it spreads.

Here are some pics:

Natural Heritage Division Stewards Adam Christie on left and Ryan Klopf on right. We are on the summit of Naked Mountain.

Adam Christie filling out DCR monitoring report.

Then I took them to see something they don’t normally encounter during their stewardship duties:  a plane crash.  Their response:  ”Cool!”

But, ever the vigilant steward, Adam noted this graffiti on the plane:

Adam notes the date on the plane crash graffiti: 2015!

So… we decided to add another item to the management plan:  clear, painted boundaries and signs around the perimeter of the preserve!

Oh … and the story behind that plane crash?  Working on it.  Have hired a neighbor, Andy Wright, who is an historian.  He’s plowing through 1960′s microfiche of the local newspaper in nearby Amherst County.  That will be an interesting future post; stay tuned.

 

Rare Flowers and Rattlesnakes on Naked Mountain!!

July 3rd was one of the most enjoyable days I have had in 25 years of owning and protecting nearly 300 acres of Naked Mountain in Nelson County, Virginia.  The MOST exciting day of all was the discovery of thousands of blooming Shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in the warren of barrens on the Southeastern face of the mountain.  But July 3rd was second best!  The reason – the preserve was visited by three highly experienced experts to find, on the one hand, a rare flower that exists in only 50-100 sites in the world and, on the other hand, gestating and possibly den sites for timber rattlesnakes!

The rationale for the joint expedition arose because on two previous occasions when Gary Fleming, Senior Vegetation Ecologist with the Natural Heritage Division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and I ventured down into the barrens to try and find the rare flower – Pycnanthemum torreyi, or Torrey’s Mountain Mint – we were stopped by the rattlesnake pictured below.

Timer Rattlesnake in barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

For the plant search, Gary engaged a colleague at Natural Heritage, Chris Ludwig, Chief Biologist at DCR-Natural Heritage and an author of the recently published Flora of Virginia. Chris had found the Torrey’s Mountain Mint in 2005 when he first explored the barrens of Naked Mountain, along with several local colleagues, to see if the vegetation there, and other ecological features of the property, warranted protection by the state of Virginia. Chris was puzzled by a few mountain mint plants that differed from the two other mountain mint species blooming in the barrens. He was unsure if it was truly Torrey’s or a hybrid. He took a specimen back to Richmond and showed it to Gary.  Gary was convinced it was not a hybrid, but the very rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint found in just 14 limited sites in Virginia and ranked as a G2, “imperiled” by Natureserve. He has wanted to “re-find” it ever since and send a specimen to the herbarium for documentation.  Like the Shooting stars, this would be a “first” for Nelson County.

For the timber rattlesnake search, Gary engaged a different colleague, William “Marty” Martin, a retired federal park ranger who is the mid-Atlantic’s best timber rattlesnake expert.  He has conducted research for 35 years in Northern Virginia in the Bull Run Mountains under the auspices of the Bull Run Mountains Conservancy.  You can read more about Marty’s research and the knowledge he has contributed to our understanding of this fascinating species that is quickly disappearing from its home range in the Piedmont of Virginia and surrounding states here.  It was a privilege to have Marty and his Bull Run Mountains Conservancy colleagues on Naked Mountain last week.

Here is a group photo of our joint expedition:

Our July 3rd expedition (please note snake chaps!): Left to Right — Anna Ritter, BRM Conservancy; Michael Kieffer, Ex. Dir. BRM Conservancy; Lance Benedict, Assistant to Mr. Martin; author; Chris Ludwig, Chief Biologist, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; Adam Christie, Steward, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; Gary Fleming, Senior Vegetation Ecologist, VA DCR-Natural Heritage Div.; William Martin, Herpetologist/Timber Rattlesnake expert.

So what did we find?  PYCNANTHEMUM TORREYI!!  As in 2005, there were only three mature, blooming plants and a few immature stems.  Here are two photos by Gary Fleming.

Pycnanthemum torreyi blooming in the barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming.

Close-up of Pycnanthemum torreyi on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming.

We also found TIMBER RATTLESNAKES!!  One large pregnant female was found in a different site than Gary and I discovered three years ago.  She disappeared under a rock before we could photograph her.  She never rattled at anyone, just took cover.  Then Marty took his crew to a neighbor’s property that has the largest open barren on the Southeastern face of Naked Mountain.  There they found another pregnant female rattlesnake that also ducked under a rock.  Nearby was a pregnant copperhead.  Both were basking in the sun on the rock outcrop before being disturbed by the search crew.

So, a very successful day – one of the best!  A friend videotaped the expedition and interviewed Marty, Lance and Michael about their research efforts and understanding of timber rattlesnakes, and Chris and Gary about Pycnanthemum torreyi.  I will be posting the video on this website in the coming weeks (or months) once it is edited.

Gary took a few more photos of other plants blooming in the preserve.  The Milk Vetch (Astragalus Canadensis), according to the Flora of Virginia, is rare in the mountains and infrequent in the Piedmont and on the Coastal Plain.  Nevertheless, it is blooming in profusion under my powerline. The Appalachian Fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolius), which grows in a barren near the summit of Naked Mountain, refused to open up for Gary’s camera, but the picture shows the habitat the plant thrives in – basically almost no soil, dry, exposed rock.  Each bloom, a knock-your-socks off vibrant magenta with 10-20 bright yellow stamens, opens for just one afternoon then quickly evolves into fruit.  The plant is infrequent to rare in the Piedmont.

Milk Vetch (Astragalas canadensis) blooming in profusion under powerline on Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

Appalachian Fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolium) blooming (almost!) in a barren near the summit of Naked Mountain. Photo by Gary P. Fleming

And finally, below is a photo of a plant several of us passed by in the woodlands surrounding the barrens: Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana). This plant really lived up to its name; it was at least four feet tall!

Tall Bellflower (Campanula americana) blooming in the woodland near the barrens on Naked Mountain. Photo by author

 

Fracking Pipeline Threatens Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve!

I am in shock!  Yesterday I received a certified letter from Dominion Transmission, Inc., aka “Dominion” notifying me that they are proposing to run a natural gas pipeline from the fracking fields of West Virginia through precious, unspoiled rural areas of Virginia – including my property – and on to the shipping ports of North Carolina. Here are the key paragraphs:

“I am writing on behalf of …”Dominion” to tell you about a new natural gas pipeline project that Dominion is researching as a possibility for your area. We are referring to this pipeline as the “Southeast Reliability Project.” The purpose of the pipeline is to increase the availability of natural gas supplies in parts of the Southeast, including Virginia, thereby helping promote stable energy prices and economic development.

Typically, the first step in a new project is to conduct surveys and environmerital studies along a potential route corridor. Your property has been identified as being in this corridor and we are notifying you so that we can begin keeping you informed throughout this process and because surveys will be conducted on your property.”

The letter goes on to request my permission to conduct the survey, but this is merely a polite formality.  I am told maps of this project bring the pipeline up over the top of Naked Mountain and right through the barrens where the beautiful Shooting Stars bloom and where the rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint grows.

Here are some photos, taken this spring, of what is threatened by this project:

Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) blooming with Small-flowered Phacelia (Phacelia dubia) in the barrens on Naked Mountain. Many thousands bloom in a warren of barrens across the Southeastern face of Naked Mountain. Click on photo to enlarge.

Small-flowered Phacelia (Phacelia dubia) was blooming in profusion in many open spots across Naked Mountain this spring. Click on photo to enlarge.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginia) and Phacelia blooming in the barren on the ridge top near my home.

Yellow Pimpernel (Taenidia integerrima) blooming along my upper road.

Fortunately for me, and for the plants, birds and animals that call Naked Mountain their home, my property is under conservation easement with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.  As one of the state’s designated Natural Area Preserves, my property is protected from “takings” for energy transmission lines and pipelines, but not without a fight.  I also intend to join Friends of Nelson (County) to help all the citizens that live in this beautiful, rural area fight this pipeline proposal.  If you want to help, search google for Friends of Nelson which will have a web site up and running very soon.

 

Woodcock Encounter During Garlic Mustard Pull

You never know what surprises you may encounter when you venture out deep into the spring woods of Virginia.

Female American Woodcock laying very still in the leaf litter on Naked Mountain hoping I don’t see her. She has one chick huddled near her — see the photo below

Yesterday’s walk in the woods was mission driven.  It was the scheduled date for my steward, Ryan Klopf, from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program (DCR-VNHP), to help me pull Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolara) on Naked Mountain.  Garlic Mustard is an aggressive invasive plant that thrives in Virginia’s forests and woodlands and can easily overwhelm native species if it is not dealt with.  Fortunately, it is easy to pull out of the ground, but this must be done before it goes to seed and the entire plant must be removed from the site it has invaded.  You can read more about Garlic Mustard here.

Ryan arrived with a very special visitor, Adam Christie, the newly hired DCR-VNHP steward for the recently established Shenandoah Valley stewardship region. Adam will be my new steward for the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve, and an immense help to Ryan and the entire effort that the Natural Heritage Program enterprise is making across the commonwealth. Ryan was struggling to cover an area from Floyd County near the North Carolina border to Frederick County near the West Virginia-Maryland border encompassing 20 Natural Area Preserves, many threatened with invasive species like Garlic Mustard, Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima) and worse.  Across Virginia, since 2002, the Natural Area Preserve (NAP) system has added 29 new NAPs and 35,270 acres, yet the budget of the Natural Heritage Program has been cut over this same timeframe.  A welcome recent small increase in the budget allowed the agency to hire Adam and give Ryan, and the precious lands he struggles to manage, a break.  Now both Ryan and Adam can give the preserves in their jurisdictions better management attention.  But there are many, many additional needs; so much more could be done and discovered and the dedicated staff at the agency is anxious to undertake and meet that challenge.  You can read more about the Virginia Natural Heritage Program and its wonderful work and contributions, including authorship of the recently published Flora of Virginia, here.

Ryan Klopf (left) and Adam Christie (right), stewards with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program, help me pull Garlic Mustard on Naked Mountain.

We arrived at our Garlic Mustard site by making a steep descent from the summit of Naked Mountain down a rocky face strewn with downed trees onto a flat saddle area that links the mountain with nearby ridges.  Adam noted the maturity of the trees at the site; he guessed they were about 100 years old, and the richness of the soil:  full of worms, black and loamy.  Not surprisingly, the flora was exhibiting richness as well – the floor of the saddle was thick with May Apple (Podophyllum peltatum), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) now in fruit, Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata), blooming yellow violets (? subspecies), not yet blooming Wild Ginger (Asarum candense) and emerging Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa). I wish I had ventured down into this saddle to see the bloodroot two weeks ago – what a show it must have put on!  But I plan not to miss the Black Cohosh show this summer.

The forest floor at this site on Naked Mountain where a saddle, extending north about 300 feet below the summit, connects the mountain with nearby ridges. See the text for notation of plants in photo. See any others? What are they?

Then Adam called out to Ryan and me to come see a bird that was sitting completely still on the forest floor, a lone quiet chick at her side.  It was a female American Woodcock!  She and her chick were beautifully camouflaged and her confidence in this trait let me get pretty close to take a few pictures. It’s no wonder she was there – probably using that impressive beak to probe for those plentiful, nutritious worms.  Later, as we moved away and resumed our invasive plant work, she performed a sort of broken-wing display – labored wingbeats, dragged legs – to keep us distracted away from her chick.  We were very compliant!

American Woodcock chick on Naked Mountain. The chick is facing away from the camera; its mother is to its left, you can see her russet brown belly.

You can both read about and listen to sounds of the fascinating courtship behavior of a displaying male American Woodcock here.  Their wings make a distinct twittering sound as they rise up from a grassy area at dusk, or dawn and make higher and higher and tighter and tighter circles and then descend in a zig-zag flight pattern chirping nicely on the way down and back to their initial grassy spot.  All this is for the benefit of a nearly female.  I used to see this behavior while sitting on a bench at the edge of the small barren just a few feet from my house.  But then it stopped; I found a pile of feathers where the Woodcock used to court his lady… sigh.

At Last — Spring Has Come to Naked Mountain

It has been a long wait for spring this year.  What a winter!  Naked Mountain had lots of snow and impeded my progress a number of times.  One time, my car got completely stuck at the very bottom of my road.  I loaded three days of fresh groceries into my backpack and hiked the two and a half miles up to the house in the snow.  It was tiring, but I was pleased with myself that I could do it without too much trouble at the age of 66!

But now comes the reward – spring!  I ventured out onto the summit to look for spring ephemerals.  I didn’t have to go very far; they were everywhere! In peak bloom were acres of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentaria lacinata).

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooming on Naked Mountain.

 

Cut-leaved Toothwort (Dentaria laciniata) blooming on Naked Mountain.

Here is a photo of a lovely blooming patch of Trailing Arbutus (Epigaea ripens).  This is not technically on Naked Mountain, but rather on the banks of Dutch Creek which flows at the Northeastern base of Naked Mountain.  It offers a fragrant welcome to all who make the sharp left turn up my road.

I also checked out the progress of a small colony of Shooting Stars (Primula meadia) on the edge of a small barren on the ridge top near the house and was surprised to see how many were popping up. Six years ago there were only two plants, now there are 16.  So, this colony is beginning to take off.  Naked Mountain is unusual for its massive quantities of Shooting Stars numbering at least ten thousand.

Shooting Stars (Primulus meadia) emerging on Naked Mountain.

I stumble on colonies in various places on the mountain and have been watching the progress of this one near the house.  The soil seems to favor their growth as it has a mafic substrate, specifically amphibolite, which has been metamorphosed from basalt.  So, the soil has higher concentrations of calcium and magnesium, similar to limestone, which is where Shooting Stars are more frequently found.  According to samples collected by Natural Heritage Program staff, it also happens to have lower concentrations of iron compared to most soils on mafic substrates.  I discussed this with Gary Fleming, senior vegetation ecologist with the Virginia Natural Heritage Program (DCR) who posits that since Shooting Stars are a prairie flower, the pathways to its distribution East in Virginia are limited by the barrier of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Shooting Stars must have the right alkaline soils, lower elevations, both of which describe Naked Mountain, and access to a prairie pathway.

How about that railway in the valley at the base of the Southeastern slope of Naked Mountain? Maybe, but it goes South, not West.  So, a delightful mystery!