Early Fall Delights on Naked Mountain

The weather for the past several days has been spectacular!  Low humidity, warm days in the 70’s with bright, clear blue skies and cool evenings drenched with golden red sunsets.  

Yesterday morning, as I sipped coffee on my deck at 8:00 a.m., I heard a commotion in the trees nearby.  I kept seeing flashes of yellow and olive green as several birds worked the undersides of the leaves for insects and called gently to each other in high-pitched sounds.  I grabbed my binoculars and was able to get one of the birds in focus:  Black-throated Green Warblers.  They must have been migrating, on their way from summer nesting grounds in conifer forests further north to the tip of Florida, or Mexico for their winter stay.  I am used to seeing and hearing Black-throated Green Warblers pass through Naked Mountain in the spring on their way North, but this is the first time I saw a group on their way South in early fall.   You can see photos of these small, colorful birds here.

This is the time, if you live in or near the Appalachian mountains, to watch for migrating birds.  Millions of birds, from large birds of prey like Eagles to tiny warblers, follow the long ridge of the Appalachians that begins as far North as Mount Katahdin in Maine and ends in the hills of Northern Alabama.  The ridges of the mountains provide updrafts of air when western prevailing winds hit the mass of the mountains.  Birds that soar and glide especially benefit, saving the energy it takes to flap their wings.  You will often see hawks use this updraft to “kettle” their way up to thinner air and easier travel lanes.  Dozens, even hundreds, will circle around in each other in a stirred bowl effect, hence the rubric “kettling,” going higher and higher.  One September my husband and I witnessed Broad-winged Hawks kettling right over our heads on our deck.  The hawks circled higher and higher.  Suddenly, a rainbow appeared and they literally disappeared into the rainbow!  What a magical moment!   

An excellent book to read that captures the wonder of migrating birds is Scott Weidensaul’s Living on the Wind.   But be warned;  reading it will inspire you to climb up on the roof of your house at nighttime in October, as I did, and scan the face of the full moon with your binoculars to see thousands of silhouetted birds crossing its silvery face. 

There is a new sound in the early fall forest.  Added to the now fading cicada songs and crickets in crescendo is a crashing sound through the leaves every minute or so.  Naked Mountain has an abundance of Chestnut Oak (Quercus prinus) trees and this is a banner year for acorn

Chestnut Oak tree on Naked Mountain loaded with acorns – photo by author

production.  Usually Chestnut Oak acorns on Naked Mountain are about 3/4 inch in diameter.  This year, probably because we have had ample rainfall, they are a full inch in diameter and the trees are loaded.  Many of the forest creatures eat acorns including everyone from mice to bears, so this mast crop is a boon for Naked Mountain denizens. 

I could not resist taking a photo of a late summer Naked Mountain flower:  False Foxglove  (Gerardia laevigata).  This flower is parasitic on oak tree roots and Naked Mountain supports a variety of oak trees.  Consequently, False Foxglove blooms in sunny spots all over the mountain.  It reminds me of tiny golden trumpets.  I wonder what it would sound like if a little chipmunk blew on one?

False Foxgove (Gerardia laevigata) Blooming on Naked Mountain — photo by author

Butterflies Galore!

I have long felt that the most wondrously beautiful structures in nature that most of us have been exposed to are the petals of a wildflower, the feathers of a bird and the wings of a butterfly.  Last week as I drove down my road on Naked Mountain on my way to a Labor Day weekend trip to the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, I was mesmerized by the action of dozens of butterflies, and other pollinators, as they “worked” the blooms under the power line cut.   I stopped the car and took a series of photographs as they flitted all around me looking for the most nectar-filled blooms.  Sometimes two butterflies would land on one flower and peacefully consume nectar together, while at other times they chased each other relentlessly in a competitive flurry.

Other pollinators were at work as well.  I watched a bumble bee chase off a beautiful big yellow Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, forcing it to fly on down the road to hunt for another flower patch.  I photographed a beautiful iridescent blue bee with yellow striped body gathering nectar; it is pictured below.   Does anyone know what species this is and if it is native or not?   

 

Upper Left: Eastern Tailed-Blue on Tick Trefoil (? variety); Upper Right: Female dark morph Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on dried Queen Anne’s Lace; Lower Left: Great Spangled Fritillary on Field Thistle; Lower Right: Unknown bee species on Hoary’s Mountain Mint

The Field Thistle (Cirsium discolor), a native thistle plant, seemed especially attractive to a number of species, including a couple of American Goldfinches who use the silky down from the plant to line their nests and dine on the seeds which are its favorite food.  

Another favorite plant seemed to be Hoary’s Mountain Mint  (Pycnanthemum incanum).  At least three kinds of mountain mint grow on Naked Mountain.  Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum terefolium) and the rare Torrey’s Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum), occur along with Hoary’s in the low elevation outcrop barrens. The barrens are studded with 100 year old Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana), the host species for the Olive-sided, also called Juniper, Hairstreak.  I once took Dick and Mary Smythe, butterfly experts that conduct annual butterfly counts at the nearby Wintergreen Resort, down to the barrens the first week in July to see what they would find.  They were surprised at the high numbers of Juniper Hairstreaks that were busily nectaring on all three species of mountain mint.  Juniper Hairstreaks are not rare, but they are among the very few butterflies displaying beautiful green coloration on their wings.  Dick said he had never seen so many in one location.  You can see photos of Juniper Hairstreaks here.

You can learn more about butterflies here.

After spending a good 45 minutes photographing the butterflies, I tore myself away.  Alas, I could not spend any more time with these gorgeous, energetic creatures.  Human demands required my attention. 

9/9/12 — Here is the photo of the Double-banded Scoliid Wasp that Gary Fleming mentions in his comment. 

Double-banded Scoliid wasp; photo by Gary Fleming