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!