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.

UH – OH; Car Wreck on Naked Mountain!


Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) blooming on Naked Mountain in 2011. Photo by Gary P. Fleming.

I was traveling back to my home on Naked Mountain last Tuesday after 24 hours of soaking, drenching rainfall as well as a hailstorm that left piles of icy pellets here and there. The rain was still coming down as I started up my 2.4 mile long road.  The road was a mess — gullied as deeply as ten inches in many places and with numerous sizable puddles in low spots. But I kept on. As I started up the steepest portion, I was a little unnerved by a torrent of water coming down the left side of the road, so I erred on the side of caution and steered the car closer to the right side of the road. I failed to see a large, dark log we had

Log that I hit trying to avoid rushing water on the left side of the road.

carefully positioned there during our road work last fall. (See  November 13, 2012 post.)  I hit it pretty hard and came to a crunching halt.  I got out to assess the damage and could see right away that the car could not be driven. The right front wheel was pushed against the back of the structure that houses the whole wheel casing.  I gathered up essentials in the car – twenty pounds of just bought groceries and a few other items – into sturdy bags and hiked three quarters of a mile straight uphill to my house.  Once I had put away the food, I called my insurance company and put a rescue in motion for the next day.

Smashed right bumper and wheel.

The worst thing about the accident was missing a hike down into the barrens to see the Shooting Stars in peak bloom – 10,000 of them!  I had to cancel a visit planned for Friday with Lara Gastinger, lead artist for the recently published Flora of Virginia, who wanted to see the Shooting Star show.  Too bad!

The car was towed to Charlottesville the next morning and I drove a rental car to Arlington, Virginia to spend time with a friend while the car is being repaired.  It will take two weeks.  By the time I get back to Naked Mountain, the Shooting Stars will be done.

One positive note was this:  I wait anxiously every spring for the return of two nesting pairs

Cerulean Warbler. Wikipedia photo.

of Cerulean Warblers from their wintering grounds in South America. Cerulean Warblers are listed as a species of concern by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because of lost habitat in the U.S. and on their wintering grounds. As I walked down the mountain to meet up with the tow truck, I heard Cerulean Warblers singing in two different spots. They are back from South America! It is extremely gratifying to be able to offer these beautiful creatures good habitat that is protected, in perpetuity, under Naked Mountain’s conservation easement held by the Division of Natural Heritage within the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.  You can read more about Cerulean Warblers here.


The Birds have Arrived on Naked Mountain!

Bluebird eggs in the Naked Mountain nest box.

What a day for the birds on Naked Mountain!  This morning I sat out on my deck with a mug of coffee and listened to a very intent Scarlet Tanager singing in the top of trees about 50 feet away right in the middle of the fabulous view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can see that view on the blog header.  The oak and hickory trees are about halfway leafed out so their color is a fresh, yellow-tinged green. I looked through my binoculars to find the bird and there he was – sitting amongst the new leaves, brilliant red with striking black wing feathers against the backdrop of blue mountains.  What a picture!

Also singing and announcing their presence were several very loud Ovenbirds, a Yellow-throated Vireo, Rufus-sided Towhee, my favorite singer — a Wood Thrush and a new singer and song I wasn’t familiar with. The bird was working the brushy growth around the deck. It was easy to see in my binoculars – beautiful bright yellow throat and chest with black stripes curving back toward the wings and black markings around the eyes.  The olive green back had rusty colored streaks on the upper part of the back and neck. What was it?  I grabbed my Sibley Guide to Birds and flipped through the warbler pages.  And there it was – a Prairie Warbler!  I think this is the first time I have seen a Prairie Warbler on Naked Mountain. As I watched the bird in my binoculars, I picked up views of two other birds working the brush – a Worm-eating Warbler and a Yellow-rumped Warbler.  Those are common on Naked Mountain, but it was great fun to see all three of these warblers feeding together!

Then I checked on the Bluebird nesting box I erected in February (See the February 18th post.)  I took a step ladder with me so I could peer down into the box from the top opening.  When I opened the box, the female Bluebird was there, sitting on her eggs, but before I could get a picture, she flew out.  I quickly snapped the picture you see above, latched the opening, and scrammed out of there.  I later saw the pair feeding on crawling bugs in my yard, so I am sure she went back to the nest and is still incubating her eggs.  I will have to disturb her again next week when I will attach the protective cage to keep snakes from eating the hatching babies.

Firepink blooming on Naked Mountain.

I also snapped a few photos of wildflowers that are blooming now on Naked Mountain.  The Firepink blooms in ten small patches in the dappled woods right next to my upper road.  The Bluets

Bluets blooming on Naked Mountain.

bloom along the middle and sides of the lower road, and the Perfoliate Bellwort blooms in many locations on Naked Mountain, but there is an easily viewed two acre patch of it about half way up my road.   I love the bellworts; the stem pierces the leaves so they move in the wind like little, fringed yellow church bells. I imagine I can hear them ringing!

Perfoliate Bellwort blooming on Naked Mountain.

Bluebirds Need Your Help!

It’s time to put up the bluebird nesting box. It’s still winter, mid-February, but the bluebirds will begin checking out housing in a few weeks.

Bluebirds are one of my favorite bird species. They are about seven inches in length and the males have bright, truly blue heads, backs and wings, an orange-red throat and breast and white belly.  The females have a grayish head, back and wings, but edged with blue. They are members of the thrush family, the finest singers in the woods. Their song is a soft, melodious warble that finishes on a slightly lower pitch and with just a hint of sadness to the tone. I love the sight and song of bluebirds so much that I can pick out just a fragment of a song, or a call note, a quarter mile away.

Bluebird Photo from Wikipedia

There are three kinds of bluebirds in North America – the Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird and the Eastern Bluebird which inhabits areas East of the Rocky Mountains. Once plentiful,  North American Bluebirds were in decline through much of the 20th century and their numbers  had dropped by an estimated 70 percent by 1970. The reason was largely due to the proliferation  of nonnative bird species that were cavity nesters like bluebirds. These species, the European Starling and English House Sparrow, outcompeted bluebirds for nesting sites by aggressively attacking them, driving them off their nests, destroying eggs, killing nestlings and sometimes even the adults.  

To reverse the decline of bluebirds, in 1978, Dr. Lawrence Zeleny, founded the North American Bluebird Society to promote the preservation of bluebirds. The main focus of Dr. Zeleny’s efforts was the provision of nestboxes and managing of bluebird nestbox trails. He designed a nestbox that had a small enough entrance hole to keep the larger starlings out, and a hinge on the top so the box can be viewed. The English House Sparrows can still get in the boxes, but Dr. Zeleny stressed monitoring of the boxes and removal of English House Sparrow nests and eggs. The combination of educating the public about the needs of bluebirds, providing them with nestboxes and information for monitoring them has had positive results. In 2005, the Cornell Ornithology Laboratory reported sitings, once rare, of bluebirds all across the southern United States as part of its Backyard Bird Count conducted by thousands of citizen scientists. You can read more about providing and monitoring bluebird nesting boxes here.

Yesterday, I erected a bluebird nesting box on a six foot smooth, round metal pole, attached a baffle designed to keep raccoons from reaching up and destroying eggs or nestlings, and will later affix a metal cage with sharp wire points to keep out snakes. I tried it out on the box, but will screw it in place only after the box is being used by a bluebird, or

Author shows snake guard for bluebird nesing box

other native cavity nesting bird. The birds may be scared away by the cage, but once eggs are laid and nestlings hatch, they will not abandon the box.

I placed the pole and nestbox on the edge of a natural opening in the woods near the summit of Naked Mountain. It is not far from my house and deck, so I can spy on activity, using binoculars, from a distance. I will also monitor weekly to ensure English House Sparrows do not use the box. The spot I picked is exactly the spot bluebirds themselves chose twenty years ago. There was a hollow tree on the edge of the clearing with woodpecker holes on its south-facing side, the preferred direction. The clearing provides the birds with an open area to locate and pounce on crawling bugs. It also provides an intermittent drinking and bathing water source via a bowel effect in the rock formation. A shallow puddle forms there and stays for a few days after a rain shower. I have secretly spied on many kinds of birds, including bluebirds, bathing in the rock puddle. It is totally fun to watch this!  I also provide additional water in a birdbath near the house for those hot, dry weeks in July. 

Author puts up bluebird nesting box on Naked Mountain

The bluebirds fledged two broods for two consecutive summers in that old hollow tree. Then it blew down in a storm. That’s when I started putting up the nestboxes. But two summers ago, my resident pesky bear that I have nicknamed Chobani because he seems to prefer Greek yogurt, predated the nestbox. You can read more about Chobani in the January 28th post on “How To Be Bear Smart On Naked Mountain.” I didn’t put a nestbox up last spring, but Chobani didn’t bother me all last summer, so I am going to try again.

We’ll see what happens this spring. Stay tuned!






Road Work

My road, which has probably been in existence and periodic use for 200 years, is narrow, gravel and 2.4 miles long.  Since it cuts up Naked Mountain through a forest, trees line both sides of it from the beginning to the end.  Invited guests that make it to the top are rewarded with spectacular views of the Blue Ridge Mountains and nice cup of tea (or something stronger) proffered by the lady who lives in the small gray one-story house on the ridge (that would be me).  However, to reap the reward part of this journey you must be able to get up the road.  This is not a problem on foot, but if you are driving, you may encounter a few problems.  A common one is tree fall.  See the August 23rd blog entitled “Stymied.” 

To try and prevent the experience in “Stymied,” my good neighbor Steve suggested we cut down obviously dead trees that look like they could fall into the road.  We set aside this past Saturday to do the work.   Another friend, David, joined us.  The captioned pictures below describe how the trees were selected and cut.   Most of them were additionally cut into logs that can be split into firewood.  We piled these next to the road for later pick up.

Steve cuts a wedge to direct tree fall.



The wedge.

Steve cuts the tree into logs while David holds it steady with a Peavey.







As I have decided, unlike some women in rural areas, I am not well-suited to use a chain saw, I took the opportunity, as we walked down the road to each tree site, to do another

Author cuts sapling with loppers.

road work task:  grooming the sides of the road by cutting small saplings that will eventually impede travel by growing into trees.  I probably cut 250 saplings of varying sizes with a pair of loppers and my sore forearm muscles are confirmation that I did.    

 We cut down a total of eight trees.  As Steve cut the largest one, pictured here, an Eastern Screech Owl flew out of a hole in the tree.  We were all sorry to have destroyed this owl’s home.  But I am confident there are many more large dead hollowed out trees on Naked Mountain and that this owl will quickly find another home within its established territory.  

I do not understand why these charming, small 8-9 inch reddish-brown owls are called screech owls.  They do not screech. Their song is a pleasant descending whinny quite similar to a horse whinny.  During mating season the song is often a monotone trill.  You can download an audio recording of an Eastern Screech Owl from the Cornell Ornithology Lab here.  You can see photos and read more about screech owls here:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eastern_Screech_Owl



Return to Naked Mountain

I was away on international travel for several weeks, and then my regular schedule on Naked Mountain was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy.   But a couple of weeks before Sandy hit, on October 20th, I snapped  the picture on the header from my deck as the sun was lowering.   The fall colors have been beautiful and the sunsets spectacular! 

Today, was bright, sunny and a warm 60 degrees.  I decided to go for a good, long walk down my road.  But before I set out I watched a white-tailed deer, a young, two-point buck, making his way gingerly through the yard.  The creature was so graceful, but unfortunately also destructive.  When there are too many deer their browsing of tender tree shoots can keep a forest from regenerating.  On Naked Mountain, I have noticed that a number of wildflowers  have been diminishing due to deer browsing.  At the urging of the Virginia Natural Heritage Program stewards who help me manage the preserve, I have arranged for a neighbor to hunt deer.  Steve, who is featured in the August 23rd Blog entitled, “Stymied,” is a very experienced and safe hunter.  He has erected two deer stands on the preserve and he has already spent a few days hunting this fall season on Naked Mountain.  Even though I want deer controlled on Naked Mountain to protect forest habitat for all the myriad species that depend on it, I did whisper to the gentle creature tiptoeing through my yard to, “Watch out for Steve!” 

 On my walk down the road I saw, and heard, some other denizens of Naked Mountain.  A Pileated woodpecker was noisily working the trees, jerking its way up one side, then winding around the back of the tree and jerking its way up to the top speaking loudly the whole time.   I often see pairs or threesomes of these striking woodpeckers on Naked Mountain.  They remind me of flying dinosaurs with their long, pointed beaks and their bony

Pileated Woodpecker (Stock photo)

red-crested profile that is exaggerated by the black and white stripes on their cheeks and necks. Pileateds need about 300 acres of forest to successfully breed.  I love seeing them in pairs on Naked Mountain.   It is direct confirmation of the importance of establishing a natural area preserve and working to protect the habitat that allows this species to survive even though it means destroying some members of other species that are in harmful abundance.

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