Vegetation Map of Naked Mountain is here!

Early last year, I received a very exciting phone call from Gary Fleming, the Senior Vegetation Ecologist with the Natural Heritage Division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. He was calling to let me know that Naked Mountain would be the first Natural Area Preserve to undergo a complete vegetative mapping of its natural communities. Mapping has been done in national parks in Virginia, but never before in one of the state’s own dedicated natural area preserves. I was thrilled that Naked Mountain would be the first, and pleased to know more NAP’s are undergoing mapping.
The principal ecologist on the Naked Mountain project was Kristen Taverna, joined for a couple of visits by Gary Fleming. Kristen collected 59 observation points across most of the 278 acres of the preserve including points at 1080 feet and at the 2000 foot summit. Her work supplemented five vegetation plots that Gary established during visits between 2007 and 2012 within which every plant species is identified. Kristen’s observations are more generally descriptive of the plants that make up a particular natural community type.

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

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


In all, Kristen and Gary identified five natural heritage resources, also known as element occurrences, on Naked Mountain including three significant natural communities and a small population of the globally rare plant, Torrey’s mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum torreyi). You can see a photo of the mountain-mint on the blogsite header. It is the pale purple speckled plant to the far right in the third slide of the changing header.
The two most important natural communities on Naked Mountain are: Central Appalachian Basic Ash-Hickory Woodland and Central Appalachian Mafic/Calcareous Barren (Low-Elevation Type). These are globally rare. But the most exciting floral display on Naked Mountain are the Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon primula). Botanical experts estimate that as many as 10,000, if not more, bloom across the warren of small openings across the Southeastern face of the mountain. And they bloom all at once in early May. I discovered this magnificent nature show myself ten years ago, and as the mapping report notes, it was the catalyst for the decision to complete a conservation easement with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. This story is captured in my memoir which will be published in September. You can get a glimpse of the Shooting Star display on the second slide of the changing blogsite header.
A part of the report that I find very interesting is the soil analysis. I learned from David Spears, Virginia’s state geologist, that the underlying bedrock of Naked Mountain is amphibolite, a metamorphosed rock. He explained that a, not quite continuous, narrow extrusion of the rock extends from Naked Mountain for about forty miles to the Northeast, running under the great lawn at the University of Virginia, that they have dubbed, “the Great Amphibolite Dike.” Looking at the map segment below supplied by the Virginia Department of Mines and Minerals, the dark green line of the amphibolite begins just a little bit west of Elma and also forms the largest “blob” there. That blob is Naked Mountain.

Amphibolite pic
A few years ago I sent samples of Naked Mountain amphibolite to my brother Steve Mabee, who is the state geologist in Massachusetts. His analysis determined that the rock was metamorphosed from basalt, so volcanic in origins. Not surprisingly, then, the soils of Naked Mountain resemble those underlain by other mafic rock substances. Naked Mountain soils are very high in calcium and magnesium and aluminum, in fact as the report notes,” … at the upper end of the range variation for soils weathered from mafic rocks in Virginia, and indicate very high fertility.” This likely accounts for the significant biodiversity on Naked Mountain and the extraordinary display of Shooting Stars.
I hope you enjoy the report and you can go back to the menu bar and check out the plant list too!

My Friend Jean

Jean w. trilliums best 8

Jean Kolb and I have a lot in common.  While we have very different personalities — I am more gregarious, Jean is more reserved — we share deeply held commitments to the natural world.  She and her husband Hal own 176 acres of forested land in two separate tracts in the sharply ascending foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains a few miles south of Charlottesville.  They built a comfortable, modest home for their family on the larger tract halfway up the slope of a mountain that, just like Naked Mountain, rises to almost 2,000 feet Some of the oak and hickory trees at the top of the mountain are estimated to be 200 years old. A delightful creek has carved a storm-influenced path through the upper reaches of the forest and tumbles merrily in springtime close to the house. The rich, north-facing mountain cove they live in teems with life of all kinds — an array of native plants, most long-established, some planted by Jean’s hand; numerous birds, year-round residents and migratory;  a busy often secretive community of mammals that includes a fleetingly seen fox, weasel, or bobcat; a woodrat who trades found items for grapes left in an old shed; families of white-tailed deer,  raccoons, and black bears.  Jean and Hal enjoy their neighbors and live harmoniously with them in a peaceable kingdom.

It is perhaps not surprising that Jean is a writer.  Living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia in the middle of an older forest provides plenty of inspiration.  We both cannot resist trying to evoke for others, deprived of the natural world experiences  we access so easily, what we see, hear and smell. I have written Naked Mountain:  A Memoir  that will be published soon, and Jean has nearly finished her third manuscript called “Watching the Neighbors.” The “neighbors” in this instance are not humans, but forest creatures of every kind. Here is an excerpt  about some little chipmunks whose underground burrow was in a patch of grass outside Jean’s kitchen window.

On a day when all four siblings were out several feet from the entrance, sniffing about and cautiously exploring, one little fellow ranged further out than the others. He began to move around with growing confidence, and his body language said, “Hey, it’s fun out here.” He nibbled at grass stems, a clover leaf, and a tulip tree seed, and everything he found seemed worthy of inspection. The others were not so bold; they darted about within a four-foot circle from the hole, then suddenly dived into it. The daring explorer was, at that moment, six feet away, and it took a second or two for him to realize the others had disappeared. When he did, he raced for the hole, but the grass blocked his line of sight and he missed it. His manner instantly changed to “Oh, my gosh! Where’s the hole?” He dashed about, trying different directions in what appeared to be real panic. For ten seconds—long enough for all kinds of bad things to happen—he could not find the entrance. He charged this way and that, but the hole was somewhere else. At last he found it and dived in. It was probably a lesson he would never forget. Nobody came up again for a long time.”

Our love of the natural world has also engendered in both of us a fierce determination to protect it. Our properties are under conservation easements – Jean and Hal’s with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, mine with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR). This means when we are gone the land will convey to future owners with the easement restrictions intact on the deed.  The easements protect our land against development pressures like roads and subdivisions and, In my case, DCR successfully thwarted an effort to run a 42 inch gas pipeline straight across Naked Mountain right through the precious barrens where thousands of Shooting Stars bloom in the spring and rare flowers bloom in the heat of summer.

But Jean and I also work hard to protect our land from an on-going, also human-caused threat:  non-native invasive plants. We both spend many hours in the woods pulling, and carefully spraying when needed, invaders that could easily overwhelm native plants, destroying  the  web of natural communities that support a fascinating array of life.  It is this web of mutual dependence that Jean’s manuscript illuminates so clearly by describing scenes from the lives of dozens of forest animals, her neighbors.

I have written about my efforts to battle the invaders in previous posts here.  You can read about Jean and Hal’s efforts on the website of the 500-Year Forest Foundation. Theirs was the first forest; now there are seven.  Until recently, many people did not take the idea of combatting non-native invasive plants in forests seriously, so it has been encouraging to have a friend who, like me, was not slowed in her efforts by ridicule such as: “Been out there weeding the forest again?” We commiserate about how overwhelmed we feel, but for us there is no choice; we feel compelled. We compare notes and share techniques.  Here’s one:  to control spreading the seeds from invasive plants herself, Jean told me she often uses a stick to dig out the soil that collects in the deep treads of her hiking boots before she leaves an infested area.  I now carry on old toothbrush in my backpack and use it to scrub the contaminated soil out of my treads after pulling nasty weeds.

Jean and I share something else:  we are both cancer survivors. She was treated for breast cancer six years ago; I was treated for advanced ovarian cancer eight years ago.  We are both in extended remission, perhaps even cured.  Our battles against our respective internal invaders put us back a bit on our work fighting the external  invaders, but we returned to the woods as soon as we were able.  I even backpacked out ten pounds of Garlic Mustard, walking uphill with it for nearly a mile, after three rounds of chemotherapy.  Such is our commitment to protecting the land we love.

It’s really nice to have a friend like Jean.

Update on Naked Mountain Bryophytes

Drummondia prorepens - a tree moss growing on branch of Eastern Red Cedar in barrens on Naked Mountain

Drummondia prorepens – a tree moss growing on branch of Eastern Red Cedar in barrens on Naked Mountain

I know there are a lot of Bryophyte lovers out there!  My facebook post about the visit last November by three field scientists who were collecting and documenting mosses, liverworts, hornworts and lichens in the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve got the most views of all of my facebook posts yet — 240!  Impressive! (See the November 26th post, Bryophytes:  A Whole New Tiny World of Wonder!)

John Townsend, Botanist with the Natural Heritage Division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation and Tom Wieboldt, Curator of the Herbarium at Virginia Polytechnic Institute sent me their findings a couple of months later.  And here they are:

  • Ceratodon purpureus – moss
  • Dicranum flagellare – moss
  • Polytrichum pallidisetum – moss
  • Frullania brittoniae (liverwort) w/ Leucodon julaceus , Haplohymenium triste (both mosses)
  • Frullania ericoides – liverwort
  • Frullania inflata – liverwort
  • Schistidium cf. apocarpum – moss
  • Reboulia hemispaerica – liverwort
  • Drummondia prorepens – moss
  • Bryum pseudotriquetrum  – moss
  • Atrichum angustatum – moss
  • Cephaloziella hampeana  – liverwort
  • Philonotis Fontana – moss
  • Ptychomitrium incurvum – moss
  • Riccia beyrichiana  – liverwort
  • Porella platyphylla  – liverwort
  • Dermatocarpon species? – lichen
  • Asterella tenella (still need to confirm ID) – liverwort
  • Thelia asprella – moss
  • Coccocarpia palmicola – lichen
  • Leptogium austroamericanum – lichen

John’s comment about these species is that none are particularly “odd” (read rare) which may relate to the habitat of Naked Mountain and particularly, the two natural communities where he and Tom collected:  near the summit and in the low elevation basic outcrop barrens. You can read about the barrens, which constitute a rare natural community and an important reason Naked Mountain is a Virginia natural area preserve here. Although the summit of Naked Mountain is often encased in foggy mist as it was the morning these folks arrived, it is generally a dry ridge habitat. And the barrens are a rocky, open outcrop with thin soils that seep in the spring, but dry up in the heat of the summer. Both are tough environments for most bryophytes and limit the number of species that can survive there.

For vascular species, be sure and check out the new Plant List page for Naked Mountain on the menu bar.  Coming soon:  a report on the natural communities that occur on Naked Mountain. The extensive mapping was done last summer by the ecological team at the Division of Natural Heritage. They identified ten discrete natural communities. Stay tuned!

Coming Soon — Naked Mountain, A Memoir; Here now — the Plant List!

As you can see, the Naked Mountain Blog has a new look. The sliding header features views from my house and nearby outcrop barren as well as some of the spectacular flora and fauna that dwell on the mountain. Every time I gaze at these photos I feel immense gratitude to the wonderful people at Virginia’s Natural Heritage Program (a division of the Department of Conservation and Recreation) for working with me to protect these species by establishing the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve.

You can read more about Virginia Natural Heritage here — and note on the home page that 2016 is their 30th anniversary! A very happy anniversary to all the wonderful staff at Natural Heritage!

There is a new page on the menu of the blogsite:  Plant List — just click it and nearly 300 ordered species will appear. The Naked Mountain vascular plant list was compiled by Natural Heritage (VNH) staff with some contributions from me. It’s a work in progress as Gary Fleming, senior vegetation ecologist with VNH, who has visited the preserve a dozen times for research purposes, feels there are a number of species yet to be identified and added to the list.  He feels, for instance, that sedges are likely underrepresented.

There is one species on the list that is globally rare, Torrey’s Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum torrei). It is featured in the header, but here it is up close and personal.

Photo by Gary P. Fleming

Photo by Gary P. Fleming

This mint grows along with Narrow-leaf Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenufolium) and Hoary Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum incanum) in a grassy outcrop barren on the Southeastern slope. All three mints attract a beautiful green butterfly that lives in the barrens, Juniper Hairstreak.

Photo by Megan McCarty

Photo by Megan McCarty

Two other Naked Mountain species are on the watchlist:  American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and one of the seven orchids that are known to date to grow on Naked Mountain — Crested coralroot (Hexalectris spicata). Here is a close-up of the coralroot.

Photo by Gary P. Fleming

Photo by Gary P. Fleming

Another new feature of the Naked Mountain Blog is the page, Naked Mountain, The Book.  If you click on it you can see the cover. It will be published on September 6, 2016 and I will be announcing where and when I will do a book launch event. You can also check back here for updates on media and other events.

How do you like the watercolor treatment on the book cover of the view on the header?

Coming soon will be a tab under “The Book” page for a gallery of photos that depict scenes described in the book.

Hope you are enjoying this beautiful spring season. I will be back soon…

 

 

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

 

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.

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.

 

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!