Master Naturalists Tackle Invasives on Naked Mountain

Before I tell you about what happened on Naked Mountain earlier this week, take a moment and click on Naked Mountain, the Book on the menu bar and read about my new memoir. I will post information about where and when I will be doing a book launch event. And check here for media related to the book and other events. At my book launch, I will be doing readings from the book and will explain how  Naked Mountain became Virginia’s 49th natural area preserve.  I will also discuss important lessons I’ve learned about ovarian cancer, grieving, and remaking a life. I hope you will join me.

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Firepink (Silene virginica) blooming this week on Naked Mountain

Battling invasive plants and animals is the most important task facing anyone who happens to be fortunate enough to own a natural area preserve in Virginia. I suspect this imperative exists for publicly or privately owned natural area preserves everywhere in the U.S. The nature of the enemy may change from location to location, but the need to engage in the war is essentially the same. Ignoring these threats can easily overwhelm the biodiversity of the property, which is why it was dedicated as a preserve — a place that contains and protects excellent examples of natural communities and usually rare species within those communities.

Fortunately I have help in managing the invasives on Naked Mountain.  First and foremost I have assistance from highly educated and trained stewards with the Natural Heritage Program, a division of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation.  Stewards provide essential management services to the 63 natural area preserves in Virginia. As one of the few on-site landowners, they provide me with advice and consultation on how to identify and manage invasives and come twice- a- year to work alongside me to control them.  But their ability to do all of this has been severely challenged by  budget limitations.  As the number and acres of preserves has more than doubled in Virginia in the past decade and the threat from invasive species grows exponentially, the number of staff at Natural Heritage has actually declined.  The Virginia Native Plant Society, a wonderful non-profit organization whose motto is:  “conserving wild flowers and wild places,” is spearheading an effort targeted at boosting budget resources for Natural Heritage.

Another important and growing source of help is Virginia’s Master Naturalist program.  Master Naturalists are volunteer educators, citizen scientists, and stewards of public lands. The Central Blue Ridge Chapter is located in Nelson County and its leaders have always been my neighbors so I have had good help from this source for the past five years. Our focus has been on pulling up Garlic Mustard, an aggressive woodland and forest invasive that can quickly overwhelm native plants.  It is also allelopathic, so its presence poisons the soil so that the seedlings from native trees and plants can’t grow.

I am pleased to report that this spring, in areas of Naked Mountain that used to be infested with Garlic Mustard, we found very little.  It has taken ten years of persistent pulling to get to this point.  I have been so focused on this task that even while I was being treated with chemotherapy for advanced ovarian cancer in 2008, I pulled up Garlic Mustard for hours and carried ten pound bags of it walking uphill for a mile.

Bellwort edited

Perfoliate bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata) blooming this week on Naked Mountain

Another important development in the Blue Ridge area of Virginia is the recent establishment of the Blue Ridge PRISM , or Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management.  It’s a non-profit, citizen led organization that’s focused on controlling invasive species on private lands.  I am coordinating the Dutch Creek Area Stewardship, one of the many local sub-groups that belong to Blue Ridge PRISM.  I will write about this group and its work in a future post.

On April 19th, members of the Headwaters Master Naturalist chapter came to Naked Mountain to help me control a relatively new invasive, Multi-flora Rose.  This non-native rose has begun infesting several areas along my road, including a small, beautiful seep where over 100 spectacular Cardinal plants (Lobelia cardinalis) bloom in August. Led by the extremely competent Chris Bowlen, her husband Gene and friend Jerry Hopkins we alternately dug up smaller Multi-flora shrubs or cut the canes on larger shrubs and dripped 40% glyphosate on the just cut stems.  The latter procedure is not as effective in Spring as it would be in Fall when the plants nutrients are being drawn back down into the root system, but we felt it was worth trying. In the seep we were able to pull up the much smaller shrubs there and so avoided contaminating the flowing spring-fed stream with herbicide.

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Headwaters Master Naturalists (from left) Jerry Hopkins, Chris Bowlen, Gene Bowlen working on Naked Mountain

At the end of 2.5 hours of work, we had pulled or treated every visible multi-flora rose infestation along  the mid-section of my 2.5 mile long road, the only area affected, so far.  While I will need to constantly monitor for re-growth, I am extremely pleased with our result. Tackling an invasive as early as possible helps keep it from becoming an overwhelming problem.

Oh yes, you want to know why a master naturalist group from the Harrisonburg area of Virginia, which is 60 miles away, would come and work on Naked Mountain when they have  their own important local projects? Last month, I gave a talk about the flora, fauna and geology of Naked Mountain to the Headwaters Master Naturalist Chapter.  Several members who heard the talk expressed an interest in visiting Naked Mountain and offered to do invasive species field work as their ticket for admission.  What a deal!

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.

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!

 

 

Special Visitor Comes to Naked Mountain

I had a very special visitor come to Naked Mountain last week:  Lara Gastinger, the principal artist for the Flora of Virginia.

Flora of Virginia artist, Lara Gastinger, on my deck on Naked Mountain.

Lara has received a commission from a friend of mine, a 65th birthday gift, to paint a watercolor portrait of a plant of my choosing.  Since I have so many wonderful plants to choose from on Naked Mountain, I asked Gary Fleming to help me decide.  Gary, senior vegetation ecologist with the Natural Heritage Program within Virginia’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, has visited Naked Mountain several times and knows its flora well.  Gary suggested I choose Phemeranthes teretifolius (Fameflower) because it only grows in the Piedmont on mafic barrens.  Naked Mountain has many of those and several support this unusual plant.  The plant is unusual because each flower only blooms for one sunny afternoon and then progresses rapidly to fruit.  Lara wanted to visit the plant in person to help her complete her portrait.  I can’t wait to see it.  Lara is a truly fabulous botanical artist which a peruse of the Flora will immediately evidence.  You can read more about Lara and see her exquisite work on her website here.

During our visit, Lara and I took a short hike up to the summit of Naked Mountain.  She was interested in seeing the flora that were blooming in the thin, mostly Quercus prinus (Chestnut Oak) woodland that grows in the sparse soils between the lichen-covered rocks.  Below is a sampling of what we saw.

Gerardia laevigata (Entire-leaved False Foxglove). Photo by Lara Gastinger. Click on photo to enlarge.

Campanula rotundifolia (Harebell). Photo by author. Click on photo to enlarge.

One of the tasks I have been engaged in for two weeks is pulling literally thousands of Ailanthus (Ailanthus altissima) seedlings.  I first realized the problem when I checked the area around a tree on the ridgeline that had blown down in the July, 2012 derecho. I found 50-100 Ailanthus seedlings sprouting.  I then began checking all the blow down sights near the summit of Naked Mountain and began pulling dozens up to hundreds of seedlings in each site. Clearly, the damage from the derecho and this summer’s record rainfall has created excellent conditions for the Ailanthus seed bank to explode.  This is very discouraging since my husband and I killed probably 10,000 mature Ailanthus trees over a three year period from 2004-2007.  A check last summer (See the August 12, 2012 post) revealed almost no Ailanthus trees or saplings growing on Naked Mountain and the few that were found were treated with Garlon 3a via a hack and squirt technique around the base of each stem.  To now find that thousands of seeds are sprouting is overwhelming as I must try and monitor infested sites over nearly three hundred acres, much of it on very difficult, steep and rocky terrain.  But I am trying very hard to do this.  

 

One benefit of this lonely task is that it forces me to go out into tough terrain and so I see some interesting and completely new parts of the mountain.  I discovered, for instance, a second drift of Eurybia macrophylla (Large-leaved Aster).  This one is smaller than the one right at the summit that is about 20 feet by 20 feet in size.  Here is a photo of a selection of probably 100 plants in full bloom tucked in and around an old log.

Aster Macrophyllus (Large-leaved Aster). Photo by author.

I also discovered a rock cliff, covered with beautiful plants – grasses, ferns, flowers. on the top of the Northwest slope near the summit.  Several Fringe trees grew on top of the cliff. Here are a couple of photos from that discovery today:

Rock cliff on Northwest slope of Naked Mountain. Photo by author.

 

Rock cliff and Aster divaricatus (White Wood Aster). Photo by author.

 

 

 

Cardinal Flowers Galore!

When I returned to Naked Mountain from another summer family trip, this time to Cleveland, Ohio for a lovely wedding that took place on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie as the sun set and gulls soared overhead calling out their approval, another beautiful surprise awaited.  In a small seep right next to the road and measuring about twenty-five feet by eight feet, cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) were in full bloom.  As I photographed them I counted 87 plants in this small, wet space.  Most summers, this seep in August is damp, but not flowing.  This year much of the Eastern U.S. has experienced above average rainfall and the seep was running like it does in the spring.

Not so wonderful was the proliferation of Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) in the seep.  For six years, I have diligently pulled every blade I could find of this horrible invasive in late August, just before it goes to seed.  I have frequently had help in this work from local Master Naturalists.  We were making good progress:  Every year the infestation was noticeably less.  But this year, maybe because of the excessive rainfall, it was like starting over again –an explosion of the stuff.  So, after taking the photographs, I began a four hour session of pulling microstegium and only finished half the seep.  I will work on this again until I am satisfied it is clean! You can read more about Japanese Stiltgrass here.

A special benefit of spending quiet time doing this not-so-unpleasant task in the middle of a natural area preserve is appreciating being in a natural place.  Three Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies (Papilio troilus) worked the cardinal flowers for nectar as I pulled out the weed beneath them that would harm the plants’ ability to thrive and so diminish a helpful food source for the butterflies.

Naked Mountain Spicebush Swallowtail butterfly sipping nectar on a Cardinal flower.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another one…

 

Spicebush Swallowtails are easy to identify because they have two rows of orange spots on the undersides of their hindwings and they are the only black butterfly to flicker its wings as it perches on a flower. That makes photographing them a special challenge!  Their host plant is spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and sassafrass (Sassafrass albidum) both of which are in abundance on Naked Mountain.  You can read more about Spicebush Swallowtail butterfies here.

Then, I heard the distinctive buzz of a hummingbird’s wings.  I looked up to see a tiny bird that looked more like a bee hovering — checking me out.  I guess it didn’t like dealing with a human in the middle of a favorite nectar spot – it flew off.  I am sure it came back for a good meal after I left.