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.

Sunflowers and Nodding Wild Onion Greet My Return!

Woodland Sunflowers (Helianthus divaricatus) and Nodding Wild Onions blooming on Naked Mountain

I returned to Naked Mountain after a three week absence spent visiting family and friends in New England.  What a welcome I received!  The small barren that is just a short walk from my house up a foot-tramped path is ablaze with masses of blooming Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) and Nodding Wild Onion (Alluim cernuum). What a show!  Tucked in along the edges of the rock were a few dozen Fameflowers (Phemeranthus teretifolius).  They were mostly already in fruit, but a few had pink buds that will open only on a sunny afternoon, and only for a few hours for exactly one day —  that’s it until next year.  Also blooming were a dozen or so Orange-grass, or Pineweed plants (Hypericum genitanoides).

Close up of Nodding Wild Onion Plants (Allium cernuum).

This little barren is such a pleasure – just steps away and a continuing display of gorgeous Virginia native plants.  The trees you see in the background are mixed Chestnut Oak (Quercus Montana) and (I think) Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra).  The small tree that is growing right out of the rock is a Persimmon tree (Diospyros virginiana) and it is covered with fruit. Also plentiful, but hard to see in this photo are Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus).  They put on quite a display in May, but I will wait until then to show this to you. The grasses include Poverty Oatgrass (Danthonia spicata) and other species that I have not yet identified.  I also know nothing yet about the various mosses and lichens that are plentiful in this barren – more fun discovery work!

I checked on the bluebird box and, as expected, it was empty:  The nestlings had fledged.  I took the box down and cleaned it out, disposing of the nest.  Under the nest I found hundred of tiny ants that probably made life pretty unpleasant for the little baby birds. That sort of insect infestation is a common occurrence in nest boxes.  I scrubbed the bottom and sides of the box with a wire brush.  Then I scrubbed it with a sponge dipped in mild bleach solution to disinfect.  I let the box dry thoroughly in the sunshine and then remounted the box – all ready for another brood.

Last evening, while I was dining on my deck as the sun set, a little flock of bluebirds flew over my head. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the little family that had its beginnings a few steps away in the nest box in the small barren where the sunflowers and nodding wild onion are now blooming….


Bluebird Update: Survival Challenge Ends Well

It is time to give you an update on the progress of the Naked Mountain Bluebird nest box.  The new box was erected and discussed in the February 18th post, “Bluebirds Need Your Help.” On May 1st I took a picture of the beautiful nest and five very blue eggs that I found in

Naked Mountain bluebird nest with eggs. Picture taken May 1st by author.

the box and published it in the post, “The Birds Have Arrived on Naked Mountain!” I had planned to screw a protective cage onto the front of the nest box the day I had my car wreck on Naked Mountain – see the May 11 post.  I was waiting to do this until I knew the eggs would be about to hatch so that the mother bluebird would be less likely to abandon her eggs due to the new, possibly frightening, addition to the nest box entrance.  The cage has bent-back prongs on the ends to discourage snakes from trying to enter the box; they will avoid the prongs to prevent injury.  But, the tow truck arrived more quickly than expected to haul my wrecked vehicle off the mountain. And, I was scheduled to be in New York City for five days very shortly, so I drove to Northern Virginia in a rented sedan and did not get back to Naked Mountain, in my nicely repaired all-wheel-drive Subaru Outback, until May 23rd.

Author looking into the bluebird nest box on May 23rd. Photo by David Hopwood.



The day I got back, I hurried up to the small barren where the nest box is and looked inside.






This is what I found:

As you can see, the nest is not disturbed at all as it would be if a raccoon had predated the nest, and there are no feathers, or fluff from nestlings and just some fecal droppings on side of the box that was likely left by adult birds.  It has all the markings of a stealthy snake attack on the eggs with all of them consumed.  The big concern I had was whether the mother bluebird was consumed as well, trapped while sitting on her eggs.  Yikes!

I was very sad about this.  But in the hope that the mother survived and would just try again, I left the nest in place and screwed the protective cage on tight. Then, a few days later, on May 28,  I checked the nest box again.  This is what I found:

Eggs found on May 28th.


Hurray!! The drive for survival within these beautiful, seemingly fragile, little birds is really impressive! I’ll keep you posted on the progress of this nest box throughout the season


In the meantime, here are some wildflowers in bloom now on Naked Mountain.

Tradescantia virginiana blooming on Naked Mountain. Photo by author.


Can anyone identify the species of Penstemon in this photo?

Penstemon ?subspecies, blooming on Naked Mountain. Photo by author.

I am guessing either canescens or hirsutus, but the leaf matches the Flora of Virginia’s description for hirsutus perfectly, while the flower matches the description for canescens.  Can you help?  If you click on the photo, the enlargement allows you to see all the pubescence.

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.

Stunning Spring Ephemerals in Great Smoky Mountains

Upper left – Carolina Spring Beauty, photo by Sharon Samford; lower left – Sharp-lobed Hepatica, photo by Sharon Samford; right – Trout Lilly, photo by author

Earlier this month, I spent a glorious week with the Virginia Native Plant Society in Great Smoky Mountains National Park gaping at what may be the most stunning display of spring wildflowers the temperate zones of planet Earth offers up!  Walking carefully laid out trails along river cove forests, hardwood cove forests and limestone sinkholes, the diversity of the flowers and their numbers, size and robustness astounded the professional botanists among us right alongside the dazzled amateurs.

Our first morning we walked the Cove Hardwood Trail in the Chimney’s picnic area. The cove contained large examples of Yellow Buckeye and Carolina Silverbell trees just beginning to bud out with a literal carpet at their feet of Sharp-lobed Hepatica!  In Virginia, in the Dutch Creek area (see April 1st post) near the base of Naked Mountain, wildflower admirers consider ourselves lucky when we see thirty Round-lobed Hepatica blooming in one area. This first walk in the Smoky Mountain National Park was a display encompassing literally acres of hepatica blooms!  Also blooming were hundreds of Catesby’s Trillium as well as beautiful examples of White Trillium (grandiflorum), Trout Lilly, Lettuceleaf Saxifrage (Saxifraga micranthidifolia), thousands of Carolina Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana), Walking Fern, and Wild Ginger.

The next day we visited the Tapocca Trail, a little known walk that is in the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness adjacent to the North Carolina side of the park. We were led on this walk by Dan Pittillo, retired curator of the herbarium at Western Carolina University.  Here the diversity of both the tree and herb species was outstanding.  Blooming along a trail that ran 100 feet above and along Calderwood Lake, created when the Little Tennessee River was dammed up in the 1920’s, we saw dozens of five different trilliums in bloom:  Red (Trillium erectum), Yellow (Trillium luteum), White (Trillium grandiflorum), Sweet White (Trillium simile), Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum). We also saw many clusters of pretty white Canada Violets, Purple Phacelia (Phacelia bipinnitifida), a few examples of blooming Yellow Mandarin (Disporum lanuginosum), drifts of blooming Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides) and drifts of False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum).  We also saw many examples of Carey’s Saxifrage and Slender Toothwort (Cardamine diphylla).

Triple Trilliums: Red (Trillium erectum), Yellow (Trillium luteum), Sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum); photo by Sharon Samford.

After that spectacular, diverse display Prof. Pittillo next took us to the big tree section of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness area. This national treasure has an interesting history. Early in the twentieth century, as loggers began to rapidly cull the big, old growth trees in the Smoky Mountains and in the areas nearby along the Slickrock Creek watershed, their operations were stopped cold in 1922 with the completion of the Calderwood dam and the resulting flooding of the logging railroad. This prevented a sizable old growth area from destruction. A decade later, the Veterans of Foreign Wars sought to establish a forest memorial to Joyce Kilmer, a poet and journalist who had been killed in WW I.  After considering millions of acres of forest across the U.S., the Forest Service chose an undisturbed 3,800-acre area of old growth trees along the Little Santeetlah Creek in the Slickrock Creek watershed and established the reserve in 1936.  It was this area that we visited. The tree species were very large, sometimes six feet in diameter and 100 feet tall, and diverse. We saw, along a three mile walk, hemlock, yellow buckeye, red and white oaks, basswood, beech, silverbell, poplar and sycamore.

Here is Kilmer’s poem that inspired the dedication of the reserve in his memory:


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;

Prof. Pittillo standing between two giant poplars in the Joyce Kilmer Reserve

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer

You can read more about the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness area here.

Blooming Fringed Phacelia; photo by author. Click on the photo to enlarge the scene and feel immersed in the fairyland!

The next day we hiked three miles along Porter’s Creek Trail to visit a fairyland.  But first we had to cross a troll-like bridge over a raging creek. The bridge, dubbed “the bridge of death” by some in our group, was only 15 inches wide, had just one leaned out railing to grasp, and took a little turn to the left halfway across.  The test of nerves only made the fairyland visit more rewarding.  On the other side of the bridge were several acres of blooming Fringed Phacelia – millions of little lacy white blooms forming a soft carpet under mature trees hungrily reaching for the sunlight before their tall hosts leafed out and cast them into shade.  The bees and butterflies were everywhere.

Fringed Phacelia and bee; photo by Sharon Samford.

The next day of trail walks took us along Middle Prong Trail next to a beautiful, white water river and a logged over area that is in the middle stages of growing back to maturity. Along this trail, we saw Fraser’s Sedge (Cymophyllus fraserianus) in bloom and a patch of 40 or 50 Puttyroot leaves! That will be a spectacular orchid display in a couple of months.  I have never encountered more than two or three wrinkled Puttyroot leaves together on Naked Mountain, or anywhere else in rich woods

On the final day we visited the Siegrists, a couple who are miniaturist artists that live next to the Smoky Mountain National Park. We visited their studio in their home and saw their amazingly intricate artwork done in opaque watercolors with brushes that are thinned to a width of three hairs.  We also toured their thriving native plant garden.

They led us on a walk down a trail in the park that is not yet formally marked on park service maps. The trail led to a series of limestone sinkholes and surrounding valley floor covered with a thick matt of Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata).  The phlox was not yet in full bloom, but was starting its show in many sunny spots flanked by thousands of shiny new May Apples. Here and there among the phlox were white Shooting Stars. They were just as robust as those on Naked Mountain, although not numerous.  Botanists have estimated that at least 10,000 pink Shooting Stars bloom in the barrens on Naked Mountain.  That show will begin very soon.

It was hard to finish this trip to the Smoky Mountains, my first, and leave behind the beauty of the most diverse, stunning display of spring ephemerals I will probably ever see.  I hope you will get a chance to experience a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains in April. In the meantime, visit Sharon Samford’s website here for more fabulous photos of our trip.



Spring Finally Arrives on Naked Mountain!

After a dump of two feet of wet snow on Naked Mountain on March 6th, spring finally showed up, as expected, on March 20th, the day of the spring equinox (at least in the Northern Hemisphere.) Here is how Wikipedia defines the phenomenon of the equinox:

“An equinox occurs twice a year (around 20 March and 22 September), when the tilt of the Earth‘s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun, the center of the Sun being in the same plane as the Earth’s equator

On the day of the equinox, the center of the Sun spends a roughly equal amount of time above and below the horizon at every location on the Earth, so night and day are about the same length. The word equinox derives from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night).”

When the sun came up on Naked Mountain on March 20th, I timed its arrival, and its departure for equality. Indeed, the sun showed up right about 7:15 a.m. and set right about 7:15 p.m give or take a minute or two. Impressive!

In between the rise and setting of the sun, I checked on the progress of spring on Naked Mountain measured in other ways—wildflower blooms!

Spring 2013 has seemed much colder than last year, but whether this is normal for March is hard to know any more with the confounding effects of global warming.  At any rate, the

Emerging Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in barrens on Naked Mountain on March 20, 2013

wildflowers are taking their time. On March 20th, I hiked down into the outcrop barrens to check on the progress of thousands of Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon meadia) that bloom there in early May. The barrens, which are comprised of seeping amphibolite rock and associated plant communities, occur all across the southeastern face of Naked Mountain at about 1700 feet. On March 20th, The Shooting Stars were just coming up; most were poking up about three to four inches above the ground.

I also found some Spring Beauty (Claytonia Virginica -see photo above)) and Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concatenata)in bloom.

Cutleaf Toothwort (Cardamine concantenata) blooming on Naked Mountain on March 20, 2013

Later that day, I took a walk with a friend along a roadway within the Dutch Creek Agricultural-Forestal District near the base of Naked Mountain. An Agriculture-Forestal District is a rural zone that prohibits housing subdivision and any development that is not agricultural, or forestal in nature. It is designed to protect open spaces, rural character, water quality and other natural resources.  Here is a benefit of living within a Virginia AFD and having many neighbors who have gone even further and placed their properties under a conservation easement: 

Hepatica blooming in the Dutch Creek Agricultural-Forestal District on March 20, 2013.

So, spring is definitely on its way! I will keep you updated on the progress of Shooting Stars and other special denizens of Naked Mountain.


Shock and Hope Featured at State Wildflower Society Meeting

The shock part of the meeting was presented by the first speaker, a geologist (of course!), at the Virginia Native Plant Society’s annual workshop held on March 16th at the University of Richmond. The general topic was, “Piedmont:  Places and Plants.”  The geologist, Dr. Callan Bentley, Assistant Professor of Geology at Northern Virginia Community College, discussed, “Geologic Roadkill:  The Deep History of Virginia’s Piedmont.”  In one short, fascinating hour he described the evolution of the Earth, basically billions of years of plate tectonics, or continental colliding and rifting, and how this activity is manifested in the rocks and soils that make up the Piedmont we see today. You can see a map and geologic information about the Virginia Piedmont here.

About two-thirds of the way through his lecture Dr. Bentley showed a slide depicting fault lines that underlie the Piedmont, particularly one that runs right under the North Anna Nuclear Plant in Louisa County! A Wikipedia search notes, as did Dr. Bentley, that although informed in 1977 of the fault by consulting geologists, Dominion (the power company that owns the site) went ahead and built the entire plant right on the fault line and then lied about it to the public. Their argument to scientists raising concerns was that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had assessed there had not been an earthquake in the area for probably thousands of years. This was followed up in 2010 by an NRC report which estimated the risk each year of an earthquake intense enough to cause core damage to the reactor at North Anna at 1 in 22,727. 

Those of us who live in Virgnia know what happened next.  On August 23, 2011 a 5.8 magnitude earthquake occurred in Mineral, Virginia a mere 11 miles from the North Anna Nuclear Plant. The plant lost power and shut down for over three months. It suffered cracks to several buildings and on-site spent-nuclear-fuel long term storage canisters shifted. Dominion denies any of this damage compromised safety.  In fact — right now — Dominion is planning to expand the plant’s facilities.

It was a little hard to focus on the rest of Dr. Bentley’s talk — especially for those in the audience who live near the North Anna Nuclear Plant!

Smooth Coneflower — USDA Photo

The hope part of the meeting was offered by the last speaker, Dr. Ryan Klopf, Mountain Region Steward for the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage, and the steward for the Naked Mountain Natural Area Preserve – my home. Dr. Klopf’s topic was, “Piedmont Community and Ecosystem Restoration.”  He began by providing a history of the ecology of the Virginia Piedmont. During the Hypsithermal period, which occurred for several thousand years beginning around 10,000 years ago, North America experienced an unusual, extended period of drought which caused a lot of fires.  During this time, prairie and savanna plant species spread eastward from the great plains of the Mid-West. From 4,000 BCE until the Europeans arrived in the 16th century, the Piedmont of Virginia was characterized by open canopies of oaks, hickories and pines. The understories were a rich herbaceous layer of at least 277 different species. As the climate changed and became more temperate with increased moisture, the prairies and savannas were maintained, ecologists believe, through regular burning by Native Americans. It is surmised that this was done to help these early Americans hunt and travel.  When Europeans arrived, they altered this landscape significantly through their agricultural practices, reducing Piedmont prairies to the sunny edges of farmed fields and naturally dry places that inhibit tree growth. Reforestration of much of the Eastern United States over the past century has also pushed out these prairie and savanna species.

For more than a decade, the Division of Natural Heritage has been invested in restoring the ecology for these disappearing prairies species. The Division has employed a process of prescribed burning in several of the state’s Natural Area Preserves where these species were found in remnant communities. Dr. Klopf presented the findings for two of these sites, Difficult Creek NAP and Grassy Hill NAP.  At Difficult Creek in Halifax County, an area of 819 acres that contains hardpan forest, remnants of prairie, and an underlying mafic geology that supports species diversity, Heritage Division stewards resolved to replace a loblolly pine plantation on the site with historic Piedmont savannah species. Using prescribed fire, tree thinning and invasive species management, the effort has produced a very positive outcome:  Oaks have increased from 11 percent to 27 percent; hickories 8 percent to 25 percent; native grasses have increased from 16 percent to 28 percent and the native herb layer has increased from just 0.5 percent to 9 percent.  One example from the latter statistic, Smooth Coneflower (Echinacea laevigata),has increased from 211 plants in 2002 to 866 plants in 2008. 

At Grassy Hill Natural Area Preserve in Franklin County a similar effort has had comparable results. The native grassland herbaceous layer is reassembling including increased presence of Andropogon viginicus, also known as Broomsedge, and  Parthenium auriculatum, or Wild Quinine. 

In between the shock and the hope lectures, two other presenters, Christopher Ludwig, chief biologist with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Division of Natural Heritage and co-author of the newly published Flora of Virginia, and Dr. Tim Spira, professor of botany at Clemson University rewarded the rapt audience with eye candy – beautiful slides of endemic wildflowers of the Piedmont and their dwelling places and pollinators.

You can learn more about the Virginia Native Plant Society, the sponsor of this excellent workshop, and its many other programs and benefits for the native plant lover here.

Coyotes — Boon or Menace?

Coyotes are a growing presence, and some would say menace, in the Eastern United States, including Virginia.  While I have never seen one on Naked Mountain, I have seen signs that may indicate their presence – scat like a dog’s, but unlike dog scat, full of hair.  Neighbors have also heard coyotes calling and yipping.  They sound like a cross between a wolf and a dog alternating with a high-pitched howl and yip-like barking.

Coyote – photo from Wikipedia

Friends who live in southern Albemarle County, about seven miles away, told me an amazing story verifying rumors of coyote wiliness.  One day last summer, Will walked out to one of the barns on their 1200 acre farm accompanied by the family’s young bloodhound, Missy, and a visiting pet, a small mongrel named Riley.  The whole way out to the barn, the dogs ran at each other playfully.  When the threesome got to the barn, Will saw that a coyote, standing on the lip of the “slash,” or swampy area, behind the barn, was intently watching the dogs.  Will and his wife Ti knew that a family of coyotes had moved into the slash establishing a den there.  Will watched as the coyote trotted up to the playful dogs, who were unaware of its presence at first, and then engaged them in active play.  He was astonished as the coyote played with the dogs like it was one of them.  But then, the coyote ran a little distance away, turning back to glance at the dogs in a kind of invitation.  Missy froze and just stared.  Riley chased after the coyote who then led him down the sloping field toward the slash.  When Will turned his glance to the slash he saw two other coyotes standing there, intently watching the approaching pair.  Will saw the developing danger for Riley and called frantically to him.  Finally, in the nick of time, he got his attention and Riley ran to Will, leaving his strange new companion behind.  If he hadn’t, the threesome pack of coyotes would have made quick work of poor little Riley.

 Deer hunting season has just concluded in Virginia and many hunters in the Naked Mountain area are reporting that the number of deer are significantly down.  Some hunters believe the influx of coyotes are responsible.  Many wildflower enthusiasts, like myself, would cheer this possibility.  On Naked Mountain, deer browse on many native plants including beautiful wildflowers like Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis),

Bloodroot — Photo from Jennifer Anderson @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database

which I have watched decline since my husband and I purchased Naked Mountain in 1988.  

I called Matt Knox, one of two deer project coordinators with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) to ask him if he thought coyotes could be responsible for a decline in the deer population. He told me that coyotes used to be rare in the state twenty years ago when he started work with the VDGIF, but now they are commonplace.  Over the twenty years Matt said the population of deer in the state has been stable.  Some years the number of deer killed by hunters is down as in 2010, the year after a winter when a foot of snow was on the ground in most of the state for 60-90 days. Many deer starved and did not reproduce in the Spring.  He also said they would be easy targets for coyotes who can walk on top of crusty snow, while deer punch through, slowing them down. But in 2011, the deer population was up.  This year, Matt has had many reports that hunters have killed many fewer deer, but the numbers from the state’s many check points will not be available for several months.  Matt noted that the deer population in the Western United States has long co-existed with coyotes and their numbers have not suffered.  He then told me about an interesting research project that is investigating coyote behavior.

 I called Mike Fies, wildlife biologist with VDGIF, who is directing the “Ecology of the Eastern Coyote” research project.  It is being carried out at Virginia Tech by a professor there and two graduate students.  The project is designed to answer questions about whether or not coyotes are impacting the deer population in western Virginia where the numbers of deer on public lands, like the George Washington National Forest, are down. Mike said this may be due to many factors including expanding poor habitat as trees are not cut and forests mature.  He noted that the bear population has been increasing quite rapidly and that bears, in addition to coyotes, are predating deer fawns. 

 The research will impart information about the Eastern coyote which is a very different animal than its better known Western cousin.  The Eastern coyote is larger, possibly because it has interbred with the Canadian Red Wolf  in its migration East, and it has different habits.  The project traps coyotes and fits them with radio collars so their movements and denning behavior can be tracked.  Researchers are also collecting and analyzing coyote scat to determine what the animal has eaten.  The scat is subjected to DNA analysis to ensure that it is coyote and not bobcat or bear scat.  The DNA analysis also allows researchers to identify specific individual coyotes providing  a rich database of ecological information. 

 The three year project is in its second year.  Stay tuned.   





Celebration of the just published Flora of Virginia!

Yesterday, December 9, 2012, was a momentous day in the natural history of the state of Virginia, one of the original 13 colonies and so one of the nation’s oldest states.  Yesterday, marked the celebration of the publication of the Flora of Virginia, a 1,554 page compendium of all of the plant species known to persist and reproduce in the state without cultivation. The hefty manual, 11 years in the making, includes descriptions of 3,164 species organized into 189 families, accompanied by 1400 original illustrations.  There are fascinating introductory chapters describing the history of plant discovery and documentation in Virginia, the ecology and natural history of plant species as well as descriptions of accessible natural area sites that showcase the rich variety of species within Virginia’s borders.  Because Virginia encompasses five physiographic provinces, from low lying coastal regions to mountainous plateaus, it harbors an unusual diversity of plant species matched only by a handful of other states that are much larger in size.

Stacks of Flora of Virginia at publication celebration.

Most important of all, the manual includes a key to the general classifications and to the families within them that is described as “user-friendly and innovative” and should reduce the need to bring along a dissecting scope for a field trip (but do bring your magnifying lens).  The key, the essential aide to field detective work, is prefaced by a quick explanation of the whys and wherefores of botanical keys and a review of the most common terms for botanical structures.  There is also an extensive glossary of terms and the index includes listing by common as well as Latin names.  You can read more about The Flora of Virginia Project which produced the manual and order a copy of it here.

Until yesterday, Virginia was the only state without a modern day flora.  Until yesterday, when I ventured out on Naked Mountain looking for new flowers to identify, I had to take along the West Virginia Flora to accomplish this delightful task.  I own the Second Edition published in 1978. Until yesterday, it was the best approximation I could find to a resource that might describe the species I would likely encounter on Naked Mountain.

Why Virginia was so late in developing its own modern flora may be due, in part, to the fact that this is not the first flora of Virginia to be published. The first publication took place in 1737 and was entitled, Flora Virginica. It was based on the collection and classification of plants by Virginia colonist, John Clayton, which he sent to European botanists.  Clayton’s findings were astonishing to men like Carl Linnaeus, the famous originator of the species classification system used today by botanists around the world.  The story of Clayton’s collaboration with European scientists is described in the new, 2012 Flora of Virginia.  

Yesterday’s celebrations began at noon at The Wintergreen Nature Foundation(TWNF).  Executive Director, Doug Coleman, provided an overview of the Flora of Virginia Project which enlisted support and direct input from a Who’s Who of Virginia’s botanists, botanical organizations and their leadership.  

Doug Coleman, Executive Director of The Wintergreen Nature Foundation. To his left is Lara Call Gastinger, main illustrator for the Flora.

Many of them were at TWNF yesterday to bask in the glow cast by the culmination of a major piece of work that is a significant contribution not only to Virginia’s natural history, but to the natural history of the Southeastern region of the United States.  The Flora’s three authors were present: 

  • Alan Weakley, a Virginia native, is director of the University of North Carolina Herbarium and an adjunct professor at UNC-Chapel Hill
  • Christopher Ludwig is Executive Director of the Flora Project and chief biologist of the Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation
  • John Townsend is staff biologist with the Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, previously curator of the herbarium of Clemson University.

    Chris Ludwig, Executive Director of the Flora of Virginia Project, speaking at the Flora celebration.

Chris Ludwig, Gary Fleming, who wrote two of the introductory chapters, and many other botanists present at the celebration have been on Naked Mountain and inventoried the plants growing in the barrens there, or in several of the vegetation plots that have been established to conduct research.  The Division of Natural Heritage of the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation holds the easement for Naked Mountain and provides me with stewardship assistance to control invasive species.

Also present at yesterday’s celebration were two of the illustrators, including Lara Call Gastinger who illustrated the bulk of the Flora.  Lara is an exquisite artist who won a Royal Horticultural Society gold medal in 2007.  You can see some of her work here and on the Flora dust jacket (pictured above) which features one of my favorite wildflowers that I see in various locations on Naked Mountain:  Claytonia virginica, Spring Beauty — a well-chosen example for its relevant historical name and its proliferation in many of Virginia’s habitats.

The Flora of Virginia is a monumental contribution for many reasons and purposes.  It is designed to be used not just by scientists to further study and knowledge of Virginia’s plants, but by amateurs who simply love wildflowers.  There has been attention, all along, to the next generation and how to draw them in to the fascinating world of plant biology.  Efforts are already underway to convert the whole Flora into a digital app that can be downloaded onto handheld smart phones or tablet devices.  The Flora Project is building a library for its website of gorgeous photographs, including a few by Kenneth Lawless of Naked Mountain’s sentinel plant, Dodecatheon meadia, or Shooting Star.  As many of yesterday’s speakers emphasized, the most important hoped-for outcome of this massive, heroic effort is conservation.  The more more of us know about Virginia’s hertitage, the better equipped we will all be to protect it and preserve it. 

Author’s note:  If you purchase a copy of the Flora of Virginia, and if you live in Virginia, or visit it on occasion I hope that you will — don’t try to read it in bed!  I think it weighs about five pounds and trying to perch it on your stomach may give you indigestion!