At the park: 133

I am finally getting all the records together for last spring’s breeding season of Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers. My notes for the team:

Well, it’s been a minute since we last checked our boxes. Here’s the final spreadsheet:

The mergansers were much more efficient and effective, hatching and fledging 64 ducklings from 72 eggs laid in 5 clutches. By contrast, the Wood Ducks had a bad year: 12 nests started and 110 eggs laid, but a couple of big nest failures led to only 28 ducklings hatched and fledged.

We had two boxes with evidence of predation by Black Ratsnake. I wonder how the snakes have figured out their way around the predator guards.

There are some minor maintenance notes in the spreadsheet that I will follow up on next season.

Thank you for all your help!

I’m still working on the graph and the grand summary table.

VMN conference 2022

A few snaps and reports from this year’s Virginia Master Naturalist Program Statewide Conference and Volunteer Training, based in Virginia Beach.

I took a walk on my own at First Landing State Park. I found Downy Rattlesnake Plaintain (Goodyera pubescens) in fruit and a local specialty, American Olive (Cartrema americana) (formerly genus Osmanthus), in fruit. Some Spanish Moss. Otherwise, there’s not a lot of variety in this loblolly woods. Target practice at nearby Fort Story was momentarily alarming.

In fact, there are few natural places in Tidewater Virginia that are far from some sort of military installation. I don’t know that I learn to filter out the noise from the fighter jets.

there's onechoppyOn Friday, a group visited Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. I got a clear look at one of our up-and-coming non-native invasives, Murdannia keisak—the flowers are itty-bitty. But the real prize of this trip was found by Margaret C. and others in the group: Waterspider Bog Orchid (Habenaria repens), not well attested in Virginia.

tastyfuzzy and roundWe did some mushrooming at Norfolk Botanical Garden. Small surprise: it began as a WPA project! There is a Japanese Garden that I would like to come back to visit. Saturday’s entomology workshop was cancelled, so we visited Virginia Tech’s Hampton Roads AREC (Agricultural Research and Extension Center). Blackberries and kiwis in the research plots. Mason’s Famous Lobster Rolls for dinner—maybe not an authentic recipe, but very tasty.

Sunday’s birding trip to Magothy Bay NAP was a bit of a bust, with only a couple flights of White Ibis appearing. I was informed that the local (Virginia) pronunciation is ma-GOE-thee, but Marylanders say MAG-uh-thee. I may have to break the news to the rest of the state.

Abingdon 2022: 3

On my dilatory way home, I swung south into Ashe County, North Carolina and a visit to Bluff Mountain Preserve. Bluff Mountain is but one of the ridgelines protected by the Nature Conservancy in this area. According to my guide Susan, the mountain offers a rare high-elevation mafic bedrock, with an endemic reindeer lichen species on the outcrops. In addition, ten acres of wetland comprise a fen; there’s an Eastern Hemlock woods; and a rather nice meadow. The New River provides drainage, so I had crossed back from the Tennessee River basin to the Ohio.

maficWe spent just a quarter of an hour or so at the fen, but I zeroed in on something unusual that turned out to be Sticky False Asphodel (Triantha glutinosa), a species of conservation concern. Nearby, Susan pointed out Canada Burnet (Sanguisorba canadensis) and Smooth Yellow False Foxglove (Aureolaria flava). We found lots of interesting mushrooms popping up along the trail (it had rained recently), but with only three hours up on top of the mountain, we didn’t have much time to dawdle.

Logistics for this tour were a little unsettled until the day, and there was more climbing from the parking lot than we had planned on, but it was a good hike. Next time I’ll wave my “I’m a donor” flag more loudly; we crossed paths with a donors’ tour on our way up the mountain.

Abingdon 2022: 2

a bit rockySoutheast from my base of operations in Abingdon, two walks in Grayson Highlands State Park.

first peaksecond peakFrom the visitor center, the Twin Pinnacles Trail is maybe only 55 meters of elevation change, but there’s a fair amount of up and down. The scramble down from Big Pinnacle was a bit tricky.

quick stopthanks, Meghan!I liked the shelter/rest stations along the way, at least two of them marked as scout projects. Thank you, scouts!

spruce flaggingSpruces at the skyline show some flagging.

a little easier going down
The walk was a little easier going down, 2:20 for the loop.

I found patches of Appalachian White Snakeroot (Ageratina roanensis or A. altissima var. roanensis, depending on your authority), a mystery goldenrod at the Little Pinnacle summit, a mystery whorled composite, and a mystery bryophyte.

Maine this wayA younger me would have tried the walk from Big Pinnacle to Massie Gap, but the prudent present me drove back to Massie Gap for an afternoon loop that used about 3/4 mile of the Appalachian Trail along Wilburn RIdge. I walked the Maine-bound direction; I wasn’t overtaken by any spry through-hikers, but there were some folks to say hello to going the other direction. The AT here is fairly level, a rhododendron thicket with random unmarked side trails and more spruce.

Some fairly large vaccinium shrubs. About 85 meters of elevation change, 2:20 for the loop.

Abingdon 2022: 1

My base of operations for this year’s birthday romp was Abingdon, Virginia.

new parklazy riverFirst up was Clinch River State Park, newly elevated to state park status and therefore a little lean on amenities. The lazy river doesn’t mind.


Best critter for the entire trip was a Lace-winged Roadside-Skipper (Amblyscirtes aesculapius) just a bit outside its range in the guidebooks, nectaring on Bear’s Foot (Smallanthus uvedalia).

number 2trestleRain mid-day curtailed plans to hit another state park, but later in the afternoon I walked a bit of the Virginia Creeper Trail, one of the first rails-to-trails conversions. This trail crosses numerous stream gorges via wooden trestles—quite dramatic. The watershed here is the Holston.

look out belowThis view down into Berry Creek is from trestle #3. From trestle #4 in Watauga you’re eye level with the top of a substantial American Sycamore.

Clifton Institute bioblitz August 2022

no, over hereboth sides nowI took part in a Clifton Institute bioblitz on the property of an institute sponsor. I didn’t know quite what to expect, or what to focus on, so I walked along with the group, recording observations of what looked interesting to me, some of which I had to key out at home.

The woods have been logged over recently, and show evidence of disturbance: a fair amount of non-native invasives, as well as Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata), about which the Flora of Virginia says, “In a wide variety of mesic to dry forests and woodlands, depression wetlands, flood-scoured shores and bars, clearings, fields, roadsides, and other disturbed habitats.”

There seemed to be some disagreement among the group about this Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor). I’m not sure why. Seems obvious to me.

Flipping rocks, the group found three Eastern Wormsnakes (Carphophis amoenus amoenus). White and White write, “This snake does not bite when handled but will try to escape by probing its head and tail into the captor’s hand searching for a way out,” which is just what this li’l fellow is doing in Ben’s hand.

At the lights, most of the group focused on moths and caddisflies. I’m just getting started with moths—I’ve never before seen moth eyeshine—so I spent more time getting to know some beetles on the groundcloth, like this handsome darkling beetle, Alobates sp.

Rea was giddy when she found this late-instar Regal Moth (Citheronia regalis). The larvae have the common name Hickory Horned Devil.

I took the opportunity to practice using my audio recorder. Need to work on setting levels and generally using it more before I splurge on field headphones and a shotgun mic.

Observations are still coming in.

NABA Butterfly Count 2022

mitigationBack to the area around the Clifton Institute for my first NABA Butterfly Count. We visited an extensive pollinator garden on private property (thanks to Shane’s Signs), a gravelled patch of Thoroughfare Road adjacent to a wetland mitigation project (photo), and a private horse farm. In the pollinator garden I made my first acquaintance of one of our hummingbird moth species (Hemaris thysbe) who were going gangbusters—not on our checklist, but still. I found the first of a few Sleepy Oranges (Abaeis nicippe) and Juniper Hairstreaks (Callophrys gryneus) that we tallied, and was finally able to twitch Peck’s Skipper (Polites peckius). Stephanie Mason pointed out this critter to me ages ago (“Peck’s have checks”) but that was before I started listing butterflies. But dang, skippers burn me out fast. We saw so many Sachems (Atalopedes campestris) in all their variability that the mental key began, “Is this skipper not a Sachem?”

No lie, it was hot. We started at 08:00 and I began to flag at 11:00. I am finding that a few hours of heat tends to make my feet swell in the waterproof light hikers that I usually wear. I was grateful for the jug of lemonade at the tally rally back at Clifton.

Clifton Institute dragonfly/damselfly count 2022

Dragonfy watchers at Leopold's Preserve by Marie Pinto (White House Farm Foundation)As usual, that’s me in the back, the last one to get on whatever we’re looking at. (Thanks to photographer Marie!) But well equipped.

No luck getting good images of the two common saddlebags species, but I did snap some reasonable images of Twelve-spotted Skimmer (Libellula pulchella) and what turned out to be Citrine Forktail (Ischnura hastata). Dang, those pond damsels are tricky. The best spot in our sector for pond damsels was again the pond behind The Farm Brewery at Broad Run. You know, the place with the axe-throwing barn.

Last Sunday was plenty hot, and we pooped out by 15:00 except for leader Larry. His pro tip for finding Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens) is to check the parking lot: the critter has a tendency to mistake a car roof for a puddle.

At the park: 132

Report for last week (29 May):

We closed our regular work days on a less than positive note. We found a Black Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) in box #77, so the second clutch of 2+ eggs that was started there was predated. We finally got access to wonky box #84: a Wood Duck flushed, but we found only 4 non-viable eggs, and we cleaned them out. As for box #61, we did get a hatch, but only evidence of that 1 duckling fledged; I am writing this one up as partially predated.

However, the books are not completely closed for the season. Box #1 (the one leaning over in the new pool by the tower) has a second Wood Duck clutch of 10 eggs going. Estimating that incubation began on 21 May, then hatch is expected about 19 June. Kat will check that one as a one-off on a time-available basis.

With so many boxes in use, and one clear dump nest, it’s not surprising that we had more than our usual number of abandoned/failed nests. What is a little surprising is the level of predation by Black Ratsnakes: visual observations at 2 boxes, and indirect evidence at a third. I suspect that one or more snakes have found a way to slip past the predator cones, perhaps exploiting the gaps where the cone is attached. We may want to explore a means of sealing those gaps.

So that’s it for scheduled work days — thanks for all your help, and we’ll see you next year. I’ll prepare final reports after all the numbers come in.

Mason and Bailey: 4/At the park: 131

Back in the field with the scrappy little Mason & Bailey Club, and their first visit to Huntley Meadows Park! Almost perfect weather. The day was not too birdy (my scouting yesterday listed 25 species, many of them just heard), but we did get some looks at Wood Duck, Hooded Merganser, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Osprey. And one of the Red-shouldered Hawks was squawking.

Somewhat better luck with some of the other orders: Painted Turtle, Snapping Turtle, American Bullfrog, Green Frog, Common Whitetail (Plathemis lydia) (male and female), Ebony Jewelwing, and my lifer Northern Pearly-eye (Lethe anthedon). First blossoms of Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris). A fleabane that I’m calling Erigeron strigosus, in the parking lot while I was waiting for folks. Crushing several siliques of Sweet Cicely produced the desired sensory effect.

I packed too much information into this trip, we didn’t even find a beaverdam, and we ran over our time budget (again!), but my little crew kept going with me.

At the park: 130

Mixed blessings in this week’s report:

Wood Thrush singing in the parking lot, and was that a Little Blue Heron in the main wetland? Warm weather, some good results and some less so.

Boxes #6 and #67 finally hatched, having been overdue. Box #3 apparently only fledged one duckling. Boxes #1 and #77 have new Wood Duck eggs, having already fledged a clutch. On the not so good side, boxes #2 and #10 were abandoned, and we cleaned out those boxes.

So while we had clutches started in 15 of our 16 boxes, which is higher than usual, 4 were abandoned — also higher than usual. Plus the predation of box #13 by a Black Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis). Perhaps it was the same animal that we saw at the box again on Sunday.

roof patchI put another patch on the knothole in the roof of box #67.

Down lower Barnyard Run, I found a big patch of Rattlesnakeweed (Hieracium venosum), and about four Fragile Forktails (Ischnura posita), a male and three females.

So we can shift over to spot-checking the remaining boxes with eggs (#77, #84, #1, #5, #61) on our next work day, on 29 May. I am on call for work that day, so I will have my phone charged up.

* * *

Thank you very much!

At the park: 129

Sunday’s report:

Many adventures today! We had four successful clutches hatch and fledge (boxes #77, #1, #60, and #68). (K: I just have “cleaned” in my notes for #77, so I take it that there were no unhatched eggs.) Box #4 turned out to be a failed dump nest, so we cleaned it out. Box #3 was in the process of hatching when Megan checked it!

And box #13 was predated by a Black Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis). PJ has a picture showing three distinct bulges in the snake’s body. This box had only 3 eggs back on 17 April, so it seems likely that the hen was not there to defend the incomplete clutch.

Box #60 is new, and it has the fine mesh screen for the ducklings’ exit. It’s already coming detached at the top.

New migrants and breeders heard and seen: Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus), Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes).

I checked some references: the layer of tissue lining the shell is best described as the chorioallantoic membrane (just in case you need that word for Scrabble).

* * *

We’ll work again on 15 May. Köszönöm!