Mid-winter trip reports

I assisted at Elklick Woodlands Natural Area Preserve for a couple of work days. (More days to come? subject to scheduling.) Park Authority staff are actively managing woody vegetation within several deer exclosures in order to re-establish and extend a rare forest community, known as northern hardpan basic oak-hickory forest. Thousands of trees were planted about five years ago, and those that have survived are about knee height now.

to be trimmedThe management is fairly aggressive: both native and non-native trees, all of them faster growing than the oaks and hickories, are cut back to the ground, for instance these Virginia Pines (Pinus virginiana) which would soon shade out the white oak at the right of the photo.

oak saplingMany of the trees that we’re nurturing are still very small, and have dropped all their leaves at this time of the year. So flags make it a lot easier to find them.

I’m also back at The Nature Conservancy’s Fraser Preserve, now equipped with a new tool: an Extractigator Junior, generically known as a weed wrench. For non-native invasive shrubs like Rosa multiflora and Berberis thunbergii, we need to remove as much of the root as possible. A garden fork and some steady pulling will accomplish this, but a weed wrench gives you some mechanical advantage and is easier on the muscles. The genius of these gizmos is that no springs are involved, so it’s unlikely that you’re going to mash a digit.

A composite of a couple of roses that I pulled: Dropping the tool into position.into position

Closing the jaws around the stems and beginning to pull back on the handle.jaws closed

The extracted crown of the plant.extracted

I’m still finding my touch with the tool. With smaller plants, I have a tendency to snap off the stem rather than pull it out with the roots. The Junior weighs just under ten pounds, so it’s luggable from Fraser’s parking area to our work sites.

My year in hikes and field trips, 2023

I got that 20-park badge!

To do for next year: get pix of phyllaries!

Another middling successful season of monitoring nest boxes at Huntley Meadows Park, Fairfax County, Va. I have also joined the Monday morning bird walks (with plant detours with Nancy) from time to time.

Christmas Bird Count 2023: Seneca and Central Loudoun

Third time around leading Seneca’s sector 14 (9 counters), and second time up leading “Old Ashburn” in Central Loudoun’s sector 11. At the sector 11 tally rally way out in Waterford, I looked at the map of the entire count circle: 15 miles of diameter covers a lot of ground.

On 17 December, mist in the morning portended rains in the afternoon, which didn’t arrive until about 15:30. So our counts were generally down: only 4 Yellow-rumped Warblers (Setophaga coronata ), for instance. My new counter for the Colvin Run/Difficult Run corridor turned up quite a number of birds, including our single Common Raven (Corvus corax). My stakeout of the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) flock on the power pylon behind my old apartment building paid off: first time for the sector since at least 2017. At Lake Fairfax Park, we found a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) working the ground around an oak.

Last Sunday in Central Loudoun was much warmer than 2022. My team of two beginners and one experienced birder picked up another Common Raven. We had multiple Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus) with good looks in the scope at one bird at the wetland enclosed by the teardrop of Claiborne and Gloucester Parkways. At the Graves Lane ponds, which are turning out to be good for a quick stop, a Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola) pair just in scope/long lens range.

Widewater to Great Falls

A solstice walk, one of Stephanie Mason’s last walks as Senior Naturalist for Nature Forward. We were also joined by new Senior Naturalist Genevieve Wall. We pushed from the Old Angler’s Inn parking up to Olmsted Island and back: 4 miles round trip, and even though the walking is nearly flat, I was dragging a bit at the end. At Great Falls, the water was up and pumping: I felt a bit uneasy on the first footbridge, so close to the torrent.

low waterA couple of small takeaways: Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) leaves resemble Corydalis, but you often find it growing on rocks; someone (Edwin Way Teale?) once described the twists of bare persimmon branches as “like mad snakes.” Widewater, incorporated into the C&O Canal, is an abandoned branch of the Potomac.

Sighted: one very chill juvenile RSHA.

Ohio 2023: 2

My field trips in Miami County focused on county parks where I might donate a bench in Mom’s memory. There was much dodging of drizzle and driving through rain.

from Maple Ridge endfrom the middleThe twin parks of Stillwater Prairie Preserve and Maple Ridge are linked by a swingy suspension bridge for foot traffic…

true to its name… over the Stillwater River. I didn’t get much time in either park, but the former has some extensive grasslands that look to be quite delightful in season. I did spot some Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) fruit in the woods edging the prairie and stream.

Charleston Falls, in the southern end of the county, is also rather nice, but the falls on this October day were just a trickle.

In nearby Champaign County, Cedar Bog (actually a fen, and there is lots of interpretive material explaining differences) Nature Preserve offered lots of Northern Whitecedar (Thuja occidentalis), well-demarcated Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), and a mystery forb.

More or less on my way home was the E. Lucy Braun Lynx Prairie Preserve in Adams County. Braun described the xeric limestone prairie openings as distinctive, and worked for their preservation. A signature species, Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) showed itself within 20 meters of the parking area. I also found a gentian-like wildflower, quite plentiful in spots, Agueweed (Gentianella quinquefolia); Cobb, Farnsworth, and Lowe helped me identify a really cool fern sharing space with Ebony Spleenwort on a huge limestone outcrop, Common Smooth Cliffbrake (Pellaea glabella ssp. glabella).

Ohio 2023: 1

car 338 boardingcar 325 departingThe first leg of my Ohio road trip brought me to Cleveland and environs and, after much negotiation of time slots, entailed lunch with Aunt D. and dinner with long-lost girlfriend C. In between meals, I had some downtime so I rode the Red Line out to the airport and back. I was a little surprised that the rolling stock was rather light and that power came from a pantograph, but since the Red Line runs in its own ROW, most people would call it a subway/metro/rapid transit. Non-rush hour trains consisted of only two cars each. The West 25th-Ohio City station is looking rather scruffy; there seems to be some confusion over how to spell “Windermere.”

pleasant surprisedownstreamIn the morning, I took a quick loop at Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, a surprisingly vigorous water feature. At right, the creek looking back upstream in the direction of the falls.

pathology 1pathology 2I found my first clear example of Beech Leaf Disease, which has just been found recently in Virginia. Close by (and perhaps related), an infestation of Beech Blight Aphid (Grylloprociphilus imbricator). You really need a video to fully appreciate these tiny sap slurpers.

VNPS 2023 plus

The following weekend, I transitioned from the skinny western end of the commonwealth to the bulgy eastern end for the Virginia Native Plant Society 2023 annual meeting. And I picked up four more state parks: my 20-park pin is in the mail.

looking for that kingfisherBeginning with Belle Isle SP in Lancaster County, on the Mud Creek Trail, I found that recent rains have plumped up the above-ground fungal activity. The prettiest mushroom I found was ID’d as Peach-Colored Fly Agaric (Amanita persicina).

From the parking area, the first part of this trail traverses the edge of a working corn field, as I found to my slight dismay when a very large piece of equipment ran through to process the standing brown stalks. But the edge was good for lots of Verbesina, which meant some nice pollinators, like this late Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius). The trail winds down to Mulberry Creek, which empties into the Rappahannock.

Friday and it was on to York River SP and the Taskinas Creek Trail. I found a rather birdy spot and got identifiable photos of Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) and four warbler species (only three of which I considered iNat-worthy), perhaps most interesting among them a juvenile Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)—I never would have figured this one out without photos.

I came within steps of disturbing the first Eastern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix) that I’ve ever seen in life. (I am mildly amused that five different iNatters have confirmed the ID. I can hear them now at the keyboard: “Are you sure you saw a copperhead?”) Even the binomial of this snake sounds dangerous. I was so fixated on keeping my distance from this fellow that it never occurred to me to be wary of possibly more individuals in the area. This one looks like an oldish juvenile. It is written, “Unlike other viperids, [copperheads] often “freeze” instead of slithering away, due to [their] habit of relying on excellent camouflage, rather than fleeing.” That’s exactly what this bad boy did.

Crossing the James on the Jamestown-Scotland ferry (20-minute ride, lunch break waiting for the boat), I hit Chippokes SP in the afternoon. More farmed fields mixed in with natural areas. On these two weekend trips, I’ve turned up a few day-flying moths, like this Chickweed Geometer Moth (Haematopis grataria). My brain is too full to learn any of them properly.

A fluffy pine that looks like Longleaf Pine to me, but iNatter jimbean ID’s it as Sonderegger Pine (Pinus × sondereggeri). I’d like another opinion.

One more state park on Saturday: Machicomoco SP, on the eastern shore of the York. Sporadic drizzle and showers. Soybeans in the middle of the loop road, and just a short braided trail down to Timberneck Creek, but some common seaside species, a confusing composite that turned out to be Spanish Needles (Bidens bipinnata), and a moth (moths again!) masquerading as a beetle: Yellow-collared Scape Moth (Cisseps fulvicollis).

The rain cleared off for the afternoon with Gary Fleming at Grafton Ponds Natural Area Preserve. This bit of the Coastal Plain has some similarities with the karst landscapes of Lee County, in that there are pools that dry up seasonally, but whereas the soft, soluble stone in Lee County is just under the thin soil layer, at Grafton there’s up to 40 feet of sediment overlaying the Miocene shell-marl. Gary showed the group a Verbesina that isn’t yellow, Frostweed (Verbesina virginica); the two remaining Pondspice shrubs in the preserve; Pityopsis graminifolia var. latifolia; and what he believes is a first York County record of Flax-leaved Aster, or Stiff-leaved Aster (Ionactis linariifolia).

Last stop, and conveniently on the way home: a walk in the Dragon Run preserve in King and Queen County, held by a private non-profit, the hike led by Maeve Coker and Kevin Howe. We didn’t get down into the swamp (small disappointment), but there were some nice things to see. More mushrooms, including the gangly Beech Rooter (Oudemansiella furfuracea) making a connect-the-dots to its host tree. And another first county record? Oval Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis).

My takeaways: I’m still hoping for a better-performing point-and-shoot camera for closeups, and I should check every patch of goldenrod and Verbesina for pollinators. Even if I’m impatient about ID’ing the goldenrod.

VMN conference 2023

By chance, this year’s Master Naturalist conference was held in Southwest Virginia, so the Doctor and I hauled down I-81 once again to Abingdon.

I took the opportunity to check off four more State Parks on my Trail Quest: Hungry Mother SP (huge rhododendons on the Lake Trail: this trail would be even nicer when they’re in bloom); Natural Tunnel SP (a lovely patch of Hearts-a-burstin’ (Euonymus americanus), but the trail markings were not as good as I’ve come to expect); a mad dash to Wilderness Road SP before dinner back in Abingdon; and Southwest Virginia Museum, all 1.5 acres of it.

natural tunnellimestone underfootPresentations and field trips for the conference focused on the karst landscape underlying much of the area. Sinkholes, karst fensters, and natural tunnels are plentiful when the limestone is just a few inches below the surface. At right, you can see the bedrock cropping out below this flowering Pink Thoroughwort (Fleischmannia incarnata). Laura Young with DCR/Natural Heritage explained that property acquisition for The Cedars Natural Area Preserve is a little different than usual: rather than striving for contiguous lands and eliminating inholdings, the idea is to protect specific resources, like sinkholes, with small purchases. On Sunday, Terri Brown with UVA’s College at Wise presented in the classroom on karst landscapes.

To the east, in the Blue Ridge, Kevin Hamed took us on a salamander scramble on Whitetop Mountain in the Grayson Highlands. In a small patch maybe 100m in diameter, we found more than a half dozen species, including the rare Weller’s Salamander (Plethodon welleri) (but tolerably common in this locality) and Blue Ridge Dusky Salamander (Desmognathus orestes).

Rounding out the conference were classroom presentations by Jeremy Stout (with the Nature Center at Steele Creek Park); Mike Pinder of Virginia DWR on freshwater fishes of Virginia (nifty GoPro videos of Leuciscidae and Percidae: logperch conservation is an ESA success story, and their rock flipping behavior is adorable); and a sassy chat by Kate LeCroy (soon to be with Rhodes College) on mason bees.

Power line grassland

pendentabundanceNelson DeBarros led a walk for the Potowmack Grass Bunch and FCPA staff to a power line easement along South Run. This is a high-quality patch that probably benefited from a fire on 1 April. About an acre was burned.

I recorded one grass observation (to maintain my Grass Bunch apprenticeship), Nuttall’s Reedgrass (Greenechloa coarctica), but mostly I went after yellow forbs, as is my wont. Maryland Golden-Aster (Chrysopsis mariana) is new to me, and it’s always good to have someone help with an ID of Bearded Beggarticks (Tickseed Sunflower) (Bidens aristosa).

Purple False Foxglove (Agalinus purpurea) is hemiparasitic on graminoids and other hosts. Another illustration of my (not well-articulated) principle that every organism has a different way to make/buy/beg/borrow/steal a living from its environment.

Sacramento 2023

Boots on the ground (well, sneakers) in Sacramento. I met the abundant Valley Oak (Quercus lobata), host to a wasp that induces huge apple-like galls; got reacquainted with Spotted Towhee (Pipilio maculatus); found new dragonflies, like Variegated Medowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum ); puzzled over yet another carrot family member, Bisnaga (Visnaga daucoides); and watched a small flock of songbirds that iNat and I are still sorting out.

SanchoHere’s faithful Sancho the Chevy Bolt, my rental car, taking a break in the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, where I unsuccessfully sought a jinx bird who shall remain unnamed. eBird reported only a few individuals lingering in the week prior. All in all, August is rarely a good month for birding, wherever you are in the north, but this trip wasn’t just about birding.

The arboretum at the University of California, Davis was quite nice, and worth the quick trip. And the Crocker Art Museum, newly expanded since my last trip west, was a pleasant surprise. There’s some great ceramics there, and a decent collection of 20th and 21st century work. More Wayne Thiebaud than you usually get to see.

going outarriving 2arriving 1I rode the light rail out to Folsom and had a dish of ice cream in memory of Mom.

Summary statistics and other data for the trip:

  • Observations of Chris Ware in Oak Park: 0
  • El car numbers: 5030, 2621, 5374, 5471, 5483, 5195 (twice), 5573, 5291, 5435, 5198, 5286
  • Trainspotters spotted: 3
  • Zephyr Salutes (none returned) along Moon River: I lost count

A passage in Jonathan Franzen’s recent “The Problem of Nature Writing” struck a note with me:

The very presence of a piece of writing leads us to expect an argument from it, if only an implicit argument for its existence. And, if the reader isn’t also offered an explicit argument, he or she may assign one to the piece, to fill the void. I confess to having had the curmudgeonly thought, while reading an account of someone’s visit to an exotic place like Borneo, that the conclusion to be drawn from it is that the writer has superior sensitivity to nature or superior luck in getting to go to such a place. This was surely not the intended argument. But avoiding the implication of “Admire me” or “Envy me” requires more attention to one’s tone of written voice than one might guess.

Whether it’s Borneo (never been) or the Blue Ridge, it’s true that I am fortunate to have the resources to travel across the commonwealth (and sometimes the country) and to bring back a bit of documentation. And I try to remember that I’m fortunate.

I keep this blog (a) to exercise my writing muscles, (b) to occasionally demonstrate to someone else that I can string sentences together, albeit with capricious use of punctuation and conjunctions, and (c) to leave a record for myself that I can come back to. OK, every once in a while (d) I get to write about something cool that I accomplished.

I’m too old to be the object of someone’s admiration. I guess that I need to keep that in mind.

Clifton Institute bioblitz August 2023

looking more or less northAlmost perfect weather yesterday for traipsing and documenting. We surveyed a farm up on the Piedmont of western Fauquier County that is being converted from cattle pasture to a more native plant-based flora.

low flowgetting the shotquarryThe farm backs on to an upper reach of the Rappahannock River, this summer not running with much water due to our moderate drought. But Bert Harris and helpers managed to net a Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides) for observation and release.

After I chased an Eastern Wood-Pewee (Contopus virens) for half an hour, it settled down to sally from a perch, giving me some excellent, well-lighted looks. I’m not fond of Box Elder (Acer negundo) as a rule, but some of the trees in the river bottom are delightfully gnarly and chonky.

It’s a bioblitz, so everything counts, including Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and Bottlebrush Grass (Elymus hystrix) and Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). This one caught our attention because it was loudly gnawing on a bone.

After sifting out the out-of-focus shots and doing my best to color-correct the greenish cast given off by the mercury vapor lamp, I was able to contribute 49 observations to the project.

At the end of the day, as we started to drift back towards the cars, someone gave up a shout, because a female Eastern Hercules Beetle (Dynastes tityus) had come to the light.

Clifton Institute NABA Butterfly Count 2023

I stepped into the role of sector co-leader for this year’s Clifton count. I did some scouting on Thursday, if anything to start to make sense of the maze of mown paths in the Woodcock tract and elsewhere.

lunchtimeVery pleasant weather on Saturday. Not outstanding numbers, but everybody had fun. Our less experienced team members found all the good stuff: Question Mark (Polygonia interrogationis), Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris), Least Skipper (Ancyloxypha numitor).