Anna Gibbs picked up on my catchphrase for her piece in Audubon about birders becoming master naturalists.
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.
Presentations 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.
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.
On 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.
We 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.
Barbara Saffir led a workshop at Neabsco Boardwalk on using iNaturalist and ISO axanthic Green Treefrogs (Hyla cinarea). And we found some!
The boardwalk trail is rather new—nicely accessible and wide, open to multiple use (jogging, dogs, scooters). While the upland path to the boardwalk could serve for a nonnative invasives workshop, the wetland itself is pretty clean, a major exception being a population of Japanese Knotweed (Reynoutria japonica).
A Fairfax Master Naturalists project that I could work from my desk: I cleaned up the automated transcription of a video presentation on climate change, presented by Rachel Licker to Master Naturalists in 2014. Dr. Licker speaks softly, and the AI performing the transcription often made a hash of things. My favorite machine blunder was pursue potations for precipitation, followed closely by 4 percent the patients for for precipitation.
Beautiful decapods: I was part of a team that reviewed and edited a white paper on crayfish, published by the commonwealth’s cooperative extension. Most of the work consisted of chasing down dead web links and finding replacements.
Three interesting workshops at the conference, formally the Virginia Master Naturalist Program Statewide Conference and Volunteer Training, held this year in Harrisonburg.
Michael Pelton and David Kocka talked about the natural history of American Black Bear (Ursus americanus)—which comes in four color morphs, including the blue-gray “glacier bear” found in the Pacific Northwest—as well as problems in human-bear interactions. Fun fact: bears actually do eat Bear Corn (Conophilus americana).
Emily Thorne’s dissertation research consists of understanding the Virginia habitat preferences, distribution, and genetics of Eastern Spotted Skunk (Spirogale putorius). She’s recruiting VMN volunteers to set up and monitor game cameras pretty much statewide; it’s known from the Blue Ridge west, but could be found east of the mountains as well. This little critter does a handstand as a defensive warning behavior—very cute.
Chelsey Faller, Wildlife Disease Biologist with DGIF, is spreading the word about Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) in White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Virginia. 69 cases have been reported in the state since its arrival in 2009. It’s particularly prevalent in Frederick County, and a Disease Management Area has been established for Frederick, Shenandoah and two adjacent counties. Inspections of deer harvested this season in Shenandoah County are mandatory.
For a hands-on exercise, we learned how to perform the dissection to obtain specimens for lab testing. Although CWD is a prion disease that affects the nervous system, in White-tailed Deer it can first be detected in the lymphatic system. So the dissection removes the retropharangeal lymph nodes (behind the voice box).
Chelsey is also looking for volunteers at check stations.
I wrote up the nest box program for Fairfax Master Naturalists. Jeepers, in Barbara’s photo I look like I’m wearing a tent.
Jim McGlone and Rita Urbanski led walks on Mason Neck for Fairfax Master Naturalists. Rita focused on wetland adaptations, while Jim workshopped basic tree ID with the class. He mentioned the economic value of Quercus alba in cooperage, particularly with respect to aging wines and whiskeys. Planks made from red oaks can’t be made watertight, unlike white oak lumber.
Jim also noted a native Euonymus that had already burst.
Charles Smith led the botany basics workshop at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park for Fairfax Master Naturalists. (I studied the eastern section of this park for a class in 2014.) We met a lot of old friends from the plant world. Charles pointed out a non-native invasive that I had not seen before, Small Carpetgrass (apt name, that) (Arthraxon hispidus).
In the meadow, Charles pointed out Beaked Panicgrass (Panicum anceps). I need to look at this plant a few more times before I can grok it. A tip for learning sumacs: fruits hang down from Winged Sumac.
On the west side of Walney Road, we did a very short ascent of the Ridge Trail to a patch of woods that has been left alone by White-tailed Deer. Charles describes this view a “what a good forest looks like.”
In the afternoon, Chris Ruck and his team electrofished a short reach of Big Rocky Run. Again, this was not a complete, protocol-compliant survey, but rather some cherry-picking so that we could see what species could be found in the stream. Forgive me for geeking out on the equipment, but it’s pretty cool.
A circuit is established between the anode, the pole in Danielle’s right hand, and the cathode, the cable in her right hand. Fish in the water are stunned, and can be scooped up in a net for study, as Chris is doing in the image at right. Voltage and other electrical characteristics can be adjusted for water conditions. You want rubberized waders for this job; if you’re wearing breathable waders, you will probably feel an unpleasant tingle, or worse.
We turned up 13 of a possible 20 species or so, according to Chris’s accounts. We spent a lot of time with the keys and the minnow representatives (family Cyprinidae). A little easier to ID were these Fantail Darters (Etheostoma flabellare) at left, and these four sunfish species (at right).