What's Blooming

Ongoing post with pictures of nature in the Allegheny Highlands of Virginia and the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

oops... March surprise

Cold air poured over the mountains from the north and west and settled in the valled along 220 from Warm Springs south to Hot Springs. An upper level low pumped moisture up and over the mountain tops from the south and east. A chance of snow showers turned into snow showers with an inch accumulation which turned into a winter weather advisory of up to four inches which turned into eight inches of nice wet spring snow. I guess the trees and ground and wildflowers were all so hungry for moisture that they would not let this little storm escape.

So wildflower walks and drives will come to a pause for a day or two while the ground refills with the fresh drinks of spring snow. But this early spring taste of winter should help make sure the next few weeks are full of color.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Humility, wonder, disappointment

This past weekend was an excellent example of all the emotions the study of nature can bring. On saturday I had the privelidge of joining a group of native orchid and nature photographers for their annual beat the winter blues get together. For the first year, many of the photographers brought their images from the past year in digital form. I rented a digital projector which we hooked to a laptop. After a bit of trial and error to get the projector color adjusted, most of us felt that the images projected from digital files were as good as any from the more traditional slides.

No matter the media, the photography was amazing. These men and women travel and photograph for the love of the experience, nature and the photos they capture. The images they produce are as good or better than any professional photos one would see in any publication. My own work seems amateurish in comparison, though my mpeg video of shots from last year was well received. I plan to post it online when I find a suitable broadband host. I'll let you know.

Sunday I spent traveling around West Virginia and Virginia. If you haven't seen the New River Gorge from the overlooks at Grandview, it is well worth the trip. I didn't have a wide angle lens with me so I don't have shots to show. But I'll be back when the trees are green.

Along the way I got to see a rare Saxifrage along the rocky roadside near Thurman. This is one of those amazing plants that seem to be able to grow out of nothing more than a crack in the rocks. Indeed, the name means "rock breaker" since it appears the plant is actually breaking up the rocks with its roots. Perhaps it is. There is an interesting time lapse sequence about one member of this family in the BBC video "The Private Life of Plants."

Along with waterfalls and plants and rivers and wide open spaces came a big reminder of the impact our insatiable hunger for comfort and technology has on the planet. My use of digital cameras, computers, high speed internet, heat and lights contribute to the demand so I must admit to being a part of the cause for what I saw. I was traveling with a friend who is one of the most knowledgeable naturalist I have ever known. He was the one who was driving and showing me the amazing sites around the Appalachians between Flatwoods, WV and Pulaski, VA. Of course we only touched on a few locations.

Our next to the last stop was in Carroll County, VA to look for a tiny relative of the Indian Pipe called Pygmy pipes. We scrambled up a shale slope and began to dig around carefully in the leaf litter under some pine trees. After some cold searching we decided that we were a few weeks early and headed off to the last site.

Trilliums are a favorite spring flower of many people and some of my native orchid friends like trilliums second only to the orchids. One of the slide shows on saturday was of nothing but the many varieties of trillium found in our part of the world. Down in Wythe County my friend/guide/naturalist had found a big patch of natural hybrid trilliums. Instead of the common whites and pinks and reds, these flowers have crossed to produce a rainbow of colors. In the same little area were huge patches of Puttyroot orchid and Crane-fly orchid and other wildflowers.

The location is along a little traveled dirt road on private property. A couple years back VDOT wiped out some plants with routine ditch work. An ever present hazard for plants that venture onto the open sunlit and often moist road edge. But we were not prepared for what we would find as we rounded the curve on Sunday. Gone were the trees that provided shelter and shade. Gone were the plants. Gone was much of the soil. Actually, many of the trees were still there, lifeless trunks laying in piles on the ground blocking any brave remaining flowers that might strugle to the surface.

Across the road and just above what had been the trillium site stood a giant steel robot with out stretched arms ready to support the steel cables of a 768kva power line. Around the giant structure and down the hill for a far as one could see a clear path of destruction and roads had changed what once had been a garden of wonders into a path for more power for city street lights and home computers. My friend, who has photographed native orchids in 49 states and 9 provences, had rated this site in the top ten of his favorites. And now it is gone.

It is good for all of us to remember from time to time that there is always a price to pay for the progress which we enjoy. In the quiet of the night, tears will come to the eyes of two grown men when they think of that site. Perhaps there is hope for all humans as long as that is so.

Blooming shrubs and proscribed burns

I'm behind on my post mostly because I have been busy and away from my computer, which are good things for the most part. First some updates.

Last week a couple members of the American Rhododendron Society and I went over to are area in southeastern Bath County along Pad's Creek to look at a huge patch of Pieris floribunda. This is an uncommon shrub of the Appalachian mountains. I know of two sites in Bath County and there are probably more. There are a few plants at the top of the hill going to the canoe launch at the Walton Tract. And the huge patch south of Bubbling Spring Campground. This shrub is of interest because it blooms early and because of the beautiful leather like evergreen foliage. One of the plants on the Walton Tract has had flowers opening for two weeks.

The large patch of Pieris on Pads Creek is within the boundaries of a upcoming proscribed burn by the Forest Service. Right now the conditions aren't right for burning, so the shrubs should escape the torch until the end of March. Hopefully they will be in full bloom by then when thousands of spikes of white bell shaped flowers will cover the hillside. As I understand it, thick undergrowth like the Pieris is one reason the Forest Service burns sections. I suppose there could be endless debate over what sections of forest should be burned and what should be left. While I would like to see the Pieris patch survive, I also realize that all things have a time and a season. Who knows, perhaps fire will encourage a larger patch for future years. Or perhaps some other amazing plants will take their place.

If you want to take a look, drive through Millboro on the road that goes over the mountain toward Little California. About 1/2 mile after the road turns to dirt, you will see Pads Creek Road on your right. Turn right and follow the road. After you pass Bubbling Springs Camp ground, start looking on your left. Some of the Pieris grows right down to the road. Though the road is unpaved, it is suitable for about any vehicle this far out.


Monday, March 13, 2006

Grouse mating and frog croaking

One of the amazing things about living in Bath County is how many "nature channel" moments a person can have just by walking in the woods. Indeed just by living here. A city friend emailed me over the weekend about his trip out into the country and how he enjoyed hearing the wood frogs. Someone who lives locally also emailed me this weekend to tell me the wood frogs were croaking in the pond in her back yard.

I took advantage of the great weather on Saturday to take a walk part way up Alleghany Mountain on a Forest Service trail off Route 600 north of the Dominion Pumped Storage Plant. The wood frogs in the vernal ponds at the upper end of the Back Creek property were so loud that I could hear them a half mile up the mountain.

The habitat along this trail is mostly dry shale with mixed pine and small oaks. One place along the trail is very much like a shale barren. I will have to go back in a couple of months and see if any of the shale barren endemics like Kate's Mountain Clover or Shale Barren Leather Flower are growing among the pines and bare shale. I'd like to find some local locations for these plants that are on public property but require a little walking to see.

My big experience of the day though was walking up on a grouse mating area. This spot couldn't have been created on purpose any better. An old log, mostly hollow, with an open end was situated in such a way that it was rotting. The base end reminded me of an old victrola speaker and I'm sure the male grouse found it effective when drumming. A couple of old logging roads converged to create an small opening in the woods with big old grape vines and shrubs around the edges.

And in this little eden, a big male grouse had taken up residence. The spot was so nice that he was reluctant to give much space when I came upon the scene. I backed off and watched as he fluffed and danced for the grouse ladies. I saw three females, but never clearly. The male put on a good show, but I did not have a long enough lens for good pictures. I was reminded that the experience is sufficient and that bringing home photos is a plus and shouldn't always be the object of my travels in the wilds.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Wildflower season is once again blooming here in the mountains of western Virginia. This blog will give reports on the flowers I have seen here in Bath County, Virginia and in the surronding Allegheny Highlands. You can visit www.bathcounty.org for more information about the natural resources of Bath County including trail guides and photos. Happy Hunting.

Over on the Walton Tract, the first Trout Lillies and a few Hepatica are in bloom. Of course Colt's Foot is starting to popup along the roads around the county. Skunk Cabbage flowers can still be found in the wet areas and the winter leaves of Puttyroot orchid and Crane-fly orchid are still around. Puttyroot can be found along the road into the Walton Tract, at a number of sites along the road at Lake Moomaw, along the trails in Hidden Valley and many other sites around the county. Crane-fly orchid is harder to find. A small patch can be seen along the Cobbler Mountain Trail.

One of the best early season wildflower walks is the road into the Walton Tract. Find a place to park and walk along the road. Be carefull where you park. The Bloodroot and Trout Lilly grow right to the edge of the road in many spots. Go over the hill to the canoe launch for Trillium and Virginia Bluebells later in the spring.