Monday, April 30, 2012

Spring Flowers at Thompson Wildlife Management Area

G. R. Thompson Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is known for its spring flowers, so much so that some of the better spots are actually marked on the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's map of the area.  A friend and I went out on yesterday for a moderate hike to see what was in bloom.  We started at the Ted Lake trailhead yesterday morning.  After several days of cool weather, the warm sun felt good as we started up the hill. 

The Ted Lake Trail crosses a creek before beginning a steep ascent up to the Appalachian Trail.  The trail follows an old road, so there are no switchbacks.  While Thompson WMA is known for its native wildflowers, those areas are all up on the ridge.  The lower elevations are full of exotic, if pretty wildflowers, including Silene vulgaris (Bladder Campion) and one of the worst invasives, Alliaria petiolata (Garlic Mustard).  We saw both of those and many others as we crossed and then climbed out of the valley.  The payoff for the climb, though is Thompson WMA's famous dense colonies of Trillium grandiflorum (Giant Trillium). By the time we made it to the Appalachian Trail, there were thousands of pink and white trilliums scattered throughout the woods.  We took a somewhat unintentional side trip on the Ted Lake Trail above the Appalachian Trail, where we saw the nicest Galearis spectabilis (Showy Orchis) of the entire hike. 

Back on the Appalachian Trail, we headed north, towards a spot with Cypripedium parviflorum (Yellow Lady Slippers).  This is the other main draw of Thompson WMA this time of year.  There aren't many places to see these lovely flowers and, at Thompson, they are right on the trail.  After spending a few minutes taking pictures, we continued on to an old road leading off the ridge, down to Lake Thompson.  We took a break there and enjoyed the view.  Several people fished from the banks.  As we were sitting there, a snake swam by in the lake.  I couldn't tell what kind it was, but it was probably 3-4 feet long. 

We hiked around the lake and returned to the car via a 2.5 mile road walk, which brought the total distance for the day close to 12 miles. If you want to see spectacular wildflowers, this is a great hike. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Trillium grandiflorum (Giant Trillium) along the Ted Lake Trail.
 Thalictrum thalictroides (Rue Anemone)
 Conopholis americana (Squawroot)
 Galaeris spectabilis (Showy Orchis)
 Cypripedium parviflorum (Yellow Lady Slipper)
 Another view of C. parviflorum.
 An example of the dense colonies of Trillium grandiflorum.
 Lake Thompson in the afternoon sun.
 This guy was crawling on the trail near the lake.
A field full of buttercups from the road.  This was one of the few views of the trip.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spring Flowers: Bluets or Quaker Ladies

Houstonia caerulea (Bluets or Quaker Ladies) have small (~3/8 inch) 4-petaled blue and white flowers that grow in clumps in the spring and early summer.  They can often be found small mounds (around 6 inches tall) lining both sides of a trail, or interspersed with grasses.  They tend to like areas where there are breaks in the forest canopy, but not full sun.  H. caerulea grows throughout eastern North America except in Florida.

The interesting thing about H. caerulea is that it is distylous , meaning that it has two flower forms (heterostyly refers to plants with multiple flower forms.  A flower that has three forms would be tristylous). H. caerulea has flowers with short stamens and a tall pistil and flowers with longer stamens and a short pistil (a good diagram of flower parts is located here). To produce fertile seeds, the pollen from tall stamens has to pollinate flowers with a tall pistil and vice versa.  This prevents self-pollination. 

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 H. caerulea on the Saddle Trail on Old Rag in 2010.
 H. caerulea on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road in March 2012.
Clusters of H. caerulea around Pedicularis canadensis (Wood Betony) and Amiantium muscitoxicum (Fly Poison) on the Appalachian Trail between Little Stony Man and Stony Man in May 2011.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Spring Flowers: Showy Orchis

Galearis spectabilis (Showy Orchis) was one of the first orchids that I encountered in the woods and recognized as an orchid.  The name, "Galaeris" is derived from the Latin word for "helmet," referring to the light-purple or pink cap on the flowers, several of which bloom on a single spike between two large ovate leaves.  The genus Galearis has only two species, one occurring in eastern Asia and the subject of this post, G. spectabilis. It blooms for a brief period in spring and, although it is widely distributed throughout Eastern North America, it is relatively uncommon.  It is listed as endangered or threatened in Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

G. spectabilis can be found in rich woodlands, often near streams and at the base of slopes.  The plants emerge before the forest canopy to take advantage of the light reaching the ground.  The flowers are pollinated by bumblebees.  Like most native orchids, they cannot be easily transplanted because they depend on specific soil fungi.   

Pictures (click to enlarge):
G. spectabilis (Showy Orchis).  This is the first example I had ever seen.  I found it on the Overall Run Falls Trail in Shenandoah National Park in 2007.
G. spectabilis on the Old Rag Ridge Trail in April 2011.  This is a great example of what the whole plant looks like.  The leaves stay green throughout the growing season, even after the flowers fade.
 Another example on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road (April 2012).
This is an unusual white variant.  I've only seen this once, at G.W. Thompson Wildlife Management Area in Virginia (May 2008). 

Monday, April 16, 2012

Epic Day on Robertson Mountain and Stony Man

Epic.  That is the only word that can describe what transpired yesterday.  We planned to hike Old Rag and Robertson Mountain in a figure eight, which would have been a long hike (~14 miles) with quite a bit of climbing and, of course, the Old Rag rock scramble.  We ended up hiking almost 21 miles with more than 4500 feet of climbing.  Michael and I broke our personal distance records by 4 and 3 miles, respectively.  And we never did hike Old Rag.  

We were late meeting Horizontal Tread and another friend due to a traffic hangup on the beltway, so we didn’t get to the parking lot until 8:30.  By that time, it was already half full. We all agreed that, rather than starting with Old Rag, we should end the day there so we would still avoid the inevitable lines.  Then there was a suggestion to add Stony Man Mountain to the mix, making what promised to be a challenging day into a truly epic day.  

We spread the map out and picked a long route that would take us over Robertson Mountain, down into Nicholson Hollow, up to Stony Man, and back down with a side trip over Old Rag (the full route is below the pictures for anyone who is interested).  Phew!  I’m worn out just typing that.  What I failed to do in the parking lot, was a quick tally of the mileage.  In the long run, that was probably good, because, had I realized what we had just planned, I likely would have pushed for something shorter.

Anyway, the flowers were blooming along the Weakley Hollow Road and we were grateful for overcast skies on the climb up to Robertson.  We took a break for lunch at the summit of Robertson. The hike up the Old Rag Fire Road and to the saddle on Indian Run Trail went by quickly.  Indian Run Trail is just as steep as I remembered it, but going down wasn’t as bad as climbing it and the Nicholson Hollow Trail up to Skyline Drive was a pretty easy climb. In contrast to the crowds on Old Rag, by the time we reached Skyline Drive, at the top of the Nicholson Hollow Trail, we had seen a grand total of 8 people.  

By this time it was sunny and probably around 80 degrees.  Since it has been cool for the last couple of weeks, the heat was bothering me a little.  The trees high on the ridge haven’t really begun to leaf out, so there is little shade.  I stopped at one point to pour some water over my head, which did help. In July, I would be grateful for 80 degrees, but it is April. We took a break in the Stony Man Overlook parking area before heading south to Little Stony Man and then on to Stony Man Mountain.  

By the time we reached Skyland resort, it was after 4 pm and we still had a lot of hiking left to do.  We took stock of where we were and how far we had to go and realized we just didn’t have enough time, on a Sunday evening to do Old Rag.  Even without it, we still had 8 miles to hike.  We also decided to get dinner at Skyland, which would give us a longer break and the chance to rehydrate.  Sitting there, waiting for a menu, I finally did that quick tally of how far we had come:  12.5 miles.  That was kind of a startling moment.  Dinner was good and we drained more than a pitcher of iced tea.  

Refreshed, we made good time down the long, quiet fire roads back to the car, catching glimpses of Old Rag in the sunset along the way.  We made it back to the car just after dark.  It took us 11 1/2 hours, but that also included almost 1 1/2 hours at Skyland, so we made reasonably good time.  The amazing thing is that I feel pretty good today: just a little stiff and a little footsore.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Uvularia perfoliata (Perfoliate Bellwort) on the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
 Orobranche uniflora (One-Flower Cancerroot)
 Galearis spectabilis (Showy Orchis)
 Mitella diphylla (Miterwort) on the Indian Run Trail.
 Michael and the Stony Man Overlook parking area with Stony Man in the background.
 Viola pedata (Birds Foot Violet)
 Green creeping up the valleys from the top of Stony Man.
 Phlox subulata (Moss Phlox)
 The sign on Skyline Drive at Skyland Resort. 
 Shadows growing long on the Old Rag Fire Road.
Old Rag at sunset from the Old Rag Fire Road.

The full route that we actually hiked:  1) Weakley Hollow Fire Road to Robertson Mountain; 2) Up and over Robertson Mountain and then up the Old Rag Fire Road to the Corbin Mountain Trail; 3) Corbin Mountain Trail to Indian Run Trail; 4) Indian Run Trail to Nicholson Hollow Trail, following that up to Skyline Drive; 5) a short walk south on Skyline Drive to pick up the Appalachian Trail south 6) Appalachian Trail across Little Stony Man to Stony Man Mountain, where we took the Stony Man Summit Trail to the top; 7) Skyland Horse Trail to Skyland Resort; 8) the Skyland Big Meadows Horse Trail to Old Rag Fire Road to Post Office Junction; and (finally) 9) back to the car via the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Wildflowers and Good Friends in Georgia

I spent the weekend in Madison, Georgia with good friends.  While we didn't hike long distances, we did get out for some nice, long walks.  They are birders and were previously scheduled to lead a bird walk as part of a local conference.  I tagged along and learned a lot about birds and the ecology of Central Georgia.  We also saw lots of local flowers.  Best of all, I got to spend time with friends that I don't get to see nearly enough.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 A mustard field on an evening walk near my friends' house. 
 Salvia lyrata (Lyre-Leaved Sage) along a roadside.  S. lyrata is a member of the Mint Family.
 Viola sp. (Violet) along a roadside.
Rock Eagle Effigy Mound at the 4-H Rock Eagle Environmental Education Center.  The mound is estimated to have been built between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago. 
An Eastern Bluebird in a field.
Hexastylis arifolia (Little Brown Jug Plant).  This little oddity is a relative of Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger)
 A small (~1.5 inches) scorpion that was under a log at Hard Labor State Park.
Trillium catesbaei (Catesby's Trillium, Rose Trillium) at Hard Labor State Park.  Trilliums are among my favorite spring flowers.  Georgia has a lot of different species, some of which were on display this weekend.
T. catesbaei (Catesby's Trillium, Rose Trillium) in pink at Hard Labor State Park

 Trillium cuneatum (Purple Toadshade) at the Athens Botanical Gardens.
 Trillium discolor (Pale Yellow Trillium) at the Athens Botanical Gardens
 A spiky caterpillar.
 Primula meadia (Shooting Star) at the Athens Botanical Gardens
 Chrysogonum virginianum (Carolina Green and Gold)
Coreopsis grandiflora (Coreopsis)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Spring Flowers: Trailing Arbutus

Epigaea repens (Trailing Arbutus) is a low-growing shrub with small 5-petaled flowers and leathery evergreen leaves.  The flowers fade from pink to white as they age.  E. repens prefers moist, acidic soil and shade. The flowers are pollinated by bumble bees and ants are thought to play a role in seed dispersal for the plant. It is a common component of the oak-heath forest type.  Other members of the oak-heath forest include (in addition to oak trees):  Kalmia latifolia (Mountain Laurel), various blueberries, and various azaleas and rhododendrons. 
E. repends can be found throughout eastern North America, but is endangered in Florida and vulnerable in New York.  It is slow-growing and vulnerable to habitat disturbances and collection. 
Epigaea repens on Jeremy's Run Trail in Shenandoah National Park (2012).  The flowers are about 1/2 inch across.
 E. repens on the Ridge Trail on Old Rag (2012).
 Another view of the leaves.  Jeremy's Run Trail, Shenandoah National Park (2012).
An example of white flowers on the Appalachian Trail near Neighbor Mountain in Shenandoah National Park (2008).

Monday, April 2, 2012

Flowers on Old Rag and a Meeting of Mountain Stewards

Michael and I had Friday off and the forecast was pretty good, so we headed to Old Rag.  Yeah, we've hiked there a lot, but we hadn't been up there since the end of fall season with Old Rag Mountain Stewards in November.  It was also a chance to hike it on a weekday, when the mountain sees far fewer visitors.

When we arrived, we were surprised to see the fee station open on a weekday.  I had gotten the impression that it was only staffed on weekends, which is apparently wrong.  We showed our pass and headed up the road. We were walking along and I found myself thinking, "I don't remember being able to see the summit from here."  Then I looked around and realized why:  There has been some logging along the road to the trailhead. Private property extends right up to the first few feet of the Ridge Trail and that has been logged.  We were talking about it and realized that, in 300 years of settlement, this is certainly not the first time the area has been logged.  The landscape is constantly changing and this is just one more of those changes.

The hike up the Ridge Trail was pleasant and we made good time.  We had lunch at the first false summit, where we noticed that it had clouded over.  By the time we were underway again, it was sprinkling.  Wet rocks just make the rock scramble more fun, right?  We ran into two women who got turned around and were heading down the mountain, but thought they were still headed for the summit.  Even off duty, we wind up giving directions.

We didn't spend long at the summit since it was raining. We took our time descending, checking out the flowers along the way.  By the time we reached Old Rag Shelter, the sun was back out and the rain had stopped.

Saturday, we had our annual spring Old Rag Mountain Stewards weekend.  This year, it was held at the Blue Ridge Environmental Center near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.  We had a good meeting, after which, much revelry ensued.  We volunteer with such an amazing group of people.  This weekend just reinforced how proud and lucky we are to get to participate in the program.  As the last activity of the meeting on Sunday, I led a wildflower hike on the grounds of the Blue Ridge Environmental Center.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Trillium grandiflorum (Giant Trillium)
 A fiddlehead on the Ridge Trail.
 Epigaea repens (Trailing Arbutus).
 Robertson Mountain after the rain.
 Houstonia caerulea (Bluets)
Sanguinaria canadensis (Bloodroot) on the Ridge Trail.  Usually, these are just starting to bloom right now.  They are mostly finished blooming this year.
 Obolaria virginica (Pennywort) on the Ridge Trail.
 Redbuds blooming along the Weakley Hollow Fire Road.
Hiking down the Weakley Hollow Fire Road. 
 Packera aureus (Golden Ragwort) on the Fire Road.
 Gordon Pond at the Blue Ridge Environmental Center near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
Arisaema triphyllum (Jack-in-the-Pulpit) on the Little Turtle Trail at the Blue Ridge Environmental Center.