Never yet was a springtime, when the buds forgot to bloom. ~ Margaret Elizabeth Sangster
This quote reminds me of the first flower buds I look for each year. They are not what most people seek in anticipation of the advent of spring — the early spring ephemerals — Bloodroot, Hepaticas and the like. What I notice first, when it is still officially winter, are certain tree flowers. Where I live, in Brooke County, West Virginia, the first tree to flower is the American Elm soon followed by the Red Maple. Right now, in early March, those flower buds are beginning to swell.
Although the buds and flowers of American Elms are not noticeable from a distance, those of the Red Maples can be seen from far away.
Closeup, the flowers of Red Maples are interestingly exquisite.
I’ve been watching them. The buds are already beginning to swell and flowers will soon follow. Spring begins!!
How do birds know? Well, I don’t pretend to have all the answers to such a broad question. However, after decades of observation, experience and research, I have learned some things about what birds already know without having to learn them. Recently Jan and I were trapping and banding birds. Due to the wind and cold temperature we decided to use ground treadle-traps instead of mist nets. Below 20 degrees our fingers get cold fast and we begin to lose the feeling necessary to use mist nets safely. Removing a bird from a ground trap is much quicker and easier and, therefore, safer for the bird when our hands are cold.
On rare occasions, a bird hawk, either a Sharp-shinned or a Cooper’s Hawk, or sometimes an American Kestrel, will see a bird in a ground trap and think it looks like an easy meal. While the other birds in the yard jump for cover, the bird hawk dives and lands on the trap. Never having experienced a ground trap before, they don’t realize the bird in the trap is safe and can’t be reached. It turns out to be a frustrating experience with no food at the end.
Most people who feed or study birds have watched a hawk taking a bird right off the feeder or they’ve seen one hunting nearby. More often than not, the hawk is still hungry at the end of most hunts. That is surprising considering the visual acuity and flying skills of hawks. But when one of these hawks is around, the alarm call is given and, in seconds, all the smaller birds vanish, hiding in the closest, thickest, safest shrubs and trees, especially evergreens if they are nearby. Often the smaller birds remain hidden until well after the hawk has gone.
Somehow songbirds recognize the danger of bird hawks immediately. Whether a bird sees the hawk itself or hears the universal “hawk” alarm call, they realize instantly that this bird is a threat. They were not taught, but they still know. They know from birth. It is described as innate/unlearned behavior. When I’m asked how this is possible, my answer is, “I don’t know.” How could I understand it — since at my birth I was a “blank slate” with no similar knowledge. Everything I know now, I had to learn. The birds seem to start life with some inborn knowledge — a definite advantage in a world that includes hawks.
Jan participates in Project Feederwatch (https://feederwatch.org/welcome-to-feederwatch/). On the two days each week when she counts birds, she spends lots of time paying attention to the feeders. On one of these days I was paying more attention, too, since I had 12 ground traps placed around the feeders. We have noticed the birds’ feeding activities don’t seem to be disturbed much by the presence of the traps and my occasional appearance there. One of the times when I looked out I noticed a European Starling in a trap — not unusual. But, amazingly, right above it, on the garage roof sat a Red-shouldered Hawk (who usually eats insects and small mammals) staring intently down at the starling. I called Jan to the window and she began to video the situation. She didn’t have to wait long . The hawk dropped down onto the cage containing the bird, not realizing that the bird was safe in its metal room.
What we found most interesting was the reaction of the other birds. Usually when a bird hawk is around, we know it’s there before we see it because of the immediate disappearance of all other birds. We have learned: no birds — look for a bird hawk. But that day as we watched the Red-shouldered Hawk jumping around on the wire cage, we also watched songbirds feeding as usual. The Red-shouldered hawk tried to figure out the cage, left, and returned several times trying to get the starling, but the other songbirds seemed unconcerned. Somehow they knew that the larger, bulkier, slower Red-shouldered Hawk posed no threat to them. Had this been one of the bird hawks, the songbirds would have vanished. They know the difference between a dangerous bird that could easily catch and eat them, and one that couldn’t catch them. Even the starling, although he kept to the far side of the cage, did not act as if he were upset by the hawk above him. Jan decided to video the birds at the feeder with the hawk on the trap in the background.
It is amazing to me that these songbirds don’t have to be taught which hawks are dangerous and which are not. They can’t have learned this from experience. If fledglings didn’t already have the split-second reflex to hide from a bird hawk or a “hawk” alarm call, there would be very few who would make it to adulthood.
But here’s something else to wonder about what birds know. The food of Red-shouldered Hawks is usually much smaller than a European Starling. They eat things like voles,chipmunks, crayfish, mice and large insects. What made this individual decide to hunt a larger animal which is not part of his innate food web? Was he hungry enough that day to hunt “outside the box” of his instinct, but in the box of the cage? And what did he learn that day about wire cages?
“Officially”, the first day of spring for 2021 will be Saturday, March 20. It is always March 19, 20, or 21 every year. Spring Equinox is the proper term for the day. An equinox is the exact instant when the Sun is directly overhead at the Equator and the Earth’s rotational axis is tilted neither towards nor away from the Sun. In technical terms, at the instant of the equinox, the Earth’s celestial equator (our equator’s imaginary projection straight out into space) intersects the center of the Sun. This happens twice a year — on the first day of spring and the first day of fall. But that’s just for scientists and calendars!
My personal first day of spring for 2021 is today, January 25! Last year it was February 18.
Since the mid-1970s, I have determined the first day of spring in a very specific and special way. It is the day when I first hear both the drumming of a woodpecker and the laughing call of a White-breasted Nuthatch on the same day. It can’t just be a woodpecker tapping, nor can it be the nuthatch’s ordinary nasal call. Those can be heard all year long. But the drumming and the laughing call seem to happen when the birds sense that the season is beginning to change a little and they are beginning to feel the changes in themselves which will lead to nesting.
This morning I went out early to set some bird traps for the research projects Jan and I are involved in. Right away I heard a woodpecker drumming, which is not at all common this early in the year. When I came inside I said, “Jan, there’s a woodpecker drumming. I’m going to take my hike early — right now.” Jan changed into her cold-weather hiking clothes and joined me. Right away there were several birds singing what we refer to as their “spring songs” — Song Sparrow, Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse. After about a mile into our hike we heard it: the laughing call of the White-breasted Nuthatch. And a short time later, we heard the woodpecker’s drumming again. We heard them both again, off-and-on, during the rest of our hike.
For me, the first day of spring is a challenge. I can’t notice it if I am inside, so this challenge gets me outside — into nature. The cool air is refreshing. Being in nature clears my head. Sometimes I just saunter and listen. Other times the exercise is heart thumping. But either way, I know I am much healthier in many ways for being in nature. Always, I say to myself, “This has been a wonderful day! Remember when it’s cold, rainy, windy or oppressively hot to spend time in Nature anyway!” I hope to accept this challenge –to find my first day of spring and to find myself in Nature — again and again. I embrace the challenge. I embrace all the wonders of Creation and the renewal which is Spring.
The year 2020 will go into the history books as a grim year for a variety of reasons. However, 2020 also has a silver lining for those interested in watching and feeding birds. Many surprising northern-nesting finch species have arrived this fall, but the fall/winter of 2020-21 will be known by Jan and me (and others we know) as “the year of the Pine Siskin irruption”. An irruption happens when the cone crop food fails in these birds’ home territory of Canada’s boreal forest. Drought, fire, disease, spruce budworm outbreaks or other disasters dramatically reduce cone and seed production among spruce, aspen, ash, birch, and other kinds of trees. Irruptions happen when birds that are usually non-migratory do migrate farther south than normal to where food is more available.
These videos shows how it looked at our feeders on many days this fall.
Of course there are other kinds of birds at the feeders, too, but not in huge numbers like the siskins. Pine Siskins are small birds, 4.3-5.5 in. in length, and weighing about 1/2 oz., similar in size to the American Goldfinch.
Pine Siskins are not bright-colored birds. The brightest color is the yellow in some of the wing and tail feathers, especially on some males.
Pine Siskins can be encountered, depending on the year and season, throughout most of North America.
All Seasons – Common
Breeding – Common
Winter – Uncommon
Pine Siskins are not known to nest in West Virginia, but I suspect they might. On several occasions I have encountered flocks during the breeding season while leading field trips or solo hiking in the Dolly Sods Wilderness. They are always in the same area — the highest elevation along the beginning of the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail in a red spruce forest.
Greg Eddy called me one early July morning and wanted a favor. He was leaving town for a while and had heard Pine Siskins in his neighborhood. Being far north nesters, the siskins shouldn’t be around this area at this time of the year. I agreed to check them out, if I could find them. Greg’s neighborhood was different than most. The lots were larger than most places, and many large trees were left as part of the landscaping. Some of the housing development was more like a forest with houses. I parked in Greg’s driveway and proceeded to the large spruce trees on his property. Knowing that siskins preferred evergreens, I decided to concentrate on areas with groups of pines and spruces. Also, I was hoping that the siskins would be vocal, making them easier to find. Walking around the spruces I saw few birds and none were siskins. I decided to walk the roadways and listen before I went into someone’s yard. A car stopped and the man inside said, “You’re Mr. Beatty, aren’t you? I was at one of your workshops a couple of years back. What are you doing here?”
“There are some unusual birds in the area, and I am trying to find them and determine if they are nesting here,” I said.
He said, “Good luck,” and drove away.
Walking past one house, a lady I knew came over and we talked about what I was doing, as well as what her husband and two children were doing. After our talk I thought, “If I meet anyone else I know, I may be out here all day.”
From behind a nearby house I heard, “Shreeeeeee,”of a Pine Siskin. From the sounds, I knew there was more than one bird. From the roadway I saw a large stand of Scotch pine trees in the middle of five houses, all with their backs to the pines. I went through a yard into the pines. The birds were still singing, “Shreeeeeee, Shreeeeeee, Shreeeeeee.” They seemed to be right in front of me, but high in the trees. Without warning, a flock of tiny birds flew from the trees, right over my head. There were 14. The flocking habit of the siskins told me they were not nesting, as they were not paired off. However, it was still strange to find them here in July.
I followed the flock into another pine woods behind another home which I could barely see through the trees. The siskins were hiding somewhere in the pines. I could still hear their, “Shreeeeeee, Shreeeeeee, Shreeeeeee,” calls. To gain a better vantage point, I walked away from the pines and off to the side. Every now and again I caught a glimpse of a siskin, but only for an instant. They took to the air again, and I followed them through my binoculars and found myself looking at a young lady standing on her back porch on the second floor of her house. She was quite attractive with long blond hair and a sparse bikini. As she stood there smiling at me, I stood there still looking at her through the binoculars. She waved. I immediately lowered the binoculars and waved back. Feeling she needed an explanation as to why a strange man was behind her house watching her through binoculars I walked over.
Right away she said, “Come on up.”
There were stairs leading to the porch.
On the porch I thought, “Here I am on this hot day in GI camo pants and a sweaty t-shirt and right in front of me is an attractive young lady in her bikini.” She said, “Please sit down. Would you like some lemonade?”
I responded, “Yes, that would be nice.”
She went inside and soon came out with my drink. Although she never asked me what I was doing, I still needed to justify why I was staring at her through my binoculars. I said, “My name is Bill Beatty and I was checking on some unusual birds in the area. They happened to be in your backyard and when they flew, I followed them with the binoculars and then….there you were.”
Right away she said, “I saw you looking at something in the trees. And I was a bit curious. And when those birds flew past me, I knew you were looking for them.” She continued with, “I wanted to be outside on such a beautiful day. Tomorrow I am getting married.”
“Really,” I said, “Congratulations!”
She thanked me and we sat talking and drinking lemonade. We talked about her excitement and even about the Pine Siskins and why their presence there was so unusual. When I left she wished me luck with the siskins, and I wished her luck with her wedding. I returned to Greg’s house thinking, “That’s enough excitement for one day. I don’t want to press my luck.”
Because we band birds, Jan and I can more accurately determine population densities of the birds in our area compared to people who can only watch birds at their feeders or through binoculars. Amazingly, just in the 2 1/2 months so far of fall/winter 2020-21 there have been the most Pine Siskins I have ever experienced for a season in my 46 years of banding birds. On October 21, 2020 we banded 100 Pine Siskins in one day, and by December 29 we had banded our 200th siskin. Interestingly, when Jan does her weekly, two-day “Project Feederwatch” counts for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology ( https://feederwatch.org/about/detailed-instructions/ ), she doesn’t count anywhere near 100 Pine Siskins seen together at one time. Her numbers are typically in the 20s. However, when we are banding, catching them one-by-one, the numbers are significantly higher.
On some days we will see many birds, as in the videos above. On other days we don’t see even one. Did the large flock move on south? Or did a neighbor have a better feeding station than ours? Were there Coopers or Sharp-shinned Hawks in our area? When the large flocks return, are they the same birds we had before or has another northern flock taken their place? There is no other way to answer the last question except by banding and recapturing the birds. Our banding shows that when one flock of siskins moves on to another feeding area, we are often seeing a completely different flock later. But banding also shows that the first flock sometimes does come back here en masse, meaning that they stayed in the area and did not continue farther south. Can we speculate how many flocks are in the area? Examining our recapture data of the siskins we had banded this year and then re-encountered later in the winter might help with that.
On December 14, Jan and I had a video conference via Zoom scheduled for 10 am. Just before 10, to our delight and chagrin, we noticed an unusual Pine Siskin. The feathers on top of its head were all white — a leucistic “white-crowned” Pine Siskin! We were excited to see this unique bird, but troubled that we didn’t have time to take the photos we wanted. Jan did manage to shoot a few quick pictures before our meeting. After the conference, we looked for the bird all day, but it was gone.
More than a week went by with daily feeder visits of large and small flocks of Pine Siskins. We scanned them all carefully to find the flash of white on the head. No luck! I surmised that the flock with the “white-crowned” siskin had moved south and we would never see it again. I posted the quick photos we had onto several bird-related Facebook groups for West Virginia. One of the responses to my photos was, “I have pics of one of these birds. Are these normal? I can post pics if you would like me to do so.” Hmmm. My first thought was that perhaps this man’s bird was a White-crowned Sparrow or some other bird, but surely not the exact same siskin we had seen. I asked him to post his photos. The photos he posted were definitely of a Pine Siskin — the same one we had seen! He shared the date his photos were taken and where. The “white-crowned” siskin was at his feeders on November 25, two weeks before we had seen it. And, most interesting to me was that he lived only 1 mile from us. Apparently the Pine Siskin flocks were not migrating further south, instead they were visiting different feeders in the same general area. Now, my hopes returned of seeing the “white-crowned” one again and of getting some close photos of this unusual bird.
On December 29 the bird did return. Not only were we able to see it, but, as I was setting up my long lens to take photos, the bird hopped right into a ground trap I had put out less than an hour before! We captured it, banded it, and got the close photos we wanted. Jan was fascinated by the one brown feather on top and by how the white feathers and brown feathers mix at the edges of the patch.
The mission of the West Virginia Master Naturalist Program is to train interested people in the fundamentals of natural history, nature interpretation and teaching, and to instill in them an appreciation of the importance of responsible environmental stewardship. The program will also provide a corps of highly qualified volunteers to assist government agencies, schools, and non-government organizations with research, outdoor recreation development, and environmental education and protection.
Jan and I got a new trailer in January. We didn’t get rid of our old one, but when we took our 2006 18-foot Micro-light to have the roof re-caulked, we decided to look at even smaller trailers on the lot. There happened to be a 2015 15-foot Whitewater Retro on consignment. It is light enough to be pulled by our mini-van. We got a great bargain, and all-of-a-sudden we had two trailers! We usually travel a lot each year, especially from mid-April until the end of June, leading workshops, guiding hikes and teaching. We plan to use the smaller trailer for short stays away from home. The “big” one is more like a cabin for longer stays.
But Covid happened and everything was cancelled, so our maiden voyage with the new trailer didn’t happen until 10 months later in October. We had to attend a meeting at Canaan Valley State Park. We could have gotten up really early that day and made a very long day of it, but decided instead to take the “little one” on her maiden voyage, arriving the day before, and staying for some hiking.
What turned out to be the best part of a great trip was that our wonderful friend Cindy was camped about 20 yards away for the first 2 days. There was even a trail between our two camp sites! The first thing Cindy asked was, “Can we go to see the Fringed Gentian?” Soon we were on our way.
There is only one known site for the Fringed Gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) in West Virginia, and it is a spectacular wildflower. When we have seen them before, it was about 1 week earlier in the season and they were already in full bloom. Luckily, this year the season was later and we were fortunate to see the Fringed Gentian in various stages of flowering — from flower bud to full flower.
At this same location we found some beautiful Nodding Ladies’ Tresses Orchids (Spiranthes cernua).
Cindy wanted to make supper for us. Absolutely! We had a lovely supper of delicious Chicken Romano and a table full of side dishes.
Later we sat around a campfire and had fun reminiscing.
Cindy had to leave the next day, but we enjoyed a bit more time together before our meeting started. Due to renovations happening at the Blackwater State Park Lodge next spring, the West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage will be held at nearby Canaan Valley State Park in 2021. Since I am in charge of the birding aspect of the Pilgrimage and Jan is one of my bird leaders, we decided after our meeting to hike areas near the Canaan Lodge to see where the early morning bird walks would go. The fall colors were beautiful.
On our walk we discovered a hole where a turtle had laid her eggs. Unfortunately, a predator had found the nest and destroyed it, eating the eggs.
Deer were easy to see and approach — they are used to people in the park.
On our last full day at Canaan we began with a leisurely, hearty breakfast.
Jan and I decided to hike the 6-mile Promised Land Trail loop. Since we often stop, explore and take photos…
…we knew there wouldn’t be enough time to do the whole loop. Fortunately, there are several trails that intersect and they made it possible to get back to where we parked well before dinner time.
I appreciate BIG trees. To put things into perspective, a BIG Sassafras tree isn’t nearly as big as a BIG Tuliptree. I determine a BIG tree as being big compared to others of the same kind/species. What impressed me most about the Promised Land Trail was that, early on, we went through a woods with some BIG Wild Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) trees.
Jan saw some unusual patterns to photograph, like these holes made by a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker…
…and other interesting shapes and designs.
At one point, the trail skirted the woods with views of large, open wetlands on our right. Soon we noticed a beaver dam on Club Run.
We decided to explore. I went down and stood on the beaver dam while Jan walked to the other end of the pond where Club Run flows in.
After exploring areas surrounding the beaver dam we continued on Promised Land Trail and discovered more interesting things.
A tangle of dead trees and branches —
Beech Drops (Epifagus virginiana), an obligate parasitic plant which grows and subsists on the roots of American Beech trees —
Fall-colored Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum) leaf with brilliant color —
American Witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in bloom —
American Basswood (Tilia americana) tree cluster —
Fall-colored Red Maple (Acer rubrum) leaves everywhere —
A tiny Lion’s Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) —
Thanks to Cindy, we had lots of delicious leftovers to add to our planned supper on the last evening: clam chowder with extra clams and rice, vege slices with dip, Greek olives and homemade applesauce.
After dinner we enjoyed a campfire and made some new friends (also West Virginians) from the campsite next to ours.
Although Jan did come home with a couple dozen things to get or to do to the new trailer, we were pleased with how things worked on our first trip.
Even after we left Canaan Valley, we continued to enjoy the fall color that helps make West Virginia… Almost Heaven.
Many of my hikes on Dolly Sods are leading groups and teaching about the Nature of the Sods. Other times I hike with one or two friends to special, rarely-visited habitats. And sometimes I am alone exploring new areas or looking for rare plants and birds. However, this year Jan and I found ourselves with an unusual circumstance — we were alone for a day — just us. Jan said, “I haven’t been to the Rohrbaugh Plains overlook for a long time. I’d like to go there again.” That’s all I needed to hear.
We packed our backpacks and headed for the Rohrbaugh Plains trailhead.
The first part of the trail is a moderately rocky, uphill hike through a deciduous forest consisting primarily of American Beech trees.
We soon noticed a familiar Red Spruce tree with a dead branch that had set the stage for a photo I took of our granddaughter, Haley. In 2011 we spent 8 days on Dolly Sods with her for her eighth birthday. She was a great photographer’s model. I decided to see what that was like.
At the top of the hill, the habitat changes dramatically, from a deciduous American Beech woods to a verdant evergreen woods consisting mainly of Red Spruce trees with an under-story of Rhododendron and Mountain Laurel.
One of Jan’s favorite photo subjects is root and branch tangles.
All along the trail we found interesting mushrooms.
Beside the trail the trees and shrubs were so thick in some places that it was difficult to explore, but easy to hide.
Because we are often exploring in nature, teaching about the things we observe and showing the wonders of creation, Jan and I sometimes discover secret things — like this recently-used thrush’s nest.
At first I thought it was a Hermit Thrush nest, but when I looked more closely and saw how much moss was incorporated in it, I decided it was probably the nest of a Swainson’s Thrush. That was an exciting find!
The Hermit Thrush is a common nesting bird in the Dolly Sods Wilderness, however, Swainson’s Thrushes are uncommon. While leading spring hikes on Rohrbaugh Plains Trail I have heard many Hermits singing their beautiful song — my favorite. But I have only heard the Swainson’s twice along this trail. Birdsong in the spring is one indicator that the males are staking out territories for nesting. So hearing a Swainson’s at that time of year, when most of those thrushes are much farther north, is a good sign that some stayed to nest on the mountaintop.
Hermit Thrush song —
Swainson’s Thrush song —
The familiar leaf wheels of the Whorled Wood Aster (Oclemena acuminata) were growing in many locations.
There weren’t many plants flowering along the trail, but there were a few like this Crooked-stem Aster (Symphyotrichum prenanthoides).
Most people who look at an aster in flower don’t notice that there are, in reality, very many tiny flowers which together look like one flower. Look closely at the aster photo below, and you can see that there are many little flowers growing in the central disk, each flower producing just one seed. Each “disk flower” has 5 tiny petals fused together, plus 5 stamens fused around a pistil with antennae-like stigmas.
Identifying an aster to species is difficult for most people, since they psyche themselves out because there are so many similar species. However, if one looks at the color of the rays of the flowers, the size and shape of the leaves and the way the leaves attach to the stem, then the identification is not so difficult. In the two photos below notice the leaf tapering gradually at the end to a point and, on the stem side, abruptly narrowing as the leaf clasps the stem. These leaf characteristics and the violet rays of the flowers together make the Crooked-stem Aster identification easy.
The trail crossed several small streams and the only sounds we could hear were made by the water meandering through the rocks.
We decided to photograph each other at this happy spot.
Clubmosses seemed to be everywhere.
Jan noticed the berry clusters of Canada Mayflowers (Maianthemum canadense). During the spring when I lead hikes on the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail, these plants are in full flower.
We had quite a journey to our destination, the Rohrbaugh Plains Overlook. It was time to relax, eat lunch and enjoy the incredible views.
In 2005 I led a group from Oglebay Institute’s Mountain Nature Camp (a nature studies camp for adults) to the overlook and took a photo in the same area. Jan was in that group.
After food, rest and wonderful photo ops at the Rohrbaugh Plains overlook, we returned on the same trail we had traveled earlier. It was interesting to see some of the same things from a different angle as we retraced our steps.
And speaking of steps, as usual on this trail, we hadn’t really noticed how dramatically the trail descends from the Red Spruce hilltop. We had heard someone call this section of trail the “Rohrbaugh Staircase”. The return trip was more challenging through the “Staircase”, but it still took us less time than our outward journey — I think we did less exploring as we were homeward bound.
Jan and I had a great time hiking together, taking photos, identifying plants and making nature discoveries. But, what I think was most special to both of us was being alone in the Dolly Sods Wilderness — the solitude of just us.
Each year Jan and I usually spend 2 weeks in September volunteering at the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO) on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau in the mountains of West Virginia. We go to bed with the sunset — usually about 8 pm, and rise each morning at 5 am to open the mist nets in the dark for morning bird banding. This year was different due to COVID. AFMO didn’t open. But we decided we would still go to the Dolly Sods Wilderness in September. This year, instead of “early to bed and early to rise”, we sat around the campfire until 10 pm and got up the next morning whenever we wanted to. We had no schedule. Best of all, close friends were camped at sites on either side of us.
For extended visits to the Dolly Sods Wilderness area, we camp at the Red Creek Campground, a primitive campground in the Monongahela National Forest.
I started the first morning by taking some photos.
My first photo was of a White Flat-topped Aster (Doellingeria umbellata). It is, by far, the most common aster in the Dolly Sods Wilderness.
Just across the road was a goldenrod. Some of the goldenrods are hard to know by sight and I had to key this one. It keyed out to be Elm-leaved Goldenrod (Solidago ulmifolia).
Several butterflies caught my attention. Just across the camp road was a Flowering Dogwood, the only dogwood I saw during our time on Dolly Sods. And drying out on the fall-colored leaves was a Monarch Butterfly.
A Question Mark Butterfly couldn’t resist enjoying a nearby partially-eaten pear.
We noticed Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies on several occasions.
After more than an hour of shooting photos, Jan and I sat down to a nice picnic lunch, and, a short time later, our last homegrown watermelon.
I hiked every day. Sometimes Jan hiked with me and sometimes she followed her own trail. One day, after talking with two campers also staying in the campground, I invited them to join Jan, Lee and me to hike on the Allegheny Front Vista Trail.
It was fun to share with new friends some new sights they had never seen on Dolly Sods.
For several evenings Jan and I set out a mist net and audio lure to attract locally-breeding Northern Saw-whet Owls as part of Project Owl-Net. On most evenings, while the audio lure beeped out the sound of a Northern Saw-whet Owl, we sat around the campfire sharing stories with various friends.
One night we did catch a NSWO. She was a young, local bird, very well-behaved in spite of her razor-sharp talons.
NSWOs are aged by using a UV light to check the porphyrins present on the underside of the wing feathers. New feathers have lots of the chemical, which shows up as bright pink under the ultra-violet light. Since all her feathers show the pink, they are all newly grown this year. That only happens the year a bird is born.
To determine that this bird was a female we had to take 2 measurements. After measuring her longest flight feather in the wing (wing chord) and weighing her, we took those measurements to the chart developed by past NSWO banders. Based on their experience, a bird with her measurements would be a female.
It is always fun to see what a NSWO will do when it is released. Some fly away immediately and are silently out of sight in seconds. Others don’t mind hanging around for a while.
One morning Jan and I explored an open area near the campground. We found some interesting things. Golden Ragwort is a distinctive-looking plant, but at this time of year, only the leaves were present after having bloomed earlier in the spring.
Initially we were unsure of this leaf rosette. Then we noticed the same basal leaves on a plant that was blooming profusely nearby.
A large female Garden Spider was in her orb web as if she were guardian of the meadow we were exploring.
Rock Polypody Ferns (Polypodium virginianum) covered many rocks in shaded areas.
Lots of Many-flowered Gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia) were in full bloom and could be found in several open areas near Forest Service Road 75, but we didn’t see any in the backcountry.
Shrubby St. John’s-wort (Hypericum prolificum) with their seed capsules appeared to be almost everywhere we went.
Indian Cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana), which had already flowered, was easy to notice due to its whorled leaves. Most often the plants have one or two levels of whorled leaves, but this one had four!
On Dolly Sods our camping meals vary from very simple with no cooking, to gourmet, expertly cooked by friends Jeff and Shelia.
One-pan suppers make for the easiest clean-up, which I appreciate since that’s my job. One night Jan cooked salmon steaks with fried potatoes and onions. W.V. peaches Jan had frozen days before completed the feast.
Supper at Jeff and Shelia’s campsite started with fried manchego cheese wrapped in fresh sage leaves (from Jan’s herb garden) as an appetizer.
The main course was sliced rib-eye steak and varieties of Hericium mushrooms, expertly prepared.
And for dessert we had a special treat: fresh-picked apples and cranberries, both from Dolly Sods, in an apple/cranberry galette. Everything was ABSOLUTELY delicious!
We were happy, well-fed Dolly Sods campers!
Captain Morgan, a.k.a. Lee Miller, is my frequent hiking companion on Dolly Sods.
Our hikes are often shorter in miles than we plan, and longer in time than we expect, because we are always stopping to investigate, like here where we are examining a fungus on a dead, fallen Red Spruce.
Lee and I found quite a few interesting fungi, including a highly prized, medicinal Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) mushroom growing on a Yellow Birch Tree.
Among the many kinds of fungus we discovered were the deadly Destroying Angel Mushroom (Amanita bisporigera) and
the Gelatinous Stalked-puffball (Calostoma cinnabarinum).
Each September, when Jan and I are on Dolly Sods working at the AFMO, I invite a small group to accompany me on a 5-mile hike on a trail that does not appear on any Dolly Sods trail maps. This year there were 8 of us, including Dahle, the dog.
In many Dolly Sods rock fields, berry-loaded American Mountainash Trees (Sorbus americana) were obvious.
The “bent” tree is a trail indicator we sometimes use to lead us to our lunch site and is a good place to search for snakes.
Lunch time was at the edge of at the Red Pine Plantation and the High Mountain Meadow.
Although we didn’t see any Black Bears on Dolly Sods this year, we did find several fresh bear scats – always full of Wild Black Cherry seeds.
The midway point of the Bog to Bog Loop Trail is at Fisher Spring Run Bog, probably Dolly Sods’ largest wetland.
Bog Goldenrod (Solidago uliginosa) is probably the most common goldenrod on Dolly Sods. It is often the only goldenrod found in bogs and other wetlands, but is also common in dry habitats.
Crossing Fisher Spring Run Bog can provide some difficult hiking depending on how wet it is. This fall the bog was drier than usual and crossing was less difficult. Still, it took quite a while due to how large it is.
Is Lee: 1) praying we find our way out of the vast wilderness, 2) looking for a contact lens, 3) trying to suck water from moss, or 4) trying to identify some animal by tasting its scat?
And the answer is…
The next day was cold (27 degrees) in the morning, but warmed rapidly. Jan found a warm, comfortable spot to sit and repair her hiking pants.
I decided to go hiking.
On a hike with Lee, I discovered that what I had been previously identifying as “Winterberry” (Ilex verticillata) was actually “Mountain Holly” a.k.a. “Mountain Winterberry” (Ilex montana) … those @^#*! common names can get confusing! Just so I could keep these two deciduous hollies straight in my mind, I collected berries from both, squeezed out the nutlets and photographed them. The “Mountain Holly”/”Mountain Winterberry” has ridges on the nutlets while the “Winterberry” nutlets are smooth.
On clear nights the Milky Way was incredible. Dolly Sods is one of the darkest places east of the Mississippi River. One camper we met explained that it is the standard of darkness for the eastern U.S. — the goal for the rest of the areas to attain. We were lucky to be there while the moon was “new” and the sky was at its most dark.
It was amazing how many friends we encountered during our stay. The wild, mountainous plateau is like a magnet for others who also appreciate its beauty and nature.
How time flies on Dolly Sods. Our 10 days were over much too soon. On our way home we stopped in Davis, WV, to get a Sirianni’s pizza.
While I ordered the pizza, Jan shopped at “Wild Ginger and Spice”. I wandered around Davis for a short time while waiting for the food.
Leaving Dolly Sods is always bittersweet for Jan and me. It is sad to say goodby to close friends and the beautiful mountain plateau we’ve grown to love and respect. But we are also glad to get home to our own special “Almost Heaven” place in West Virginia.
Jan and I found ourselves with a lot of time to spend at home this late spring. All of our spring programs had been cancelled. You know we aren’t the type to sit around. We always have a list of things we want to do to improve our property, especially ways to make it more attractive for wildlife, but we don’t always have the time. Since we like to do things ourselves and the time was available this year, we were able to accomplish several big projects. Jan’s recent post ( https://wvbirder.wordpress.com/2020/07/24/bills-spruce-adventure-by-jan-runyan/ ) relates the story of how we removed a large, dying blue spruce in the back yard. This project left dozens of large branches to cut up for firewood.
I didn’t consider the project finished until I had cut and stacked the spruce logs for fall/winter campfires. And that part of the project led to a real surprise.
Most days I walk our trails. Much of what I see and hear is the same from day to day, but sometimes there are surprises — something totally unexpected. Recently I was brought to a halt by some faint, but slightly noticeable, somewhat familiar sounds. Standing still, I turned my head in the direction of the sounds. When I saw where they were coming from I knew right away what was causing them. I had experienced these same sounds years before from the same kind of creature. Smiling, I went to the house and said what Jan hears on a regular basis, “Get your shoes on! There’s something I want to show you!”
We stopped near the stacked spruce logs and I said, “Listen. Do you hear that?” “Yeah, what is it?” Jan asked. We went closer and the sounds became louder, more obvious.
It was like a squeaky crunching or the snipping sound of scissors or clippers. It wasn’t a loud sound, but loud enough to hear when standing nearby. The piles of fresh tiny wood pieces were a clue, too.
Sometime after I had stacked the spruce firewood, Pine Sawyer Beetles had visited and laid their eggs in the dead wood.
The eggs hatched and the resulting larvae began burrowing into the logs. Young larvae feed on the inner bark, cambium, and outer sapwood, forming shallow excavations. As they grow older and larger with each larval molt, they start to bore back toward the surface, thus forming a U-shaped tunnel.
The clumps of sawdust and, of course, the constant munching sounds, which can be heard for several week, were clues to the presence of Pine Sawyer Beetles.
Now, three weeks later, the chomping is still coming from the woodpile and more firewood is changing to sawdust. This is one of the ways Nature takes care of cleaning her house and changing the solid wood into nutrients for current and future living things.
We have wonderful neighbors. They watch out for us in many ways. Just a couple of weeks ago, Joanie called to let us know that her daughter, Nicole, who lives nearby, had discovered some big birds building a nest in a tree at the back of her yard. They weren’t sure, but had an idea what kind of birds they were. If we were interested we could go see them any time. So we grabbed binoculars, a scope and our cameras.
Standing in the hot sun on Nicole’s deck, we watched one bird bring in sticks from time to time and give them to the bird who stayed by the developing nest. The “home-body” added the sticks to what looked, to us, like just a loose pile on a tree branch.
Our friends’ search in bird books was accurate…here, high in a tree, on some of the highest land in Brooke County, not near any water or wetlands, were Green Herons making a place to raise a family.
We guessed that it was the female who stayed at the nest while the male flew off and then returned with a stick.
He would land nearby in the tree and walk the branches to the nest. There he gave the stick to the female. She would place the stick in a specific location and then fuss with it while her mate watched.
When they both seemed satisfied, he would walk away and then fly off in search of another stick.
While the male was gone, the female rested by the growing nest or fussed with some of the nest sticks, improving the construction.
This continued the whole time we were there.
By the time we left, the nest still looked to us like just a random pile of twigs, but the birds appeared to be satisfied with what they were doing.
Days later, we got a report that a bird was sitting on the nest. Later we were told that Nicole had seen five heads peeking out of the nest. One of the heads seemed to be much younger than the others.
Then, after a windy storm, we got a report that the nest had fallen to a much lower place in some large bushes, but the five babies were still in the disheveled, broken nest.
We went to Nicole’s to see the broken nest with nestlings. From the deck, we looked about eye level at the top of a bush in the back of the yard. A small pile of sticks was all that was left of the nest.
After many minutes of watching with binoculars, we decided that there were no nestlings in it. We searched the bush and the ground around it for signs of movement. Nothing. We were discouraged, but kept looking. Finally, we saw movement high in the branches of the trees, much higher than the broken nest. Looking carefully, we finally identified the movement as the fuzzy butts of Green Heron nestlings.
On their wings, a few adult feathers were starting to show, but they still had a lot of down.
Luckily, Bill discovered that we could get a better view from down below in the yard – wonderfully shaded from the heat of the sun. I set up the tripod for my camera.
The young herons were well camouflaged, but occasional movement helped us see where they were.
Soon we saw two adult Green Herons fly in, but they stayed on the far side of the tree, nowhere near the two fuzzy butts we were watching. After a few minutes they left without coming anywhere near our two babies. It was puzzling that “our” babies hadn’t been fed. Nicole had said that the adults were feeding the nestlings about every 45 minutes, so we were determined to wait and see them again.
We watched the young birds as they stretched, preened and mostly rested.
From time to time they would move to a slightly different place and I would have to move the camera to keep them in sight.
Usually they were close to each other, but sometimes they moved apart.
It was funny to watch their long yellow toes which support them so well in the muddy water’s edge now wrapped almost all the way around a branch and flexing to help them keep their balance.
It seemed that, on those smaller branches, babies that size would slip and fall hopelessly to the ground where some predator would find them.
Amazingly, they were able to perch on and traverse the branches, although clumsily, without too much difficulty.
Occasionally the pair would touch each other’s bill, almost as if they were trying to get food as they would from an adult.
When they preened, sometimes I could see small pieces of feather sheath falling as a bird bit the sheath to free the newly forming feathers.
45 minutes… From time to time I would get a new angle and more photos or some videos, but no adult Green Herons with food for the young.
1 hour… Bill and I began occasional stretching (birders yoga) similar to the birds we were watching.
1 ½ hours… We met a neighbor who also likes to watch birds.
When another neighbor came by with a loud lawnmower, the birds paid attention for a while, but then one yawned. As he yawned, I learned more about how adult birds can give their babies the food they’re carrying. (Watch carefully at the 17 second mark.)
Finally, when we had been watching for about 2 hours since the adults had last come in, Bill spotted an adult Green Heron fly in – and then another.
The demeanor of the young ones changed dramatically. They started almost running up and down the branches, flapping their wings and opening their mouths.
We couldn’t hear much, but it was clear that they were actively begging for food.
Twice we saw a rusty-colored adult come to our side of the tree and feed the young we had been watching. The feeding was rapid and somewhat violent. It almost looked as if the adult and young were fighting.
Even after the adults left, the young herons were agitated and begged for a while. Then they calmed down and went back to resting.
After things calmed down, we decided not to wait for the next feeding session – standing for three hours of heron watching was enough in one day for us. It was then that we glimpsed two more Green Heron young way in the back of the tree. One of those was noticeably smaller than the other. We figured that those 2 (or maybe 3 were back there since there had originally been 5 nestlings) had been fed earlier, the first time the adults had come in on the far side of the tree. That was why we had not seen any adults near “our” two birds then.
It was great to verify that at least 4 herons, including the youngest baby, had survived the fall from the original branch and were growing stronger as they exercised, rested and were fed.
We are so grateful to have neighbors who made the effort to share with us the wonders of new bird life!
Jan and I were invited by Paulita, Naturalist at Blackwater Falls State Park, to lead the West VirginiaNatural History of Plants and Birds Weekend. To me it seemed like a mini West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage. We had a smaller group of very interested participants and the best part of it all, to me, was getting to know everyone so well.
Jan presented her The Making of Dolly Sods program Friday afternoon. That evening, I presented my West Virginia Plants that Changed the World program. These were in preparation for our all-day Dolly Sods area field trip on Saturday.
In the Dolly Sods area we drove from Laneville to Bear Rocks, approximately 11 miles, stopping and looking at wildflowers and listening for birds. The first stop was the Dolly Sods Picnic Area to visit the spring and see Golden Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium americanum).
Golden Saxifrage is an excellent indicator of very clean water. Both public springs on Dolly Sods have it growing there.
Between the spring and the road is a beautiful stand of Bee Balm (Monardadidyma). We discussed West Virginia’s four different Monarda species and how to tell them apart.
A short distance away was the trailhead of Rohrbaugh Plains Trail. This is a great example of how, in a short distance and elevation change, the plant life changes. On the way up one of our class members discovered something quite interesting: a Cordyceps militaris fungus, also known as the Zombie Mushroom because it is a parasite on a variety of insects, especially sphinx moth pupea.
This video tells why it is referred to as the Zombie Mushroom.
Our next stop on Dolly Sods was a meadow full of Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). The Monarch Butterflies were actively laying eggs and we saw some tiny, tiny monarch caterpillars feeding on the plant.
One of the most fascinating finds was on the underside of a milkweed leaf. A group of ants was tending to the “ant cows” a.k.a. aphids. Aphid excrement is referred to as honeydew and the ants collect it for food.
This meadow also had many Pipevine Swallowtail Butterflies. We knew there had to be Dutchman’s Pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla), the host plant of the larva, somewhere on Dolly Sods to have so many of the butterflies there. We looked for it, but we were in sunny locations near the road most of the time and those plants prefer shady areas, so we didn’t see it.
We saw many other wildflowers.
Next we walked Northland Loop Trail, looking for and finding many kinds of plants.
Most fascinating were the insectivorous plants — the sundews.
Just after we explored the Alder Run Bog Boardwalk, one of the predicted rain showers came by, for which we were very glad. The prediction of rain kept home some of the many people who are discovering Dolly Sods this year, so we were able to find parking places in the locations we wanted to explore.
Our next stop was the West Virginia Nature Conservancy’s Bear Rocks Nature Preserve, arguably the most scenic place on Dolly Sods.
Bear Rocks is very scenic with many outstanding views of the mountain ridges to the east and many wonderful rock formations to explore.
The last wildflowers we looked at were Wood Lilies (Lilium philadelphicum) growing in the meadows nearBear Rocks.
After a restroom stop at the Dolly Sods Campground, most of us walked a short distance to the location (mid-August to October) of the Allegheny Front Bird Observatory along the Allegheny Front. We managed to get occasional glimpses of the ridge and valley area of West Virginia to the east through the rain clouds we had worked around all day.
On Saturday evening The Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia presented a most excellent and informative program. (http://www.accawv.org/ )
Two of the birds they brought were red and gray morphs of the Eastern Screech-owl.
Before breakfast on Sunday, Jan and I walked behind the Blackwater Lodge listening to birds, looking at plants and taking in the breathtaking views of the Blackwater Canyon.
After breakfast the group drove to Idleman’s Run Trail in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
The meadows were full of Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum).
In the meadow and along the trail we also found interesting insects.
Paulita, Jan and I were the leaders this weekend, but as with many field trips where I am teaching, there are participants who add a great deal to the information we share about identification and natural history. Emily explained this about one of the plants we found.
Two years ago when Jan and I had been exploring the trail, we had found several small, often overlooked, Daisy-leaf Moonwort (Botrychium matricariifolium) ferns. We found them again last year. This year they were gone from the original location where we had seen them before. However, when we stopped to look at a mushroom, a Daisy-leaf Moonwort was discovered. It was in a different location, but still along Idleman’s Run.
At Dolly Sods and Idleman’s Run, Jan occasionally showed interesting geological sights, often talking about weathering and erosion. Here she showed us a “rippled rock”. The sediment was laid down in ripples when it was deposited several hundred million years ago and the ripples were retained as the sediments turned into rock.
Interesting fungi were all along the trail.
There were large patches of Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis). Many say that the stinging qualities of Wood Nettle are more severe than those of Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica). So, some would ask, “Why would someone ever eat it raw?”
On Saturday at the top of Rohrbaugh Plains Trail and on Sunday all along Idleman’s Run Trail we saw many different kinds of mosses, like this moss — possibly evergreen Rose Moss (Rhodobryum ontariense) — but I’m not sure. The photo shows the splash cups. The function of the splash cup is to use the momentum of rain drops to disperse the sperm contained within the antheridia (male sex organs).
The last wildflower we identified was a bit challenging since it wasn’t in my 1000+ page field guide, “The Flora of West Virginia”. However, it was in the “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide”.
The weekend was officially over, but Jan and I wanted to stop at the nearby, newly refurbished Freeland Boardwalk Trail. We invited everyone to join us and most did. We enjoyed seeing some new plants and birds, including a young Green Heron and some Mallard ducklings.
Most birds are quiet this time of year, so we didn’t encounter many species.
Six of us stayed so long we decided to continue our conversation over a late lunch/early supper — pizza from Sirianna’s Cafe taken to the Pendleton Point Picnic area in Blackwater Falls State Park.
As usual, I was tired. Continual teaching, leading trail walks, and talking much of the time is tiring. However, Jan and I had a really wonderful time — maybe the best weekend we’ll have all year. Everything was great, especially the people. At some events where we are leaders, there are hundreds of people. This group had just 14 of us and we got to know each other in ways not possible with a large group. Amazing places, incredible Nature, wonderful people! That’s special!
We loved the Blue Spruce by the pool yard. It sheltered a picnic table and a bench swing. For years it sheltered the grill. It was a stopping spot for birds going to the backyard feeders. It was the closest shade on the back of the house. 60-70 feet tall, it was the gateway to the net-yard and the back meadow.
But in recent years it had started looking worse and worse. More branches fell during storms. The branches that were left had fewer and fewer needles as the patio and pool had more and more. The color of the tree seemed paler and less green. Finally we noticed that it was developing a definite lean — toward the house, the pool and the new pool fence Bill had just put in. We had to admit that it was time to think about what to do.
Late June brought the perfect weather — cool mornings and no winds. And, of course, this year we were home with plenty of time to work on things.
Bill dug through his boxes and found the tree climbing equipment he had used decades ago when one of his side jobs had been as a high-tree man for a tree company. The harnesses and climbers looked as good as they had when he had put them away all those years ago. That meant we could at least attempt the job ourselves.
My 14-year-old electric chainsaw had seen a lot of use as old trees on our property had fallen in storms. Decades ago, Bill had always used gas-powered chainsaws, but recently he had learned to appreciate the toughness and ease of use of my little electric. So with the electric in hand, he climbed the extension ladder to cut out all the branches he could reach.
One of my jobs was as a safety spotter, wearing a hard-hat, with cell phone handy in my pocket.
Another job was to pull downed limbs away from the base of the tree when Bill told me it was safe to do so.
Bill says he thought he was giving me an easy job, until he saw the divots left in the ground by the weight of the falling limbs and looked at the size of the branches.
After the first day on the ladder, Bill spent the early afternoon cutting up all of the branches and transporting the pieces to wherever we needed them around the property: a deer fence behind the owl net area, brush piles for small animals and birds, and LOTS of firewood.
On the second day, things got serious! Out came the climbing equipment, each piece being checked and rechecked for usability and safety.
Then, with harnesses and straps and spikes for climbing, and with a chainsaw hanging from his belt, Bill discovered that he did remember how to climb a tree!
Up he went. Down came the branches. And when he rested, I pulled more and more limbs away.
When the branches were easy for Bill to reach, lots of them piled up quickly below the tree. The branches were like huge “pick-up-sticks” and I had to decide which one to pull out next. But I knew I had to do it since Bill couldn’t get down if the limbs were piled around the trunk.
And then it happened! The trusty old electric saw finally broke in a way that made it impossible to tighten the chain. It was done! After much discussion and online research, the next morning I drove to Steubenville and bought a new 14″ electric chainsaw. We were back in business.
Down came more branches. As Bill got higher and the trunk got smaller, the strap that held him close to the tree was too long to work well, so he had to switch to a shorter strap. On his way down, he had to reverse that process.
The tree started looking more and more like a lollipop tree in a child’s drawing.
Bill tried to stay up in the tree as long as he could since climbing up and down was hard, especially from the pressure of the climbing spikes on his legs. Bill discovered that he liked the new electric chainsaw even more than the old one — and that’s saying a lot!
On the last day, Bill finally made it to the place where the trunk split into 2 trunks — about 3/4 of the way up. That made it impossible for him to climb higher safely. Knowing what was coming, before climbing up that day he had positioned the truck in the meadow on the side of the tree opposite the pool yard. When he climbed that day, he took with him one end of a long, heavy caving rope. He cut off the last of the branches he could reach. Now came the trickiest part!
Bill tied off the rope as high as he could reach on the top of the tree. Then I took up the slack and tied the other end to the hitch of the truck.
He wanted me to be ready to move forward and “pull” when he said to. That’s when I discovered that it’s impossible to watch or hear what’s happening up in the tree when I’m in the truck with the motor on, facing downhill in the opposite direction. The best I could do was to hop quickly in and out of the truck.
Bill had me put a little tension on the rope and he began to cut out a notch facing 90 degrees away from the pool yard and about 45 degrees away from the truck’s location. He cut a big notch which landed with a resounding “thud”!
Now the part that most worries tree men. The notch was just right. There was tension on the top. He knew just where to cut opposite the notch. Still, the unexpected can happen with big trees.
Bill told me to put a little more tension on the rope. I shifted the truck into gear, but it wouldn’t move! No, the brake wasn’t on. Park … back to Drive. I could hear the gears were working, but it wouldn’t move! Bill was yelling for more tension. Then I had an idea. The truck had gotten pretty close to the compost bins, so I had turned the steering wheel. Looking at the wheels, I could tell that they were turned too severely to be able to move. Quickly I straightened the wheels a bit, started moving slightly, and then turned them back a bit so I wouldn’t hit the compost bins as I crept forward a foot more . Whew! Now all was ready.
Bill began cutting opposite the notch as I watched. Soon he yelled, “PULL!” I hopped back into the truck and crept forward as I heard the unmistakable sound of big wood breaking and the “WHOOMP!” of a heavy landing. Jumping out of the truck, I found the tree-top lying just where Bill had hoped to put it and my tree guy strapped to the top of a tall, empty snag, grinning from ear to ear.
With the branches gone, the trunk would not be prone to being pushed over by the wind, so we had already decided to leave the 40-foot snag for the various woodpeckers, nuthatches and other birds who might enjoy it. Bill climbed down from the tree for the last time.
A few days later we saw a White-breasted Nuthatch coming down the trunk, too. He even came down head-first, with no climbing equipment … he made it look so easy!
Last spring I came inside after walking the trails in the back meadow and announced to Jan, “I have a new hobby!” She looked at me incredulously. We both laughed because I have so many interests that keep me as busy as I want to be. Then she asked, “What’s your new hobby?” “I want to start an arboretum,” I answered. Our property is already a mecca for all kinds of wild creatures including a variety of trees, so adding a few more from time-to-time just seemed like a lot of fun for both of us.
Last year I planted two Franklinia trees I had purchased (check out https://bartramsgarden.org/explore-bartrams/franklinia-tree/), and a Sugar Maple tree I had dug from a nearby woodland. And I transplanted 14 Flowering Dogwood trees, seeded by other dogwoods on the property, into rows near the roadway in front of the house and along the entryway to our arboretum in back.
Jan saved all the seeds from last fall’s pawpaws. She took 9 seeds to try to sprout them indoors. Three seeds she planted right away in a planter. Three more she put in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks and then planted them in the planter after putting a nick in the extremely hard seed coat. The last 3 stayed in the freezer for several weeks and then also got nicks in the seed coats before they were planted in the same container. I planted all of the remaining big seeds outside in the back meadow.
All winter long Jan kept the planter of 9 pawpaw seeds slightly moist in the sunporch along with the rest of our winter indoor garden. She tells me that, after a few months of no results, she had really given up since everyone says that pawpaws are almost impossible to grow from seed. But she just kept them moist anyway.
Finally in the spring we had an unexpected, exciting surprise! A couple of her seeds had germinated and we had very tiny Pawpaw Trees. Over the next few weeks we had more and more little stems trying to lift those huge heavy seeds. We didn’t want to help them for fear of hurting the baby leaves. Sometimes it took 2-3 weeks until the leaves finally grew large enough to shove off the hard seed coat.
After a while we had 6 trees ready to transplant into taller individual containers. Pawpaw Trees have a well-deserved reputation for having substantial tap roots. The tap roots were actually longer than the above-ground stem and leaves of the little trees.
The 6 Pawpaw seedlings flourished in their new individual homes. They drank a lot of water and reached for the plant lights. We were pleased to have gotten that many seeds to sprout. The different treatments (cold, freezing, nicked seed-coats) didn’t seem to matter for sprouting. All three ways gave us trees.
We thought that getting 6 trees was a great outcome from 9 seeds, but Jan kept watering the planter with the 3 unsprouted seeds. Eventually she was rewarded with 2 more baby pawpaws!
This week we transplanted the first 6 Pawpaw Trees into the arboretum.
I chose a spot that is similar to areas where I usually see Pawpaw Trees in the wild. I got out the lawn mower and tiller to prepare the ground.
The area I chose for the pawpaw grove was covered with Japanese Stilt Grass so I mowed it as close to the ground as possible. And, knowing that mowing won’t kill stilt grass, I tilled the whole area about 3 inches deep to destroy their root structure. Luckily stilt grass has a shallow root system.
Then I fenced the area to keep out certain wildlife, especially raccoons and skunks. From experience I have discovered that after people transplant things, raccoons often dig up the transplants that same night. They don’t eat the transplants, they just dig them up. Just curious, I guess.
Next I collected 5 gallons of our rich compost and a bucket of water.
I made sure the holes were deep enough to give the long taproots plenty of space.
Each Pawpaw Seedling was gently surrounded by lots of rich compost made from plants on our property.
I used rainwater from our rain barrels to get the seedlings off to a good, natural start.
Of all the seeds that I had planted directly into our arboretum last fall, I have yet to see a seedling. So far, 8 of the 9 seeds Jan sowed in a container indoors have sprouted. (Yes, she is still watering the planter just in case that last seed still wants to sprout.)
The 2 last pawpaw seedlings are getting bigger in the planter, waiting to be transferred into individual, taller containers to allow their taproots to develop. Then they will join the 6 already planted outdoors.
We hope that we may live long enough to enjoy some fruits of our labor. But, as with planting any seeds, it’s all about believing and leaving something for the future. Maybe those people who say that you can’t get Pawpaws to sprout from seeds just didn’t wait long enough.
Come to the WV Mountains to enjoy a summer weekend learning about plants, birds and other natural treasures of the Blackwater Falls, Canaan Valley and Dolly Sods Wilderness area!
Friday, July 31
1:30 p.m. Registration and welcome at Blackwater Falls Lodge Lobby
3 p.m. The Making of Dolly Sods. Presentation by Jan Runyan.
7 p.m. “West Virginia Plants that Changed the World.” Bill Beatty. We will learn about five common but amazing plants that shaped the history of the world. Three are native to West Virginia and two are introductions from Europe, but have been in West Virginia for hundreds of years. You have seen them all, but never knew….
Saturday, August 1
8 a.m. Dolly Sods Trip. This trip will include numerous stops to experience the plants, birds, and beauty of the Dolly Sods Wilderness and Scenic areas. Scheduled stops include: Rohrbaugh Plains Trail/Dolly Sods Picnic Area, Northland Loop Trail, Allegheny Front Migration Observatory overlook, Bear Rocks Nature Preserve and serendipitous stops to examine specific wildflowers, trees, and non-flowering plants and fungi. Enjoy unusual Canada-type nature on the highest plateau east of the Mississippi River.
7 p.m. Avian Conservation Center of Appalachia. The Avian Conservation Center for Appalachia’s mission is to conserve our region’s wild birds through research, education, and rehabilitation. This interactive presentation, featuring several live, non-releasable birds, will discuss the important role birds play in healthy ecosystems as well as the natural histories of the educational birds. Bring your cameras and questions! Program is at Blackwater Falls Lodge. Open to the public. Please wear a face mask when attending indoor programs.
Sunday, August 2
9 a.m. Idleman’s Run Trail. We will explore this beautiful 4/10 mile trail located in the Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge. The emphasis of this walk will be the natural history of all that we find – birds, wildflowers and non-flowering plants. Even though this trail is short it is quite beautiful with an interesting variety of wild treasures.
Ralph Bell, founder of the Allegheny Front Migration Observatory (AFMO), and I were best friends. When I needed to find two new bird leaders for the West Virginia Wildflower Pilgrimage, I asked Ralph if he could recommend anyone. He said, “How about my daughter Joanie and her husband Don?” Don and Joanie were eager to be leaders, especially since Ralph was also a leader, and I added two excellent, knowledgeable birders to our group.
Soon after that I began to volunteer at the AFMO. Not only did I get to see and handle hundreds of migrating warblers and other kinds of birds, I met some wonderful people. Joanie, Don and I immediately became good friends.
What a wonderful time in my life — sharing a cabin at Blackwater Falls State Park with Joanie, Don and Ralph for several days in early May and then, in September, spending two weeks on Dolly Sods with them each year. When Joanie and Don retired to Florida and eventually stopped coming back to West Virginia, I thought about them often when I was on Dolly Sods at the AFMO.
Yesterday, when I got news that Don had passed away, my memory flood-gates opened and I was back in the mountains walking the Dolly Sods road with him.
Don always had a smile and he laughed a lot. He was special. Many days after the morning bird banding and afternoon hawk watching, Don and I would walk Forest Service Rd. 75 and look at wildflowers. We talked about, well… just about everything. Don was a good listener and had wonderful and valuable advice. There were some times I really needed it, and appreciated and followed it.
Don was a loving, caring person. You could just feel it when you were near him. He made everyone feel welcome. His smile warmed the room (or campsite) like the glow from a campfire. His memory still warms my heart.
Goodbye my friend! Until we meet and walk together again.
Normally at this time of year we would be traveling much of the time, both teaching and chasing birds. In May our time at home is short and usually includes doing laundry, mowing, repacking and doing as much garden work as we can squeeze in. This year, because we kept our “social distance” at home, we got to experience an amazing avian event.
Last winter was warm, but spring was late and, not long after it started, we had a several-day cold snap with nighttime temperatures in the mid-20s. A flight of Baltimore Orioles had migrated north to the Upper Ohio River Valley before the Arctic blast brought this unusual cold and caused the birds’ insect food to be extremely limited. They found the hummingbird feeders which I had recently put out, but as more orioles arrived we knew we needed to help these warm-weather friends more.
They immediately found a dish of jam I put out … and very soon it was empty. I searched our unused bird feeders in the garage for ideas to help me make more feeders and I added 5 new, unusual ones out back and out the bird window along with more nectar feeders. They finished 3 big jars of jelly and jam. A few birds even made use of the bark butter and suet feeders.
As the weather warmed a bit, we opened our bird banding nets. We had seen as many as 10 orioles at one time, but banded 16 birds, so we probably had between 20 and 30 birds making use of our feeders. Although there are still a few Baltimore Orioles around now, most of them have moved on since the weather has warmed. We had a wonderfully fun week with lots of time to watch and photograph these usually rare visitors to Goldfinch Ridge.
This blog is heavy on videos because we wanted to share the bustle and antics of the orioles. The videos may take a little while to load the first time, but then they should go smoothly. The white pieces flying by are not Spring cherry blossom petals, but snowflakes.
If you watch carefully, you may catch an occasional glimpse of our Eastern Bluebirds going in and out of their box on the Black Locust tree and even eating from the bark butter log. Other kinds of birds join the feast or fly through, too. And you might even hear the clicking of the shutter of Bill’s camera, too, as we shared space at our bird window.
Why poetry? It just seemed right!
Oriole Fallout — in Rhyme May, 2020
Baltimore Or-i-oles Freezing their toes-i-oles.
Returning from the climes Of palm trees and limes.
Knew they had a date To come north and mate.
The Orioles were bold But then it turned COLD!
They followed their leaders to the hummingbird feeders.
One nectar feeder wasn’t enough, They needed more stuff.
We put out jams and jellies To fill up their bellies.
Feeders of every kind
The Orioles were quick to find.
The temperatures were chilling But the people were willing.
For me, my earliest memories of Goldenseal, Hydrastis canadensis, seem to be related to memories of my grandmother’s ways of natural healing.
My grandmother always seemed to have a myriad of remedies for illnesses and injuries. Sore throats were most often treated with a mixture of onion and sugar. For coughs and sore throats, she made an extract of fresh Red Clover flowers by suspending a strainer full of flowers in the steam of boiling water. Water condensed on the flowers and dripped back into the the pan along with the nectar and other chemistry from the flowers. After she boiled off half the water in the pan and cooled the clover water, it would be mixed with honey and administered in teaspoonful doses.
I also remember several times when I was given a small piece of wood to chew on. It had an unpleasant taste, but I never knew what it was.
As a young adult I began to study the identification of, well, just about everything in nature. Along with identification, I learned a great deal of the natural history of plants. The first time I tried a taste of what I knew to be Goldenseal, I immediately remembered the unpleasant taste from my childhood. To me, the tastes were the same.
I have a strong desire to be independent and self sufficient. Jan and I grow much of our own food and, on our property, I have planted a variety of wild edible and medicinal plants, including Goldenseal.
Most of the medicinal chemistry of Goldenseal is in the root. The root is a beautiful bright yellow, hence the other name, Yellowroot.
When my son Josh was a young boy there were times when he wanted to make some money. Growing up in a rural town, there were not many opportunities for making money, but I wasn’t the kind of parent to just dole out money any time my kids wanted some. My kids cut our grass, washed our dishes, weeded the garden, helped with canning and did other helpful chores for the family. In return, they received food, clothes, a home, a nice two-week vacation every year, and, eventually, college educations. For extra money, spending money, they had to work outside the home.
Josh picked black raspberries. He could sell all he could pick, but, of course, that was very seasonal.
He also collected aluminum cans at $.40 a pound, and some people around town even saved them for him.
And, with my supervision, he also dug roots of medicinal plants from the nearby woods and sold them.
Most I my adult life I worked as a freelance nature photographer. I was outside in wild areas all the time, usually at least 8-10 hours a day. I photographed medicinal plants and knew where to find them, so sometimes I took Josh with me. I would take him to areas loaded with Goldenseal and, while I roamed the woodlands taking photos, Josh collected Goldenseal.
In Brooke County, WV, Goldenseal first appears above the forest leaf litter in the early spring, around mid-April. Goldenseal grows wild throughout the eastern United States in shady, wooded areas with loose, rich, moist soil. Hillsides provide the drainage the plants prefer. At that time of year, the root is already large, but the tiny plants are far from their reproductive cycle and not ready to harvest responsibly.
A few weeks later the white and yellowish flowers appear.
Josh would usually dig Goldenseal in mid- to late-July when the fruits were present and had ripened.
The first thing Josh would do was to collect the ripe, red fruits. Then he would dig the rest of each plant. At that time, in the mid-1990s, he sold the roots for $32/lb. and the tops for $8/lb. of dried weight.
After he was finish digging the plants, he would separate the fruits into their individual seeds. Then he planted the seeds right back where he had dug the plants.
Today, the patches he dug and replanted are loaded with healthy Goldenseal plants. As a matter of fact, the Goldenseal we have on our property now were started from plants and seeds I collected from one of those patches Josh dug over 20 years ago.
Historically, Goldenseal has been used for a wide variety of ailments, including common colds, respiratory problems and many other physical problems. As always, before you consider using a wild plant as a remedy, make sure to do your research about the safety of using wild remedies, and be sure of your own ability to identify plants in the wild.
Jan has an indoor winter garden that supplies us with salad greens all through the cold weather months. We have fresh salads on a regular basis.
We also add freshly dug carrots (overwintered in the ground), last year’s onions or kohlrabi, and sometimes frozen peas and pickled beets from last year’s harvest. Some store bought vegetables are occasionally added.
Some wild plants that we harvest from our property also find their way into our salads.
Common Chickweed (Stellaria media) is the most abundant “weed” in some of our gardens. And it is wonderfully edible and highly nutritious with a good compliment of Vitamin C. In the days of the tall sailing ships, sailors foraged for chickweeds whenever they made landfall. They had learned that somehow these plants helped prevent scurvy (a very debilitating disease caused by a lack of Vitamin C) and they knew that chickweeds can be found on most continents in most ecosystems.
On our property Common Chickweed can be collected by the handsful. The entire plant is edible and that is how we add it to our salads — flowers, leaves and stems. Even the roots can be eaten, but we usually pull them off.
This year from January through March, the garden bed destined for this summer’s potatoes was loaded with Common Chickweed and we made good use of it, harvesting it on a regular basis.
I usually do my first planting of potatoes in early April. This year my gas-powered tiller wasn’t working and I haven’t been able to have it fixed due to the COVID 19 pandemic. So I decided to go “back to my roots” and use my 40+ year old, person-powered cultivator to turn the the weeds back into the soil.
The cultivator still worked beautifully and I appreciated the good physical workout. The abundance of great nutrition found in Common Chickweed is now decomposing underground where it will be easily available for the potatoes. Our volunteer Common Chickweed garden has transformed into our 2020 potato garden with 100 hills of potatoes planted already. Another 40 hills will be planted in mid-April, about the time those first potato plants begin to emerge.
Our gardens serve a dual purpose – we plant them with our favorite domestic “grocery store” vegetables and then the nutritious volunteer weeds that invade after harvest find their way into our mid-winter/spring salads. It’s a win, win situation.
But don’t worry that we might get scurvy because all the chickweed is now gone from the potato patch! There is plenty more of it all around the property! Jan just has to ask and I can easily find and harvest a big handful for our dinnertime salad….like I did just last night!
What a marvelous, incredible childhood I had with a multitude of friends! Because of where we lived, there were lots of us who were the same age and lots of different places to explore which sparked our ingenuity and creativity. We were creative, but not always safe. Oh, what adventures we had!
My neighborhood consisted of what some people called the “Projects”. Others referred to them as “defense homes”. They were rows of buildings, each building made up of 2-9 attached white houses. They were built for the Westinghouse factory workers during World War II. After the war, a cooperative was formed and they were open to anyone who wanted to live there. My parents moved us there in 1949, probably to be close to other family members who lived in nearby buildings.
Today, in old family photos of the 1950s Projects, the neighborhood looks dirty, rundown and dreary to me. However, as a young boy growing up there, my memories are nothing short of wonderful. I had many best friends. We rode bikes, played a wide variety of games, did some dangerous things and explored. We eventually knew every nook and cranny of the row houses and became familiar with all the woodlands that surrounded much of the Projects. Living in such close quarters, Project kids knew each other better than most kids in other kinds of neighborhoods. We walked to school together, were in the same classes, and walked home together. And after school, on weekends and throughout the summers we spent most of our time together. We weren’t wild, but definitely were creative and adventuresome.
I invite you to join me for an entertaining excursion back as I celebrate the exuberance of youth in the 1950s and 1960s with my friends and me in…
“The Project Boys“!
Autographed copies are available for $14.95 (includes shipping and tax). Not available outside the continental United States. Mail check or money order to: Bill Beatty, 540 Genteel Ridge Road, Wellsburg, WV 26070. Please make sure to include your shipping address.