Jan and I were invited by Paulita, Naturalist at Blackwater Falls State Park, to lead the West Virginia Natural 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 (Monarda didyma). 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.
To watch the entire video follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfymmH2rD-s
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 near Bear 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?”
For the full video of me eating Wood Nettle raw — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pt610xH2fXk
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!