A Different Dolly Sods Adventure — 2020-style

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.

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

I started the first morning by taking some photos.

Photo (c) Jan Runyan

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.

White Flat-topped Aster (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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).

Elm-leaved Goldenrod (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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.

Monarch Butterfly (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

A Question Mark Butterfly couldn’t resist enjoying a nearby partially-eaten pear.

Question Mark Butterfly (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

We noticed Tiger Swallowtail Butterflies on several occasions.

Tiger Swallowtail Butterfly (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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.

Photos (c) Jan Runyan

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.

Jan, Lee, Dunn and Jeff on “The Rock”. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)
Cottongrass/Cottonsedge (Eriophorum angustifolium) in the Alder Run Bog. (Photos (c) Jan Runyan)
Lunch at the Red Pine Plantation at the end of the High Mountain Meadow Trail. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

It was fun to share with new friends some new sights they had never seen on Dolly Sods.

Checking out the 1953 Mercury (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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.

NSWO and the campfire (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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.

Photo (c) Jan Runyan

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.

Video (c) Jan Runyan

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.

Video by Jan Runyan

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.

Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Initially we were unsure of this leaf rosette. Then we noticed the same basal leaves on a plant that was blooming profusely nearby.

Black Knapweed (Centaurea nigra) (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

A large female Garden Spider was in her orb web as if she were guardian of the meadow we were exploring.

Garden Spider (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Rock Polypody Ferns (Polypodium virginianum) covered many rocks in shaded areas.

Rock Polypody Ferns (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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.

Many-flowered Gentian (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

Shrubby St. John’s-wort (Hypericum prolificum) with their seed capsules appeared to be almost everywhere we went.

Shrubby St. John’s-wort (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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!

Indian Cucumber-root (Photo (c) Jan Runyan)

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.

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

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.

Sage-wrapped cheese ready to cook (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

The main course was sliced rib-eye steak and varieties of Hericium mushrooms, expertly prepared.

Photos (c) Bill Beatty

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!

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

We were happy, well-fed Dolly Sods campers!

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

Captain Morgan, a.k.a. Lee Miller, is my frequent hiking companion on Dolly Sods.

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

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.

Photo (c) Jan Runyan

Lee and I found quite a few interesting fungi, including a highly prized, medicinal Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) mushroom growing on a Yellow Birch Tree.

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

Among the many kinds of fungus we discovered were the deadly Destroying Angel Mushroom (Amanita bisporigera) and

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

the Gelatinous Stalked-puffball (Calostoma cinnabarinum).

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

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.

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

In many Dolly Sods rock fields, berry-loaded American Mountainash Trees (Sorbus americana) were obvious.

Mountainash Tree (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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.

Photo (c) Jan Runyan

Lunch time was at the edge of at the Red Pine Plantation and the High Mountain Meadow.

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

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.

Photo (c) Jan Runyan

The midway point of the Bog to Bog Loop Trail is at Fisher Spring Run Bog, probably Dolly Sods’ largest wetland.

Photo (c) Bill Beatty
Video by Jan Runyan

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.

Bog Goldenrod (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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.

Photo (c) Jan Runyan

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?

Photo (c) Jan Runyan

And the answer is…

Video by Jan Runyan

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.

Photo (c) Bill Beatty

I decided to go hiking.

Photo (c) Lee Miller

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.

Mountain Holly/Mountain Winterberry (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)
Winterberry (Photos (c) Bill Beatty)

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.

For more information about dark skies and the best star gazing places in West Virginia visit: https://wvexplorer.com/2018/01/21/pre-industrial-nights-sky-over-wv/

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.

Roofs of houses on one of the back streets in Davis, WV. (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

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.

Northern Saw-whet Owl (Photo (c) Bill Beatty)

11 thoughts on “A Different Dolly Sods Adventure — 2020-style

  1. Bill, I really enjoy your posts. I felt like I was right there hiking and camping with Jan. ThNk you for sharing your hikes with us.

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    • Mary, I’m really glad you enjoy what Jan and I share. You and Joe were such wonderful family. My grandmother always spoke so highly about Joe, which meant you were special too, and it wasn’t until I became an adult that I could put the puzzle pieces together and begin to understand. Bill

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  2. I enjoyed watching your trip to Dolly Sods. It really made me miss being there in the spring. I have enjoyed your other pictures as well.

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  3. Sounds like a great time, and glad you were still able to get out just be safe with this virus around.

    I really enjoyed bird banding with you those many years ago and wish I would have had more time and energy to get more involved. I know you had to unwind me from the net, as well as others when they ran right into it.

    Darkness here out west is totally different, been in Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, away from the buildings is “dark” and the Big Sky is amazing with stars.

    Great pictures as always
    Bo

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    • Hi Bo, Yes, I have caught a few people in the mist nets. I can only imagine the night skies you have seen. Jan and I had a Grand Canyon trip scheduled for April, but due to Covid… you know the rest. It’s always great to hear from you. Bill

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      • We are in Montana now and moving to Victor, Idaho, building a house that hopefully will be done in March. You should come out and visit we can show you the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone they are close we will have plenty of room for you and Bev. Colleen has worked for both parks and was a Yellowstone guide for awhile.

        My son Greg ( while he was working there) and I hiked down the Grand Canyon for Father’s day weekend. We got down to the campground and they had one of those large thermometers in a tree, was 120 degrees. We passed out got up real early and started our walk back up while it was dark.

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  4. Hi Bill and Jan, This is Terry Hoffman (Ginny Keet’s daughter). I really enjoy following your adventures and seeing your beautiful photos. My favorite one here is the monarch butterfly and the dogwood. Is it offered for sale? How would I go about purchasing it? I sure do hope we have the wildflower pilgrimage next year. I miss seeing you and all the fantastic people there. And, of course, I miss West Virginia (almost heaven!)

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  5. Hi Terry… Jan and I just got back today from Canaan Valley. Monday, we attended a planning committee meeting about the WV Wildflower Pilgrimage which, due to new ongoing renovations to the Blackwater lodge, will be held next year at Canaan Valley State Park — you are probably one of the first to know. About the photo — I don’t sell my photos to individuals, but, if you would like, I can email you a high resolution file and you can have it made into t a print. There wouldn’t be any charge. Let me know if that works for you and provide an email address. We miss you too! I hope you can make it to Canaan next year. Bill

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  6. I love that star shot between the red spruce! Makes me feel almost like I was there. Oh wait, I was! Glad to see you finally got one Northern saw-whet owl. Hope to see you on a mountain trail somewhere soon. I told an avid birder friend of mine about our adventure and he’s entirely on board for the next one!

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    • Hi Jeff… It was nice meeting you. Jan and I are getting ready for a big Northern Saw-whet Owl year. The reports from banding friends up north tell us to expect a big year. They are banding record numbers. We are planning on being on the “Sods” for two weeks in September 2021 — most likely the last two full weeks. Hopefully our paths will cross again… Bill

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  7. Pingback: Canaan Valley for Fall Color and More – October 2020 | Bill Beatty Nature

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