Month: March 2021

Shale Barren Shenanigans

The central Appalachians contain a very unique ecosystem- the shale barrens. Here, in the rain shadow of the Appalachian mountains, dryer conditions combined with steep, shallow, extremely rocky soils create desertlike conditions on certain slopes- the shale barrens.

Shale Barrens midslope
Midslope of a Shale Barren

This bizarre ecosystem contains a ridiculously high number of endemic species, including at least eight plant species and a butterfly (Grizzled Skipper) only found in and around Central Appalachian shale barrens. One of the stranger ones, and one that’s been on my bucket list for years, is Eriogonum allenii, the Shale Barrens Buckwheat. The vast majority of Eriogonums are native to the Southwestern United States, but this one occurs quite off by itself along the Virginia-West Virginia border.

Eriogonum allenii
Shale Barrens Buckwheat (Eriogonum allenii)

The large, hairy leaves stand out on the sparse rocky slopes, as do the chartreuse flowers.

Eriogonum allenii leaves
Basal leaves of Eriogonum allenii

Eriogonum allenii is something of a mystery to botanists, being so far northeast of this genus’ typical range in the mountains and deserts of the Southwest. It is assumed that an ancestral Eriogonum somehow ended up here before conditions became wetter, but honestly who knows. For some reason, it was picked up by garden centers for a year, and I saw my first ones surviving happily in a pot at the garden center I used to work at. Ever since, I’ve wanted to find the species in its natural habitat.

Shale Barrens top
View from the top of a shale barren

Having climbed to the top of the hill and seen Eriogonum allenii, I figured I’d look around for some of the other local oddities after I admired the view.

Lespedeza violacea
Violet Bush Clover (Lespedeza violacea)

Lespedeza violacea was an old friend at this point, having shown up in that summer’s survey work many times. Still, it was nice to see something in flower besides the Eriogonums.

Antennaria virginica
Shale Barrens Pussytoes (Antennaria virginica)

Many of the plants on the barrens grew low to the ground, forming moisture-holding rosettes and covering their leaves in dense hairs for added protection. Such was the case with what I presume to be Antennaria virginica, the Shale Barren Pussytoes, another endemic and fairly common here. This plant is named for its “cat’s paw” like flower clusters.

Draba racemossisima
Rocktwist (Draba ramosissima)

Another little hairy rosette is Rocktwist (Draba ramosissima), a spring-blooming mustard family member restricted mostly to calcerous cliffs in the central and southern Appalacians and foothills. Most barrens plants are spring-blooming, taking advantage of the more consistent moisture at that time.

Allium oxyphilum
Lilydale Onion (Allium oxyphilum)

However, not all plants bloom in the spring here, and one of the more confusing ones had an individual left in full bloom. Lilydale Onion was for years considered a member of the Nodding Onion species (Allium cernuum) but of late taxonomists have agreed that for various morphological and genetic reasons it is in fact its own, extremely rare species. One of the notable features of Allium oxyphilum is its tendency to bloom a month later than Allium cernuum (August to early September, as this one was doing), as well as its preferred habitat of shale barrens. Allium oxyphilum is quite rare, and little studied since the recent split. It seems to be only found along the Virginia/West Virginia border in shale barrens.

Paronychia montana
Mountain Nailwort (Paronychia montana)

I have an excessive fondness for tiny and rare flowers. Paronychia montana fits the bill. It’s virtually invisible to a non-botanist, and its tiny green flowers are hard even for a botanist to see right away. Yet again, this plant loves Central Appalachian shale barrens and is rare away from them, though not impossible to find in other dry areas nearby.

Sedum Glaucophylum
Sedum glaucophyllum

I was coming downslope, and below an Eastern Redcedar found a healthy stand of Sedum glaucophyllum, a Central Appalachian speciality not restricted to shale barrens, but typically found only on dry rocky hillsides. The succulent leaves store up water in this desertlike environment.

Solidago harrisii
Shale Barrens Goldenrod (Solidago harrisii or Solidago arguta var harrisii)

Another taxonomic controversy of the shale barrens is Solidago harrisii, the cleverly named Shale Barrens Goldenrod. Sensing a pattern? Many taxonomists keep this as a variety of Solidago arguta. I don’t particularly care, but having seen other varieties of Solidago arguta, it definitely strikes me as something unique. A fall bloomer, Solidago harrisii was just starting up in early September, the time of my trip.

Shale Barrens upper slope
Steep slopes of a shale barren

Large gaps between plants began to be the norm as I worked my way gingerly downslope.

Virginia Pine
Virginia Pine (Pinus virginiana)

Virginia Pine is the dominant tree in these dry areas, where few other trees dare to tread. I noted a bug hiding in the needles and grabbed it.

Tetyra bipunctata
Shieldbacked Pine Seed Bug (Tetrya bipunctata)

This unusual shield bug is a specialist of pine trees and was a new find for me, as well as being one of the few animals willing to brave the hot, dry conditions.

Selaginella rupestris
Rock Spikemoss (Selaginella rupestris)

Most of the way downslope, the barrens gave away to bare bedrock. In crevices Rock Spikemoss, a vascular plant despite its name, grew shriveled up- it uncurls when there is moisture.

Clematis albicoma
White-hared Leatherflower (Clematis albicoma)

A shaded crevice provided refuge for the last of the shale barrens plants I found that day- Clematis albicoma, the White-haired Leatherflower. Clematis may be a familiar garden vine, but across much of the Southeast in dry barrens and glades, nine species of upright, shrubby, bell-flowered clematis eke out a living. Most of these “leatherflowers” are rare and range-restricted. Three of them are limited to western Virginia’s shale glades, and the fourth, C. albicoma, is found only in the shale barrens of West Virginia and Virginia.

Now, like the Clematis, I too desired some shade, and a nearby creek provided excellent shade, as well as two other Central Appalachian dwellers.

Torrent Sucker
Torrent Sucker (Thoburnia rhothoeca)

Torrent Suckers are a species of sucker (in the same order as minnows, goldfish etc.) They are well suited to fast-flowing riffles and rapids along mountain streams, taking up a niche held by some species of darters in other drainages. Like many of the shale barren endemic plants, Torrent Suckers are only found in Virginia and West Virginia.

Blue Ridge Sculpin
Blue Ridge Sculpin (Cottus caeruleomentum)

Finally, a Blue Ridge Sculpin, found only in a few Atlantic river drainages, hid on the bottom of the river. Like the suckers, they too stay low to the ground, sticking out between rocks to avoid being washed away in the fast currents of mountain streams. The dip in the stream was refreshing after the hot hike on the shale barren. I sadly had to drag myself away from the delightful area, and back towards home, for I had “miles and miles to go before I sleep”.

Shenandoah Sinkholes!

Last summer, I visited the Shenandoah Valley sinkholes, one of the stranger ecosystems present in Virginia. The rocks here started the weirdness- calcerous limestone overlayed by acidic sedimentary substrate result in solution holes with acid-loving flora, often more typical of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, around the edges. Typically sinkholes/solution holes are neutral to basic in pH thanks to their limestone bedrock. The acidic substrate above, however, makes for completely different flora in this small region. Each sinkhole contains a different mix of flora, too, varying in species composition wildly.

tiny sinkhole
Smallest sinkhole I found- this one had very little flora

I arrived at the site after dark, having found no satisfactory campsites. As a result, I camped in the parking lot. This may not be strictly legal, but I was unable to find regulations suggesting I couldn’t practice dispersed camping in this section of a national forest and I figured camping in the parking lot was safer for the more sensitive flora. It began to rain gently as I finished setting my tent, and I noticed a brilliant orange critter crossing the road- a Red-spotted Newt!

Red Spotted Newt/Cricket
Red-spotted Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) with a cricket companion

Intrigued by the fact that newts were out and about, I ventured down the road, and was rewarded with approximately 20 or so more newts out and about. One longer-tailed individual proved to be a new species for me in Virginia, the Long-tailed Salamander, much more familiar to me from southern Illinois herping. The Shenandoah Valley is on the eastern edge of this species’ range and I’d rarely seen these out and about even back in southern Illinois.

Long-tailed Salamander on road
Long-tailed Salamander (Eurycea longicauda)

A few more salamanders further, I found a White-spotted Slimy Salamander, a member of the complex of identical-looking Slimy Salamanders found across Eastern North America. Slimy Salamanders are better thought of as sticky salamanders. When handled, as a defensive mechanism they produce a glue-like substance from glands in their skin. I’ve had an easier time getting superglue off my hands. As handling salamanders is generally bad for their health as well, I recommend letting slimy salamanders be.

White-spotted Slimy on road
White-spotted Slimy Salamander (Plethodon cylindraceus)

A slender shape on the road suprised me- an Eastern Worm Snake! A secretive burrower, worm snakes are most often found by flipping over rocks, logs, or trash. I’ve had particularly good luck with this species under old carpeting. These adorable little derpy snakes have never bit me- their teeth likely couldn’t break skin if they tried. I let it go to the side of the road, post photos, and retired to bed satisfied.

Wormsnake in Hand (east)
Eastern Worm Snake (Carpophis vermis)

In the morning, I wandered over to the first of several sinkholes- one dammed in years past by humans. This one had a more constant water level and thus developed permanent aquatic vegetation. Unaltered sinkholes vary wildly in water levels, another factor in the strange vegetation of this region.

dammed sinkhole
Dammed Sinkhole

The dammed sinkhole did have a few weird plants despite its alterations, the most interesting of which is carnivorous. Utricularia radiata is known only from the Atlantic Coastal Plain in Virginia, and then from these sinkhole ponds. It’s a bizarre outlying population, and sets the stage for many of the other plants found here. This bladderwort, like others of its genus, uses specialized vacuum traps to gather zooplankton from the water, kill them, and use the nitrogen in their bodies for further growth.

Utricularia radiata
Utricularia radiata

Unlike many of the more common bladderworts, this species has inflated bases, allowing it to float on the surface of the water. Others are semi-terrestrial, rooting into permanently wet soil, or simply live in water without inflated bases.

Utricularia radiata out of water
Close up of Utricularia radiata

My next plant discovery was almost equally bizarre, if far more common in Virginia. Pinesap is a plant with no chorophyll, and thus no means of making its own food as in more typical plants. Instead, Pinesaps connect to an underground superhighway of nutrients- the mycorrhizal network.

Pinesap
Pinesap (Monotropa hypopitys)

Throughout the soil, fungi and plant roots intermingle and fuse together, exchanging nutrients each organism requires to survive. Pinesap and other myco-heterotrophic species tap into this network and steal nutrients without providing any contribution in return. Pinesap populations indicate a healthy mycorrhizal network that can tolerate such thievery, and thus such parasites are a sign of high-quality habitat.

Allegheny Chinkquapin
Allegheny Chinkapin (Castanea pumila)

One of the nearby trees likely unwittingly providing to the Pinesaps is Allegheny Chinkquapin, seen in fruit. Closely related to the nearly-extinct American Chestnut, Chinquapins also suffer from the devastating chestnut blight fungus, just to a lesser extent. Thankfully this species survives in decent numbers, producing large quantities of nuts.

I continued down the path past the Chinquapins, and eventually found a paired set of sinkholes with a narrow isthmus between them. Golden daisies bloomed from midwater- my goal for the day!

Helenium montanum
Twin Sinkhole with Helenium virginicum

Virginia Sneezeweed, Helenium virginicum, is a Federally Threatened plant species found only around seasonally inundated sinkholes in Virginia and Missouri, at sites where acidic soils are underlain by limestone bedrock. Virginia Sneezeweed seeds can only germinate above water, so the water’s rising and falling in accordance with rainfall and groundwater movements causes populations to fluctuate. Few other plants can survive the dramatic inundations of this habitat.

Helenium montanum close
Virginia Sneezeweed (Helenium virginicum)

One of the few other plants found here is exclusive to this habitat in Virginia- Common Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum), a species more typical of southern Canadian wetlands that randomly occurs in these strange sinkhole habitats due to the layers of peat that have accumulated at the edges. There’s only five sites in Virginia where this plant remains, four sinkhole ponds and one Coastal Plains pond on the Delmarva coast. Common Pipewort earns its name in the Northeast, where it occurs around natural wetlands near the Atlantic Coast and in peaty wetlands further inland around the Great Lakes.

Eriocaulon aquaticum
Common Pipewort (Eriocaulon aquaticum)

Suprisingly neither Virginia Sneezeweed nor Common Pipewort are the rarest plant at this site in terms of global population or number of Virginia populations. That honor goes to a plant I’d initially written off as an aster, Boltonia montana. Present only in a handful of sinkhole ponds in Augusta county, Virginia, and limesink ponds in north-central New Jersey, the recently-described Boltonia montana blooms around the edges of these ponds as they dry down each fall.

Boltonia montana
Mountain Doll’s Daisy (Boltonia montana)

The federal government does not list Boltonia montana owing to a lack of noted declines in its eleven individual populations, but given its limited range and habitat, I consider it to be the rarest of the strange flowers of the Shenandoah Valley Sinkhole Ponds. For comparison, federally-threatened Helenium virginicum has about 80 known populations, 50 or so in Missouri and 30 or so in Virginia. I’m glad to have seen it, and I hope that the government analysis is correct and that Boltonia montana will maintain itself. At any rate, the Shenandoah Valley sinkholse are one of the most unique botanical communities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, though I visited an almost equally-bizarre community a few hours later…

To be continued

Winter Birding in February 2021

I threatened a return to this blog, and by George (aka all the George Foreman Grills I stock at my current temporary job), I’m doing my best to make that happen.

Winter sucks, especially such a cold spell as we had of late here in the central US. Still, cold does bring down a few birds from the North, and as a result I went out looking the other day for some in the sandlands of Mason County, Illinois.

LALO Mason co
Lapland Longspurs and Horned Larks

Along the road for much of the drive, Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs picked at the seeds and gravel, whizzing away over the snow-covered fields as cars passed. A handful of Horned Larks stick around all year long, nesting in what little habitat they can find, but the majority of these two species nest up on the high tundra and only become readily visible down here when it resembles high tundra to the casual observer.

Carya texana
Black Hickory (Carya texana)

As a reminder that we thankfully do not live in the Arctic Circle, here’s Black Hickory, a common resident in Mason county’s sand savanna, but at its northern limit here. This species becomes much more common in the Ozarks and Ouachitas, as well as eastern Texas. It’s one of a number of Southern Great Plains species that make Mason county the northeastern corner of their range, with Astragalus distortus and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers coming to mind as two other examples.

Camo Bobwhite
Northern Bobwhite cameo (head and shoulders facing right behind the large tree on left)

Another species that’s found a home north of where it likes to be is Northern Bobwhite, a species that has struggled to survive in most of the surrounding counties but seems to be persisting in good numbers in Mason County thanks to its fondness for the remnant sand savanna and dry grassland edges in the region. The “poor” sandy soils here have ironically saved a richer diversity of flora and fauna than can still be found on the “better” blacksoil to the east, northeast, and south.

Havana Bridge
Havana (Illinois, not Cuba)

As it was still remarkably cold, the only open waterway was the Illinois River at Havana, thanks to barge traffic. Dozens of Common Goldeneye could be seen far out, shown as black specks on the water in the photo above.

Mel Price Dam
Birds below the Melvin Price Lock and Dam

The water being almost completely frozen over, I retreated southwards towards the Alton area. Here large concentrations of gulls and pelicans foraged in the open waters below the Melvin Price Lock and Dam on the Mississippi River. While the dam kept the river open for barge traffic, ice did buildup around the sides, and I had to make my way carefully down to view the gulls. Or I could’ve been smart and stayed up on top in the parking lot, but I wanted to see the action closer. Don’t do what I do. Statistically I probably should’ve broken like five legs by now.

Mississippi River Ice

(There’s a reason I’m not paid to run statistics for people).

Mel Price Gulling
Ring-billed Gulls (Larus delawarensis)

Gulls come quite readily to sliced bread, which is not a good long-term meal for a gull but a great way to tempt them a bit closer for a photo and potentially get one of the rare ones. Of course, the rare gulls did not come for the bread, but a few pelicans did so I ceased gull-baiting.

AWPE Lincoln Shields
American White Pelican and two Ring-billed Gulls

Some of the rarer gulls there included a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls, like the one photographed below. This species has rapidly expanded across the United States, going from a European vagrant and rarity in the 1980s to a regular if uncommon winter bird on some lakes and rivers in the Midwest. It’s unclear where this influx of LBBG’s comes from, where they breed, or why they’ve decided to come to North America instead of Eurasia. Answers to those questions may come in the next few years.

Mel Price LBBG
Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus)

For those wondering why this isn’t called a Gray-backed Gull, the above photo was taken on a cloudy day, while a day later in Illinois I found a LBBG in sunlight. You can see the darker mantle (back color) more readily.

Taylorville LBBG
Lesser Black-backed Gull, loafing about

Another gull species, and even more confusing, is the Iceland Gull. I failed to get good photos of the few we saw at Mel Price, so here’s one from the Lake Taylorville excursion a day later.

Taylorville Iceland Gull
Kumlien’s Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides kumlienii)

Note the pale wingtips and back color, as well as the dark eyes and shorter, blunter head. These all help to distinguish this as an Iceland Gull, specifically a Kumlien’s as it has light gray wingtips, not solid white ones as in the nominate subspecies.

Gulls are fun for some people to ID, but after two hours of looking at them, I was ready to move on. So I did, to the much more dignified and proper birding location of a cattle feedlot.

Great Tailed Grackle
Great-tailed Grackle

Birding doesn’t have proper and dignified locations, for the most part. The birds go where there is food. Stolen corn from cow feed troughs is perfectly fine fare for Great-tailed Grackles, here on the eastern edge of their wintering range.

Green Frog in snowy spring
Green Frog (Lithobates clamitans)

At this point, the temperature had reached 50 F for the first time in weeks, so I began to look for herps. A Green Frog or two were the only consolations on that point, as the ice still thickly covered the frozen ponds. Hopefully next time I post on here I’ll have quite a few more salamanders, as BIG salamander migrations are taking place in the Upland South where there’s been significantly more rain and even here in the Great Corn Desert a few adventurous Chorus Frogs have started to croak.