Where Insects Fear to Tread

There is no exquisite beauty …without some strangeness.

~Edgar Allan Poe

Part two of our quest for carnivorous plants took us first to the Green Swamp, a well-known NC Nature Conservancy preserve site in Brunswick and Columbus counties. It was getting late in the day, so we went straight to the main access point, a small parking area next to a borrow pit along Hwy 211. We hiked in along the trail, through a short stretch of dense pocosin vegetation, and out into the open longleaf pine savanna.

Longleaf pine savanna, Green Swamp

Longleaf pine savanna in the Green Swamp (click photos to enlarge)

What you find here often greatly depends on the fire regimen – the year after a burn can produce spectacular wildflowers and make it much easier to see any in bloom. From the looks of it, I am guessing it may have been over a year since this particular tract was burned, but we could see some scattered spots of color poking above the clumps of wiregrass, especially along the pocosin edge.

Gras pink orchid

Grass pink orchid, Calopogon sp.

In addition to insect-eating plants, these pine savannas are well-known for their gorgeous orchids. Calopogon comes from the Greek words meaning beautiful beard, and refers to the bushy, yellow protuberances on the lip of this delicate orchid. These are designed to attract pollinators, thinking there might be a pollen or nectar reward, but it is a deception. The lip of the flower is hinged at the base, and when an insect lands, the lip drops and traps the insect among the flower parts, forcing it to wriggle its way out, and, in the process, hopefully pollinating the flower.

Butterwort

Yellow butterwort, Pinguicula lutea

Scattered along the edges of the savanna are small, bright yellow flowers of a carnivorous species, the yellow butterwort.

Butterwort leaves

Basal rosette of a butterwort

The business end of a butterwort lies at the base, where a tight cluster of sticky leaves serves to trap small insects by means of tiny stalked glands covered in mucilage. Other glands release digestive enzymes to help dissolve the soft tissues of the prey, with the nutrient-rich juices being absorbed by the leaf to supplement its nitrogen supply in this nutrient-poor environment.

Sundew

Pink sundew, Drosera capillaris

A similar, but more active strategy, is employed by another insect-eater, the sundews. Tiny rosettes of red leaves covered in what look like dew-covered hairs dot the moist soil in the savanna, especially any place that is muddy along a trail or ditch.

Sundew with prey

Close-up of a sundew leaf with a trapped insect

When a potential prey touch the stalked glands, it gets stuck in the “goo”. Adjacent tentacles move toward the prey, further entrapping it. Digestive enzymes are released and the rest is history.

We finally had to head back to camp, but a good day of carnivorous plant exploration with sundews, two species of pitcher plants, butterworts, two species of bladderworts, and some Venus flytraps. The next day would prove to be even better.

Longleaf pine savanna Holly Shelter

Longleaf pine savanna in Holly Shelter

I had heard about Holly Shelter Game Lands for many years, but never managed to visit until now. It consists of over 63,000 acres of mixed forest, pocosin, and other wetlands in Pender County. Since it is turkey season, we were advised to visit on Sunday when there is no hunting. We drove along miles of dirt roads to several spots recommended by a friend for their plant diversity.

Carolina laurel

Carolina wicky, Kalmia carolina

Horse sugar

Horsesugar, Symplocos tinctoria

A few small shrubs adding splashes of color in the longleaf forests, including a Coastal Plain relative of mountain laurel, Carolina wicky (also known as Southern sheepkill). Small starbursts adorn another savanna shrub, horsesugar (aka sweetleaf).

Holly Shelter oitcher plants

Small pond at Holly Shelter surrounded by yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava

Our first stop was amazing – hundreds of yellow pitcher plant flowers came into view as we approached a small pond. There was also the bright green of the emerging new leaves, so it was a perfect time to view this species.

Pitcher plant leaf before opening

An unopened pitcher leaf

It is easy to forget that in all of these carnivorous plants, it is the highly adapted leaves that are the trapping mechanism. In the case of the yellow pitcher plant, the leaf blade usually elongates a foot or more before the top splits open to form the deadly pitfall trap.

Pitcher plant opening

A leaf just beginning to split to form the pitcher

This pitcher has a hood (or lid) and usually has red veins that serve as nectar guides for potential prey, luring them deeper into the trap.

Fly going into pitvher plant

An open pitcher with an unwise fly

The trap is a simple one – lure your victim with nectar, a sweet reward concentrated along the rolled lip and down into the upper edges of the trap. Once inside, the walls of the pitcher change texture and become very slick, causing the insect to fall into the tube. Below the slippery zone, the walls have rows of down-ward pointing hairs that inhibit an upward escape. As the insect gets farther down into the trap, the tube narrows, making it more difficult for flying insects to use their wings to escape. Digestive enzymes at the base of the trap all but ensure the fate of the hapless insect.

Pitcher plant prey (2 pitchers)

Contents of two pitcher plants back at the NC Botanical Garden

A popular activity at work is for students to dissect old pitchers (last year’s leaves) and examine what the plant had for dinner. The enzymes only dissolve the soft tissues to release the needed nutrients, so the hard parts of prey remain – an assortment of wings, legs, and exoskeleton pieces. Coworkers gathered the insect parts from two pitcher plants in the Garden’s collection for the photo above: several moths (left side of photo); a cluster of flies (upper right); a wasp (top); some small beetles (lower right); and an assortment of unidentifiable wings, legs, and parts. A large amount of fine dust-like material from the trap is not shown in this picture. I need to collect a few dried pitchers from native habitats and see what the locals have been eating for comparison, but I have a feeling the menu could be similar based on that fly photo above. It was about to make a culinary misstep.

Purple pitcher plant

Purple pitcher plant, Sarracenia purpurea

Purple pitcher plants lack a lid and their pitchers usually contain rainwater. Prey fall into the pitcher and drown. Ironically, there is a species of mosquito, Wyeomyia smithii, whose larvae live in these pitcher plants and feed on the microscopic community that exists in the water.

Hybrid pitcher plant

Possible hybrid pitcher plant

We did see a few pitcher plant clumps that looked like hybrids between the purple pitcher plants and the yellow. The pitchers look like the S. purpurea, but are much more elongate, like an S. flava. The flowers also seem to be a combination of the colors of the two species – both maroon and yellow tints.

Sundew intermedia

Spoonleaf sundew, Drosera intermedia

Along the path were large numbers of the pink sundews we had seen in the Green Swamp, but the edge of the pond had another species. The spoonleaf sundew is more upright in growth form and seems to do well extending out into the water’s edge.

Sundew close up

A tiny insect trapped in the sticky goo of the sundew

I leaned down for a closer look and could see more victims that had fallen for the glistening droplets that adorn these deadly tentacles.

Purple butterwort  flower and base

Blue butterwort, Pinguicula caerulea

The Holly Shelter sites held two more species of butterwort – the blue and the correctly named small butterwort. The latter (which I failed to get a good photo of it turns out) has a pale, almost white flower, with a short flower stalk and a tiny rosette of leaves.

Purple butterwort group

Blue butterworts were very common

The larger, blue butterworts, were quite common and often occurred in patches of twenty or more individuals, scattered about the various sunny locations we visited.

Venus flytrap cluster

Venus flytraps, Dionaea muscipula, and a small purple pitcher plant

The Venus flytraps were amazing, as always, and abundant. Melissa mentioned all of these carnivorous plants in a recent post about one of her museum trips, so I won’t go into all the details of this, “one of the most wonderful plants in the world”, but I will share a few interesting tidbits.

Slide1

Close-up of a flytrap leaf, showing the trigger hairs

The trap is a modified leaf and has 2 to 3 trigger hairs on each lobe of the trap. Two triggers must be touched in succession within about 20 seconds for the trap to “spring” (or one trigger twice). Closing in less than a second, the Venus flytrap is one of a group of very few plants capable of rapid movement (other local rapid movement plants include Eastern sensitive briar, Mimosa macrophylla, and bladderworts, Utricularia sp.). The fleshy “teeth” along the edge of the trap mesh together to form a closed cage around any prey (usually crawling insects and spiders). The whole trap squeezes together more tightly when the prey struggles. Enzymes are then secreted by minute glands on the inner surface of the lobes and the victim is digested over the next few days. Afterward, the trap reopens, awaiting its next target (each trap can only spring a few times before that leaf dies).

Venus flytrap

Emerging flytrap leaves

The name, Venus flytrap, refers to Venus, the Roman goddess of love. The genus, Dionaea, refers to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and the daughter of Dione. The species name, muscipula, is Latin for mousetrap. It really is remarkable that the only place this amazing plant is naturally found is in about a 70-mile radius of Wilmington, NC.  This trip proved to be one of strange beauties and incredible adaptations, and is definitely one we will do again.

Bay Watch

Find one, and you’ll find yourself closer to the heart of what a Carolina Bay can be: an island of wildness in a world largely tamed, a few acres of the primeval past passed over by progress.

~T. Edward Nickens

The North Carolina Botanical Garden has an exquisite collection of carnivorous plants, and they are always a favorite stop on my programs. This encouraged me to revisit these mysterious beauties in their natural habitats in southeastern North Carolina. We got a few tips from our friend, Jerry, on some of the best locations, and headed out last weekend in search of insect-eating plants. This is part one of that exploration – the part we explored by kayak.

Jone Lake

Afternoon paddle on Jones Lake (click photos to enlarge)

Our home for the weekend was the campground at Jones Lake State Park, a beautiful park centered on one of the many Carolina Bays that dot the landscape in this part of the state.

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Google Earth view of the area showing a small portion of the estimated 900 elliptical Carolina Bays found in Bladen County.

These unique land forms attracted attention after the onset of aerial photography in the 1930’s, when thousands of ovals of varying size (there are an estimated 500,000), aligned in a northwest-southeast direction, could be seen dotting the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New Jersey to Georgia. The greatest concentration was in the Carolina’s. That fact, combined with their usual dominant vegetation of various bay trees, gave them their name. Few open water Carolina Bays remain, but even those that have been drained and developed, or have naturally filled with vegetation, are still visible as elliptical shapes in satellite images like the one above.

Many hypotheses have been proposed on the origin of Carolina Bays (including that they were formed by impacts of a meteor shower), but no single explanation is universally accepted. Many scientists now subscribe to the so-called oriented lake theory. It suggests that as the ocean retreated thousands of years ago, shallow pools of water remained throughout the Coastal Plain. Prevailing winds and resulting waves from the north elongated the ponds into their present elliptical shape. Whatever their origin, there is a large concentration of these bays in the Bladen Lakes area, and, fortunately, many are now preserved as state-managed lands.

Jones Lake sunset 1 Lake sunset

Stunning sunset from our kayaks on Jones Lake

Jones Lake sunset 1

Cypress tree with Spanish moss at sunset

Our first evening, we paddled our kayaks around the lake and enjoyed a spectacular sunset all to ourselves among the scattered cypress trees along the eastern shoreline.

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

Melissa paddling Horseshoe Lake

The next morning we headed over to nearby Horseshoe Lake (aka Suggs Mill Pond). It is an aptly named shallow lake that is part of Suggs Mill Pond Game Lands, managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission. Suggs Mill Pond is an old millpond formed by damming a large peat-filled bay.

Horseshoe Lake wide angle

A sea of yellow pitcher plant flowers in the wetlands at Horseshoe Lake

It is spectacular this time of year as it contains thousands of yellow pitcher plants, Sarracenia flava. Their unusual flowers can be seen stretching across the wetlands along the lake edge.

Pitcher plants along shoreline

Yellow pitcher plants in bloom along the shoreline

The new growth leaves that will form the pitchers are also visible, with many already opening into the deadly traps that will consume an array of insect prey over the next growing season.

Dragonfly shed on pitcvher plant flower

Shed skin of a dragonfly where it transformed  from an aquatic nymph into the winged adult

Sometimes the plants can serve as a place of “birth” instead of death. There were large numbers of dragonflies and damselflies on the wing and ample evidence of their amazing transformation from underwater predator to aerial acrobat scattered about on any upright surface sticking above the water – even on the flower of a pitcher plant.

Lily pads on Horseshoe Lake

White waterlily pads dotted the lake surface in many areas

One of the dominant plants in the lake was the beautiful white waterlily, Nymphaea odorata. The cleft leaves dot the surface with an array of colors, from green to red, and provide a place for all manner of creatures to sit upon the water.

cricket frog

Southern cricket frog, Acris gryllus

The repeated gick-gick-gick calls of Southern cricket frogs could be heard everywhere we paddled, along with the occasional katunk-katunk-katunk of carpenter frogs.

Lilypad forktail male

Male lilypad forktail damselfly

Delicate damselflies glided along our path, pausing briefly in their pursuits of prey, or each other, to rest upon a lilypad. The lilypad forktail is aptly named, as it almost always rests on lilypads, and characteristically touches the tip of its abdomen to the leaf surface.

Lilypad forktail imm female

Immature female lilypad forktail

Adult males are brilliant blue with dark thoracic stripes. Adult females are lighter blue and immature females are a bright orange.

white water ilies

The flowers of white waterlily

The elegant flowers of the white waterlilies always tempt me to lean just a bit too far over the side of my canoe or kayak in order to capture their pleasing low-angle reflection.

Common grackle

Common grackle

We spotted several species of birds on the lake, including a green heron, red-shouldered hawk, northern parula warblers, Eastern kingbirds, wood ducks, mallards, and several common grackles busy setting up nest sites. This striking fellow allowed me to drift close enough to his perch to catch his iridescent colors…

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

Common grackle showing nictitating membrane

…and to see his “third eyelid”, the nictitating membrane.

bladderwort

Bladderwort flowers

In addition to the thousands of pitcher plants, another carnivorous plant species was incredibly abundant at this location – bladderwort, Utricularia sp.

Bladderwort mass

Bladderworts, showing vegetative portions beneath the water surface

These mostly aquatic plants (there is a terrestrial species that occurs in moist sandy soils) have delicate flowers perched on slender stalks above the water, but the bulk of their biomass is beneath the surface. Scattered among the feathery vegetative portions, they have minute bladder-shaped organs with trap doors that can suck in tiny invertebrates that come in contact with the trigger hairs. Some areas of the lake had so much of this plant that it was like paddling through pudding at times as the vegetation clung to your paddle with every stroke. But, Horseshoe Lake is, nevertheless, a truly magical place, especially by kayak or canoe. Part 2 of our quest for the carnivores of the plant kingdom in the next post.

Being in the Moment

Our public lands – whether a national park or monument, wildlife refuge, forest or prairie – make each one of us land-rich. It is our inheritance as citizens of a country called America.

~Terry Tempest Williams

Sometimes you just need to spend time in a wild place, in your special place. This weekend was such a time. Luckily, I had a magical trip to two of my favorite public lands this weekend – Pocosin Lakes and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuges. My friend, Art, and several of his friends, were supposed to go with me the weekend of the snow/ice storm, but we had to reschedule because of road conditions. Once again, the weather did not look promising (rain this time), but we managed to dodge most of the storms, and enjoyed the subtle light and saturated colors of the overcast skies. Oddly, even though I had my gear with me, I only took about 20 images for the entire weekend, all with my phone. This weekend was for reflecting, for taking it in, for renewal. I wanted to experience the place, to feel land-rich.

duck feathers

Duck feathers along the bear trail (click photos to enlarge)

The swans are still putting on quite a show at Pungo and their sounds define this place. Gray skies and the occasional mist made the surroundings more intimate. The snow geese continue to be unpredictable and the low cloud ceiling made it even harder to see them. Several flocks went over us during our first day and we could hear them, but not see them, which I found both frustrating and somehow peaceful. We spent a lot of time with the swans, and all found a way to be in the moment as they returned to the lake by the thousands at sunset.

bear claw marks

Bear claw marks on a tree

A walk in the woods revealed plenty of bear sign, but no bears (we finally saw one moving into a corn field after sunset). I am concerned about the lack of bear sightings this winter, but hope they are just spooked from the hunting season and so many people on the refuge, and things will return to normal later this spring.

cattail marsh after snow/ice

Cattail marsh along the boardwalk at Mattamuskeet NWR

This was a very visual group of people, with eyes trained by careers in design and time spent surveying scenes of the world. I enjoy being with folks like that, it encourages a slow pace, the pace of discovery and wonder. Lichens on tree trunks, the disheveled appearance of a cattail marsh after ice and snow, and the track patterns of a deer highway through the woods are all cause for quiet celebration and contemplation.

rain drops and reflections

Rain drops on tree reflections along the boardwalk

Water levels are still quite high at Mattamuskeet, so bird numbers seem low, at least in the areas accessible to the public. The variety of ducks did provide some excellent views, along with  couple of sleeping raccoons in a small tree, and a few white-tailed deer in the marsh. A gentle rain started falling as we walked the boardwalk, adding another pattern to the already elegant design of tree trunk reflections in the dark waters.

tree silhouette north shore mattamuskeet

Reflections along the north shore

Gray skies and thick, low clouds helped us decide to bring our trip to a close. One last stop imprinted the message of the wildness in our minds – the stillness, the reflections, the stark beauty of the places we had witnessed. The abundance and proximity of life found here is to be cherished. I am thankful for these places and the opportunity to experience and share them. I have probably used this quote before, but it seems appropriate after a good weekend with good people in two of my favorite places…

Cherish sunsets, wild creatures and wild places. Have a love affair with the wonder and beauty of the earth.

~Stewart Udall

Christmas Bird Count

It’s never been easier to be a citizen scientist and it’s never been more important to be one.

~David Yarnold, President and CEO, National Audubon Society

Earlier this week, we participated in one of my favorite holiday traditions, the annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count at Pettigrew State Park. I helped start this particular count over 30 years ago when I was East District Naturalist for the NC State Parks System. My good friend, and naturalist extraordinaire, Paris Trail, was the count coordinator. The Pettigrew Count is centered on Lake Phelps and the standard 15-mile diameter count circle includes surrounding farmlands and forests as well as a portion of the Pungo Unit of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. It is that latter portion that I have counted in for all these many years. This year, it was officially just Melissa and I, although we did run into some of her museum co-workers and another excellent young birder that helped us with a couple of species we missed seeing (most notably the merlin and American bittern).

 

Swans on Marsh A 1

Tundra swans are very abundant again this year on the Pungo Unit (click photos to enlarge)

Swans on Marsh A 2

Swans on the marsh impoundment on the Pungo Unit

The day began with clouds and warm temperatures, but the skies soon cleared, and we had another of those crazy “Christmas” counts with temperatures soaring to the low 70’s. Tundra swans were the bird of the day and we estimated about 14,000 on the lake, although I am guessing this may be an underestimate based on the tremendous flyovers at sunset.

Swans flying

Tundra swan flyover

Swans were literally everywhere  – in the fields, on the lake, in the impoundments, and in the sky. And I must admit, I could watch and listen to them all day. In fact, I did on the day after the count (more on that in a future post).

box turtle on bird count

Eastern box turtle out for  stroll on the Christmas Bird Count

The warm temperatures made for some unusual companions for a Christmas Bird Count. There were plenty of aquatic turtles sunning themselves in the canals (which is not really all that unusual on sunny days in winter) plus an Eastern box turtle we helped off the road. There were also several buckeye butterflies, a Carolina anole, and Melissa spotted a very active bee hive high up in a tree.

Bee hive in tree

Bee hive in a knothole

If you look closely, you can see where bears have clawed around the hole trying to get at the tasty treat inside. Not sure what these bees were foraging on, although I did see a few henbit weeds in bloom along the edge of the road.

Snow geese leaving Pungo Lake

Snow geese flying out of Pungo Lake

The snow geese continue their pattern of erratic and unpredictable behavior of the past few years, with a much reduced flock splitting up and flying off the refuge in different directions to feed. Perhaps when the remaining corn on refuge lands is knocked down, they will provide a brief display of massive flocks coming into feed as in past years.

Black and white warbler

A black-and-white warbler was one of our highlights for the day

We managed to spot quite a few species (76 in our portion of the count circle – see our complete list below) with a few that are not regularly seen, including a black-and-white warbler, an orange-crowned warbler, a pair of blue-gray gnatcatchers, and a peregrine falcon chasing a duck.

sandhill cranes at Pungo

A trio of sandhill cranes closed out our day

My favorite species of the day came just as the sun was setting. I looked up and saw what I first thought were three great blue herons flying in tight formation. That unusual pattern caused me to take a second look and I could see the outstretched necks that indicated something other than herons – three sandhill cranes! This is the second Christmas count over the years where we have spotted these magnificent birds. A great way to close out another wonderful day spent in our favorite place.

Swans at sunset

Pair of tundra swans against an orange sky at sunset

December 27, 2016 dataPungo Unit portion of annual Pettigrew State Park Christmas Bird Count (76 species for our team; 109 species for the total count circle with one team report still out):

Snow Goose – 12,000
Ross’s Goose – 5
Canada Goose – 54
Tundra Swan – 14,107
Wood Duck – 8
Gadwall – 22
American Wigeon – 3
American Black Duck – 45
Mallard – 98
Northern Shoveler – 52
Northern Pintail – 3
Ring-necked Duck –1
Lesser Scaup – 1
Hooded Merganser – 20
Bufflehead – 4
Pied-billed Grebe – 4
American Bittern – 1
Great Blue Heron – 3
Sandhill Crane – 3
Turkey Vulture – 47
Black vulture – 2
Bald Eagle – 7
Northern Harrier – 11
Cooper’s Hawk – 1
Sharp-shinned hawk – 2
Red-shouldered Hawk – 1
Red-tailed Hawk – 4
American Kestrel – 4
Merlin – 1
Peregrine Falcon – 1
American Coot – 45
Killdeer – 48
American Woodcock – 3
Wilson’s Snipe – 3
Ring-billed Gull – 73
Mourning Dove – 21
Red-bellied Woodpecker – 8
Downy Woodpecker – 2
Hairy Woodpecker – 1
Northern Flicker – 12
Pileated Woodpecker – 6
Eastern Phoebe – 7
Blue Jay – 5
American Crow – 9
Fish Crow – 18
Tree swallow – 2
Carolina Chickadee – 10
Tufted Titmouse – 2
Brown-headed Nuthatch – 1
Carolina Wren – 15
House Wren – 2
Marsh Wren – 2
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher – 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet – 1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet – 7
Eastern Bluebird – 13
American Robin – 768
Gray Catbird – 2
Brown Thrasher – 1
Northern Mockingbird – 5
European Starling – 22
Black-and-white Warbler – 1
Orange-crowned Warbler – 1
Common Yellowthroat – 3
Yellow-rumped Warbler – 300
Eastern Towhee – 5
Savannah Sparrow – 9
Chipping Sparrow – 15
Song Sparrow – 35
Swamp Sparrow – 6
White-throated Sparrow – 30
Northern Cardinal – 25
Red-winged Blackbird – 855
Eastern Meadowlark – 13
Common Grackle – 5
American Goldfinch – 14

 

 

Swamp Sounds

Natural, ambient sounds give us a picture over time and define place…every landscape has a rhythm to it.

~Dr. Bryan C. Pijanowski

There is, indeed, a rhythm to paddling in a swamp, and the sounds help define it. Putting our canoes in at Gardner Creek a couple of weeks ago, we could hear the sounds of traffic on Hwy 64, the tones of people talking, the harshness of barking dogs and a lawn mower – all human sounds, or perhaps I should call them noises. But as we paddled, those noises started to fade and we soon had a rhythm of the place in our ears – water dripping from our paddles, the twitters of a mixed-species feeding flock moving through the trees, or the kerplunk of a turtle dropping off a log. We even heard the truncated calls of a few Southern leopard frogs, since the air was a bit warmer than the calendar date indicated. But, the true sounds of the swamp on this trip came in feathered form, one during the day, and one day and night (although certainly more forcefully after darkness enveloped our campsites on the platforms). Listen to the two audio segments below (recorded on my phone) and see if you recognize the makers of this music of the swamp (answers are below, play at full volume and don’t cheat)…

The first sound is one heard on several occasions as we paddled the waterways in this region, usually heard several times before we would catch a glimpse of the source, if at all.

This call-maker is one I will always associate with this place, and almost any swamp I have visited. These hunters call day or night, and have an amazing repertoire of vocalizations. This is a variation of their best known call.

Now, here are the sound-makers…

Red-shouldered Hawk in rain

Red-shouldered hawk (click photos to enlarge)

A characteristic daytime call of the swamp is the harsh, Kee-aah, Kee-aah, made by the red-shouldered hawk, Buteo lineatus. The call is accented on the first syllable with a drawn-out second syllable having a downward inflection. It is considered a territorial call in the breeding season, and is also an alarm call. We generally heard it when one of these common swamp hawks took flight as we paddled nearby.

Red-shouldered hawk side view

You can see the rusty red patches on the shoulder of this adult bird

Red-shouldered hawks are smaller than red-tailed hawks and tend to favor forested tracts, especially along streams and rivers. They are sit-and-wait hunters, whose diet includes many reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, and invertebrates such as earthworms.

Barred owl on grape vine

Barred owl surveying for prey from a large wild grape vine perch

The barred owl, Strix varia, is the monarch of the swamp. Their best known call is often described as sounding like “Who cooks for you, who cooks for you all”. The call presented here is a variation and is described as an Ascending Hoot. The audio has the back and forth calls of two owls on our first night in the swamp (at the aptly named Barred Owl Roost camping platform). One is right above our campsite, the other maybe 100 feet away in the darkness of the swamp.

Barred owl on grape vine 1

Barred owls hunt, and call, day and night

This back and forth calling likely is between a mated pair. We also heard some of their other calls that night, including the Single Hoot (a throaty descending hoot), and the cacophony of sounds that is often described as a Raucous Hoot and Caterwauling. The latter calls can vary from a high-pitched scream to monkey-like sounds, and can carry on for a minute or two. Unfortunately, the owls engaging in the raucous calls that night were too far away to be picked up by the mic on my iPhone.

The soundscape of a wild place is something we often overlook, but it is one of the things that can really make an outdoor experience memorable. I am grateful for these swamps and the opportunities for the unique camping provided by the Roanoke River Partners. And I am thankful for the sounds that seem to stay with you after any time spent in these special habitats. Be sure to listen for the iconic sounds of your favorite places on your next outings.

Ground Squirrels in Trees

There was no variation in his manner of proceeding all the time I observed him. He was alert, cautious, and exceedingly methodical.

~John Burroughs, on observing a chipmunk, 1894

On our recent mountain trip, we camped at Hickory Ridge Campground at Grayson Highlands State Park.  In addition to several maple, birch and (appropriately) hickory trees, there were a lot of northern red oaks.

forest and boulders behind campsite

The forest provided a good mast year and plenty of places to feed and hide (click photos to enlarge)

Like back home, it appears to be a good mast (the nuts of forest trees) year at the park. And that means lots of activity by the forest dwellers to gather, eat, and store these nuts. We saw several gray squirrels working in the trees and underneath, but, the dominant forest floor activity, by far, was the busy to-and-fro movements of Eastern chipmunks, Tamias striatus. Both mornings in camp, while sipping our morning coffee and tea, we enjoyed watching them going about their busy lives.  They had definite paths from one tree trunk to another, often ending atop a boulder where they were feeding. But, the second morning, I saw one do something you don’t think of a ground squirrel doing…

chipmunk on shelf fungus

This chipmunk was a real tree climber

…climb a tree. I remember the first time I saw that years ago was when one of my dogs startled a chipmunk out in the yard. The little chippie ran straight up a tree trunk to a height of about 20 feet, then turned and scolded us both. Turns out, many Eastern chipmunks are regular tree climbers, either to escape danger or to collect nuts like acorns and hickory nuts.

chipmunk on shelf fungus eating

Eastern chipmunk eating something on its shelf fungus perch

This particular chipmunk had a routine that took it from foraging on the ground under some scattered trees, up the back side of a black locust tree near our campsite, and then out to a shelf fungus projecting off the tree just beneath a fork in the trunk. The first time I saw it, the fungus was in the shade, and the chippie dropped down onto the ground right as the rising sun was about to illuminate its perch. But, being creatures of habit, it soon returned and proceeded to feed on some small morsel it had scavenged on the ground.

chipmunk on tree branch

This chippie had two trees it liked to climb

On its next trip to the ground, it scurried through the leaf litter about 75 feet and climbed a different tree and soon perched in a prominent spot atop a broken limb.

chipmunk on tree branch 1

Always on the alert for danger

This tree had a large cavity in deep shade near this broken limb, and the chipmunk visited that area a couple of times as if storing some food from its cheek pouches. But it would always pause on the broken limb and look around for potential danger (and to see where that guy with the camera had moved to).

chipmunk with acorn

Chipmunk with acorn

chipmunk chewing an acorn

Chowing down on an acorn

After one foraging foray, the chipmunk returned to its perch with an acorn. Naturalists have observed that Eastern chipmunks are capable of carrying as many as 6 acorns at once in their cheek pouches and mouth, but this little guy seemed content with just one at at time. After chewing on it for a minute or so, the acorn fell to the ground. I’m not sure whether the drop was by choice or by accident, but the chipmunk didn’t run off to retrieve it. Instead, it began what some say is its second favorite activity…

chipmunk grooming

When not foraging or on alert, chipmunks are often grooming

…a bout of grooming. This chipmunk did a lot of grooming on both of its tree perches, but the motion is so fast that my image was usually blurred in the low morning light. After taking way too many photos of our cute little friend, I finally had to put away the camera and finish packing up the gear. All the while, the little striped ground squirrel kept up its busy pace of feeding, grooming, and looking for danger. Indeed, as Thoreau observed one autumn (in 1858) at Walden Pond, What a busy and important season to the striped squirrel! [He] is already laying up his winter store.

Post script – Ironically, as I finished writing this, I heard both a gray squirrel and a chipmunk giving alarm notes out back. I went outside expecting to see either a hawk, snake, or cat, but found no sign of a predator still around. The low-pitched clucking note of chipmunks is a woodland sound that fooled me years ago when I first heard it, thinking it was some sort of bird. Listen here for the various chipmunk alarm calls. The note I just heard occurs after the high-pitched chipping alarm on this audio file. Research shows a tendency for the high-pitched notes to be given when a terrestrial predator is spotted, and the low-pitched notes when an aerial predator is nearby.

The Highlands of Virginia

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.

~John Muir

I think thousands of people must have read this quote last Sunday and headed to my favorite Virginia state park, Grayson Highlands.

campsite at Grayson Highlands

Our campsite at Grayson Highlands State Park (click photos to enlarge)

The parking lots were all packed on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, so we just set up camp and hiked out the short trail to Big and Little Pinnacles, hoping the crowds would die down for our longer hike on Monday.

View from Big Pinnacle

View from Big Pinnacle

View from Little Pinnacle

View from Little Pinnacle

The trail to the Twin Pinnacles is a short 1.6 mile loop that starts behind the Visitor Center at the end of the park road. On the way out to the pinnacles, you walk though a forest with scattered spruce, rhododendron, and abundant yellow birch…

birch roots embracing a boulderincluding one of my all-time favorite trees – a birch that embraces a boulder just down the trail off the Little Pinnacle.

patterns of moss growth on birch bark

Though known for its expansive views, the park also offers beauty when viewed up close

After a blustery night in the campground, we headed up to a now almost deserted parking lot at Massie Gap on Monday morning. I have been going up to this area for as long as I can remember, visiting my grandparents and my Aunt Ruth every summer when I was a kid. I fondly remember climbing over the boulders and picking (and eating) the sweet huckleberries that are so abundant in late summer. I have been back many times since, but usually for short visits or just a night of camping. Melissa and her sister backpacked the area two weeks ago and proclaimed it the best hiking in the region (the area was named one of the top ten hiking areas in America in a Backpacker Magazine article in 2011), so we decided to go back and take in some of the many miles of trails that crisscross this mountain paradise. Our route would take us roughly along the trails that Melissa had walked two weeks ago, but, since we were doing it in a single day instead of two, we took a few shortcuts, making our total hike about 10 miles.

mount-rogers-map-with-our-route

Our 10-mile day hike

Our route took us from Massie Gap (just off bottom center of map) up to the Appalachian Trail (AT, purple line). We hiked northeast to the Wise shelter; then took the Scales Trail (dark red dashed line) to Scales; the Crest Trail northwest to its juncture with the Pine Mountain Trail (black dashed line); Pine Mountain Trail southwest to Rhododendron Gap; then the Wilburn Ridge Trail south and back to Massie Gap.

starting the trail above Massie Gap

The first ridge above Massie Gap offers spectacular views

The weather was perfect as we started our hike up from the popular starting point at Massie Gap, although the wind was pretty strong, with gusts approaching 20+mph on occasion. The views in this area are spectacular and the terrain reminds me of being out West, with big Montana-like skies, and a mix of conifers, open meadows and huge rock outcrops.

witch hazel flower and old seed pod

Witch hazel flower and open seed capsule

witch hazel in bloom

Witch hazel blooms stand out against a blue sky

All along the lower pars of the trail, we saw the odd-looking late blooms of witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. The flowers are much more noticeable on trees that already had lost their leaves. This widespread shrub/small tree blooms later than almost all other plants in the region and, surprisingly, relies on whatever insects may still be active for pollination. The genus name, Hamamelis, means “together with fruit”, since this year’s flowers occur simultaneously with the ripening fruit from last year. Fruit capsule splits explosively with an audible pop, ejecting the seeds up to several feet.

Along the Scales trail

Down off the ridges, the forest is beautiful

We appreciated the times the trail traversed through the trees, sharing the beauty of the forest, and giving us a break from the winds.

Wise sheter on AT

Wise shelter on the AT

I was impressed by the Wise shelter on the AT – a nice structure in a beautiful setting next to a creek.

cotton-grass

Seed heads of cotton grass indicate a boggy habitat

Near the Wise shelter and all along the Scales Trail, we saw seed heads of cotton grass, Eriophorum virginicum. This is one of several species found in the scattered mountain bogs in the area. I definitely want to come back in the spring and see what interesting wildflowers may occur in them.

Virgin's bower seed pods

Virgin’s bower seed heads

From a distance, the seed puffs of virgin’s bower, Clematis virginiana, look a little like the round seed heads of cotton grass. But, close-up, they are a light, feathery head of white “hairs” that occur in groupings along a twisting vine. This is a native Clematis with male and female flowers on separate plants.

fern shadow

Sunny days make for interesting shadows and highlights along the trail

The combination of wind and sun made for an interesting hike in terms of temperatures – cold in the wind, warm when protected from it. We saw several species of butterflies out and about including buckeyes, commas, and American coppers. Bird life included crows, ravens, a red-tailed hawk, and lots of robins and juncos. We hiked a few miles with only distant glimpses of probably the most famous inhabitants of these mountains, the wild ponies, but that would soon change.

Pony near Rhododendron Gap

We encountered our first ponies along the Crest Trail

Various online sources state the ponies were released into these highlands by the U.S. Forest Service around 1975. The purpose was to control the growth of shrubs in the balds of the high country. The balds formed in the late 1800’s after extensive logging and fires. Cattle grazing kept the areas open until the creation of the park in the mid-1960’s. The pony herd has grown to over a hundred animals and is now maintained by periodic round-ups and auctions of excess colts.

Wild ponies on Pine Mountain Trail

Wild ponies on Pine Mountain Trail

We came across more of the herd grazing in a meadow along the Pine Mountain Trail. Park regulations prohibit feeding or petting of the ponies, but don’t mention what to do when they start following you, as a couple of them did to us as we passed along the trail.

Pony hair

Sometimes the ponies can be very curious

They seem friendly enough (although park signs warn that they may to bite and kick) and certainly are beautiful, but I have read a few accounts online about some being pests at backpacker campsites. But these just seemed curious about us (probably hoping for a handout) and we soon left them to their grazing.

Rhododendron Gap

The aptly named Rhododendron Gap

Several trails converge at Rhododendron Gap, a saddle in the mountain ridge that is covered in its namesake flowering shrub. Looks like a place we certainly want to visit in June when the display is at its peak.

Wilburn Ridge

Wilburn Ridge

The trail up Wilburn Ridge is a bit of a rocky scramble, but the views are amazing once you break out into the open. The ridge is named for Wilburn Waters, a famous hunter and trapper that called these highlands home in the mid-1800’s. Rumors have it some relatives said my Dad, in his youth, was like Wilburn, for his tendency to be out roaming these mountains in pursuit of fish and game. Who knows, maybe that’s one more reason I find these rocky balds so appealing. The highest peak in Virginia, Mount Rogers, rises nearby and, on a clear day, you can see far into North Carolina with views of iconic peaks like Roan Mountain and Grandfather Mountain on the horizon.

Melissa's campsite

The amazing campsite Melissa had on her last trip

After climbing off the highest rock outcrop (where the wind was blowing a steady 15+ mph), Melissa took me to the campsite she and her sister shard on their recent backpacking trip. What a view it must be of both sunrise and sunset, with rolling ridges of blue as far as the eye can see. We will be back on another trip I am sure, most likely backpacking next time, and, hopefully, when the winds are not as gusty.

snag on Wilburn Ridge

A lone snag stands guard on Wilburn Ridge

The elevation on Wilburn Ridge is somewhere around 5500 feet, but the rock outcrops and balds make it seem much higher.

Mountain Ash and boulder

Iconic fall scene in the highlands – mountain ash berries and boulders

Mountain Ash against sky

Mountain ash berries offer a splash of color all over these balds

The fall colors were past peak on our hike, but the palette was still beautiful with shades of brown, the grays of boulders, the dark greens of spruce and fir, and the bright red berries of mountain ash against a brilliant blue sky. American mountain ash, Sorbus americana, is not related to ash trees, but is a member of the rose family, containing trees such as apples and cherries. The berry-like pomes can remain on the trees much of the winter and are a favorite food of birds such as robins and cedar waxwings.

Mountain ash berries on moss

Cluster of American mountain ash fruit on moss

Whether lying along the trail or swaying in the winds at the tips of branches, the bright red-orange fruit of the mountain ash are emblematic of the high country and brisk mountain air this time of year.

boulder on Wilburn Ridge

Muir was right…the mountains are calling…

We wrapped up our hike about 6 pm and headed back to our campsite. The wind was starting to die down a little, the temperatures were dropping, and our bodies felt that good sort of tiredness that comes from spending a day hiking these hills. It was a great reminder that you don’t have to travel to the far corners of the globe to experience natural wonders and fantastic vistas. They can be found in the memories of childhood not far from home.

 

 

 

 

Tree Climbing

To climb a tree is for a child to discover a new world.

~Friedrich Frobel, 1826

It has been a very busy couple of weeks so you may have noticed my posts have been a bit slow in coming. Last weekend we finished celebrating our birthdays with a different sort of birthday surprise…a  private tree climb with Patrick of Piedmont Tree Climbing.

the climbing tre Wille

Our tree, Willie, at Blackwood Farm Park in Orange County (click photos to enlarge)

I had wanted to do this a few months ago at a public tree climbing he hosted at the NC Botanical Garden, but it quickly filled up before I could get us registered, so I have had it in the back of my mind as a different type of gift ever since. Melissa loves tree houses and other things “tree”, so I thought this would be fun. The day was beautiful and we headed over to Blackwood Farm Park to climb a huge willow oak known as Willie. According to Patrick’s web site, Willie is estimated to be over 100 years old with a height of 85 feet and a crown spread of about 82 feet. The trunk is massive with a circumference of a little over 11 feet. Willie’s huge branches reach out across a clearing near an old homestead surrounded by forests and fields.

getting ready

Getting ready

Patrick is an easy-going instructor and quickly helped us get geared up and ready to climb.

looking up the tree

Melissa zooming up into the canopy

Moving up the tree is relatively easy thanks to some “magic” knots, a somewhat comfortable harness, and your own leg power. There are several ropes to climb that take you into different parts of the tree and provide some different challenges. I admit to it taking me a few times before I figured out how to best grasp the rope to avoid knocking my knuckles every time on the knots, but it really is pretty straightforward.

melissa-walking-on-limb

Part of the fun for Melissa was walking in Willie’s “arms”

You can go at your own pace, rest, hang out or walk out on a limb, or head over to one of two resting spots…

looking down

The air chair (upper left) and hammock (lower right)

After climbing the rope to the highest part of the tree, I came down and went over to the rope to the hammock and chilled for a bit. The views are beautiful, and it certainly is a different perspective on the outdoor world.

the view

View from the canopy

While up there I took some time looking at lichens, leaves, and some of the numerous ants crawling on the branches more than 60 feet up in the air. It really makes me want to know more about the life in the treetops, especially in the huge woods back home.

As we wrapped up the session, I asked Patrick about the next group I saw gathering, a children’s birthday party. He said children are great climbers, are fearless, and they have so much less wight to have to pull up…I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by that. No matter, I look forward to another outing in the trees and can definitely recommend it as a way to gain some new appreciation for the sentinels of our forests.

 

Northwoods

There is magic in the feel of a paddle and the movement of a canoe, a magic compounded of distance, adventure, solitude, and peace. The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.

~Sigurd F. Olson

It has become a tradition of ours to go out into the wilds on our birthdays, and this year was one of the best. Several friends had talked about their trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) of Minnesota and whetted our appetite for such an adventure. We contacted Ely Outfitting Company and discussed options (I would recommend them). After a lot of planning and packing (thank you, Melissa, for all that hard work) the morning of my birthday found us eating breakfast at a wonderful little restaurant in downtown Ely, anxious to hit the water.

bwca-map

Our route in the BWCA Wilderness (click photos to enlarge)

We chose the Moose River North to Mudro Lake route based on conversations with the outfitters and research online. It was deemed a bit more difficult, but is purportedly one the guide’s favorite routes due to the remoteness and diversity of habitats traversed. We would end up paddling about 40 miles and portaging 20 times for a distance of over 4 miles, with one portage being a little over a mile in length (something to look forward to…not). The outfitters provide a shuttle service so we left a car at the take-out and rode to the put-in with the shuttle driver. I admit to being surprised at the number of vehicles in both parking lots on a Thursday morning, but the BWCA is a very big place (over a million acres of designated wilderness) with over 1200 miles of canoe routes. We started with a half-mile portage from the road before we could drop the canoe in the water.

canoe portage

Carrying the canoe was the best job on any portage

Our canoe was a Wenonah 18-footer made of Kevlar and weighing in at about 46 pounds (probably half the weight of my old 16-ft canoe at home). We packed our gear in two dry bag packs (each probably weighing 40+ pounds at our start), plus two smaller dry bags with essential items that we might need access to while paddling – rain gear, gloves, maps, binoculars, camera, snacks, water bottle, etc. After our first portage where we carried it all in one trip, we decided to use a shuttle system when portaging – one person takes the canoe, the other carries half the remaining gear about half-way and drops it. That person then returns to the start for the remainder of the gear. The canoe person drops the canoe at the other end and then comes back for the first load of gear that has been dropped halfway. That minimizes the amount of walking that we both had to do on each portage. Luckily, many portages are relatively short, but many are either rocky, steep, muddy, or some combination. But, once you do it a few times, it just becomes routine and is a chance to stretch your legs. Plus, it seemed each portage took us into a totally different habitat.

Reflections day 1

Our first day had gray skies, calm winds, and hints of fall color

The outfitter had recommended campsites along the route but we were free to choose our own (you cannot reserve campsites, even though a permit system exists for entry into BWCA to limit the number of people in any one area). Each lake we traversed had one, or often, many more campsites, each with a US Forest Service installed fire grate and portable toilet.

campfire

We had incredible views at our campsites

rock table

Campsite amenities varied but this stone table was the highlight

water pumping

Our twice daily ritual of filtering water (usually 4 water bottles each time)

woodland throne

The woodland throne, a room with a view

bear bag

We hung a bear/mouse bag each night and stored all our food in bear canisters

Black bear

A surprise camp visitor on our first morning at Lake Agnes

Our main camp critter turned out to be a species of woodland mouse at almost every campsite (7:30 p.m. was reliably “mouse thirty” as they all seemed to come out about then each evening). We ended up hanging all of our gear in a bear bag each night to prevent any mischievous rodent chewing. Once you have a mouse or two run across the top of your tent at night, you become keenly aware of their potential. On our first morning we had a surprise visitor, a handsome black bear. I was digging in my bag for something when I heard Melissa say, “Oh my God, there is a bear”. Looking up, indeed, there was a healthy adult bear ambling into camp, nose in the air. The photo above was one of two I took with my iPhone before we yelled at the bear to move on, which it obligingly did. Other than that, camp life was very quiet. We soon got into our 8-day routine of paddling, portaging, setting up camp, eating some very good meals, and enjoying the incredible night sky.

Rock painting cliffs 1

Steep granite cliffs provided the canvas for early Native artisans

One of our destinations was to some rock cliffs just across the border in Canada on Lac La Croix. This is one of many places in this wilderness adorned with rock paintings. These pictographs are believed to be several hundred years old, created by local native tribes paddling these waters in birch bark canoes.

Hand prints petroglyphs

Hand prints

Moose rock painting 1

Faint bull moose silhouette

Moose rock painting

Another moose outline

Most of the paintings are reddish in color and lie beneath cliff overhangs, affording them some protection from the elements. Seeing these helped us realize the importance of these waters as a hunting, fishing, and trading route for many peoples over the past centuries, and made us even more appreciative to paddle in their long-gone wakes.

sunset silhouette

Another perfect view from a campsite rock

Our weather was extraordinary for this time of year with temperatures ranging from the 60’s each day to the 40’s at night (a bit colder the last two days with a strong wind). We had only one evening and morning with rain, so consider ourselves lucky. We saw at least one canoe every day but one, and had a lake to ourselves for two of the camps. Most campsites are incredibly beautiful with direct views onto the water and usually a large rock outcrop access for easy swimming (short, chilly swims this time of year). There is plenty of downed wood for small fires each night (and birch bark from downed trees is one of the best fire-starters imaginable). Plus, if you are so inclined, many of the lakes offer excellent fishing for walleye and pike. This really is a paddlers’ paradise.

Common loon

Loons were a common site along the route

The thing that really struck me was the quiet and feeling of solitude of the Northwoods. Of course we did hear the melancholy calls of loons on several lakes, but that is a soft, singular sound that seems to drift across the lake like an early morning fog. It is as much a part of this wilderness as are the clear cold waters or the pointed tops of the conifers. Once the call passes, the world seems to fall silent again. At each landing, we usually heard what must be considered the signature chatter of the Northwoods, the chirping of a red squirrel. They quickly moved on to gathering cones and mushrooms and the forest became quiet again. There was also the occasional call of a pileated woodpecker, the croak of a raven, or the tweet of some small song bird, but not the usual background noise of birds and insects I am accustomed to back home. Perhaps that is what makes the call of the loon all the more significant. And after dark, if the wind was not rustling (or blowing the last two nights) through the trees, there was virtually no sound (except for the one night a beaver decided to slap its tail in protest of our campfire on its shoreline).

I imagined that there must have been writers and naturalists inspired by this silence in such a vast expanse of wildness. Once I returned, I found the works of Sigurd F. Olson, an author, environmentalist, and long-time advocate for the protection of wilderness. He was a guide in what would become the BWCA and was instrumental in drafting the Wilderness Act of 1964. I found one of his quotes that spoke to the solitude and quiet of this magical place…

At times on quiet waters one does not speak aloud but only in whispers, for then all noise is sacrilege.

I leave you with a few other images from the trip. Because of portaging, I left most of my camera gear at home, so these are all taken with either an iPhone or an Olympus Tough point-and-shoot.

island reflection

Our two days on the largest lakes were mercifully, and magically, as calm as any I have ever seen on the water

international boundary

The northern version of “the wall” – international boundary marker in BWCA (I thought the first one I saw was some sort of can left behind by someone)

campsite

One of our more magical campsites, complete with large rock outcrops and a sandy beach

bog area

The quaking bog areas were among my favorite locations – if you venture out of your canoe, you literally can walk on trembling earth

purple pitcher plants

The bogs were adorned with pitcher plants and sundews

waterfalls

Curtain Falls, one of the areas requiring a portage. We heard this falls from about a mile away on a calm day on the water.

reflections near sunset

Another beautiful campsite

our view from under a canoe

Our view for over 4 miles of the journey

reflections on calm day 1

Reflections on a calm day

water shield

Colors and patterns of water shield and lily pads

pano late day reflections

Clouds and reflections on a perfectly calm day

dragonfly

Autumn meadowhawk dragonfly

purple sunset

Purple sunset one evening

fallen leaves

We enjoyed the peak of fall colors during our final days on the water

clouds and landscape

Blue skies all but two days

sunset

Every sunset was spectacular

final landing

Our final landing at Mudro Lake

Life is good to those who know how to live. I do not ever hope to accumulate great funds of worldly wealth, but I shall accumulate something far more valuable, a store of wonderful memories. When I reach the twilight of life I shall look back and say I’m glad I lived as I did, life has been good to me.

~Sigurd F. Olson

Species seen or heard on trip:

Birds – Bald eagle (they welcomed us at every campsite); Red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, Merlin, Common Raven, American crow, Gray jay, Black-backed woodpecker (a new species for me); Northern flicker, Pileated woodpecker; Red-breasted nuthatch; Ruby-crowned kinglet; Black-capped chickadee; White-throated sparrow; Yellow-rumped warbler; Tennessee warbler; Belted kingfisher; Pied-billed grebe; Horned grebe; Common loon; Wood duck; Lesser scaup; Red-breasted merganser; Hooded merganser; Trumpeter swan; Canada goose; Ruffed grouse; American Golden Plover (a new species for us)

Mammals – River otter; Beaver; Black bear; Red squirrel; Chipmunk; Mouse (Deer or white-footed); Muskrat; Moose tracks

Reptiles and amphibians – Painted turtle; American toad; Bullfrog; Spring peeper; Garter snake

Kayaking in Columbia

I seemed to have reached a new world, so wild a place…far away from human society.

~Henry David Thoreau, on swamps

sunset on Columbia town dock

Sunset from the town dock in Columbia, NC (click photos to enlarge)

Columbia, North Carolina, that is. We spent several days in this beautiful little town last week, part vacation, part getting out to see some of the region for the trails project I am working on with NCLOW. It didn’t help that it was one of the hottest weeks of the summer, but it did help that we spent much of it on the water. And this region has lots of water, from Lake Phelps, the second largest natural lake in North Carolina, to the Scuppernong River, to the numerous creeks and sloughs that beckon paddlers to explore. So, we decided to take our kayaks, throw them in where we could, and see what we could see in a few days on the water. First stop, was the NW Alligator River.

NW Alligator wide view

NW Alligator meanders up into Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge from Hwy 94

I had scouted out some potential put-in points (they are few, unfortunately) so we decided to put in at what looks like an old boat ramp near where Hwy 94 crosses this section of river, about 14 miles south of Columbia. The access is now flooded, but there is a substantial old dock at the site, indicating its past use, perhaps in logging or fishery operations.

NW Alligator put-in

We launched on the east side of Hwy 94 at an old boat ramp area

The lands surrounding this waterway have scattered trees, low pocosin vegetation, and a border of marsh grasses, including pockets of wild rice. Shortly after we passed under the Hwy 94 bridge, we spotted a bald eagle, who managed to stay with us much of the morning. The other wildlife highlight were several red-headed woodpeckers, flying between the many standing dead trees along the route.

NW Alligator River 1

A perfect day for paddling

Eastern Pondhawk male

Dragonflies were our constant companions

NW Alligator River 2

Calm winds made for great reflections

An abundance of clouds made for beautiful reflections and a respite from the heat. After paddling about 1.5 miles, we came to the juncture of the SW and NW branches of the Alligator, and headed north. The path narrows after this, and we found ourselves going through patches of alligator weed and a grass of some sort, most likely maiden cane. Patches of the alligator weed looked as though they had been treated (this is an invasive species that can clog small waterways and is often treated chemically by local agencies).

Maidencane blockage

Large patches of maiden cane finally blocked our path

After paddling another couple of miles, we finally reached a patch of the maiden cane that seemed too large to easily push through, so we turned around and headed back. Our total paddle was about 5 to 6 miles. The only sounds, other than fish jumping, dragonflies buzzing, and woodpeckers drumming, was the distant hum of some crop dusters spraying some of the huge farm fields down the road. I want to go back in colder weather , once some of the vegetation dies back, and see if I can make it all the way up to the refuge road system.

Wide view Riders Creek

Friends recommended we try Riders Creek, near Columbia. It enters the Scuppernong River on the far left.

The next day we hit Riders Creek, a small tributary to the Scuppernong River about 2 miles south of Columbia. Finding a suitable launch site was again the challenge. The two road bridges didn’t offer much so we drove down a side road after looking at Google Earth and Melissa tested a large log on the bank of a roadside canal as a potential launch site. Nothing fancy, but it worked. This day, we had help, and another paddler, and were dropped off (there is no place to park at this makeshift put-in) and planned to paddle back to the canoe/kayak launch behind the Pocosin Lakes Visitor Center in town, a total paddle distance of a little over 5 miles.

 

Rider's Creek

The narrow creek is a beautiful paddle

The upper portion of the creek was my favorite as it is narrow and intimate, allowing us to see and hear the many bird species (prothonotary warblers, woodpeckers, and a great horned owl) and appreciate the small things along the way (an owl feather floating on the black water, the distinctive webs of the many black and yellow argiope spiders, and a clump of blooming cardinal flower adding a splash of brilliant red to the sea of green around us).

Rider's Creek 1

Large bald cypress trees are scattered along the creek

Scuppernoing River

Riders Creek joins the Scuppernong River about 1.5 miles south of Columbia

It was another great paddle, only a couple of hours long, but through a beautiful swamp forest, into the wide waters of the lower Scuppernong, and ending back in the picturesque town of Columbia. And, we were the only ones on the water, probably not unusual in this underutilized area of rich scenery and wildlife.

That afternoon, we drove through portions of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and saw a few bears (no surprise) as well as some smaller wildlife.

Palomedes swallowtails on scat

A group of palamedes swallowtails gathering nutrients from a somewhat unsavory source – scat

Canebrake rattlesnake

A large canebrake rattlesnake along a back road

The palamedes swallowtails were out and about everywhere, and we managed to find a large canebrake rattlesnake crossing one of the refuge roads. I never tire of seeing this magnificent reptiles, and the refuge seems to have a healthy population.

Lake Phelps from Pocosin overlook

The south shore of Lake Phelps

Our last stop was at the pocosin overlook at Pettigrew State Park, along the south shore of Lake Phelps. The clear water at Lake Phelps is such a surprise after spending a couple of days in the dark, tannin-colored waters of the region. It made for a refreshing dip on a hot afternoon.

NCLOW is looking at how we might help bring more tourists into this region to explore and enjoy its rich natural and cultural heritage. The waterways here offer scenic beauty, abundant wildlife, and the chance for quiet and uncrowded paddling. And Columbia is a beautiful town with a rich history and great potential. It is also home to Pocosin Arts, a real treasure of eastern North Carolina, whose mission is to connect culture to the environment through the arts. They offer a range of classes year-round, and are looking at ways to incorporate even more of their unique natural surroundings into their offerings.

One area that does seem to be getting a lot of attention from tourists is nearby Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Situated only about 15 minutes from the Outer Banks certainly helps fuel the busy summer tourist season on this refuge. It is known for its large population of black bears and for paddling opportunities along Milltail Creek. Several OBX outfitters provide canoe/kayak rentals and guided trips on the refuge. We decided to spend our last paddle day checking out this area. We drove to the main launch site at Buffalo City and were surprised to see 10+ vehicles, a crowd of people, and probably 20+ kayaks and canoes. Most people probably go downstream along Milltail Creek, so we decided to drive to another, lesser-known launch site upstream to seek some solitude.

Milltail Crk

Milltail Creek is obviously a popular paddle destination (Alligator River is on the far left of image)

Upper Milltail Crk launch

We launched upstream where Milltail Road crosses the creek

floating dock - jet doc

Floating dock at the launch site

Besides the advantage of proximity to a large tourist population on the Outer Banks, the refuge also has two well-maintained launch sites on Milltail Creek. Ours had a neat floating dock that makes for a very easy launch. As we put in, a trailer with 6 boats pulled up, so I guess this site is not as unknown as I had thought. We quickly got out ahead of the group and for a few hours felt like we were the only people anywhere near this beautiful swamp.

Upper Milltail Creek

Milltail Creek starts out narrow at this launch

 

Iris on upper Milltail Creek

Swamp iris occur in many places along the creek

Upper Milltail Creek 8

Another beautiful day for paddling

We paddled for a few hours, traveling a total of about 7 miles out and back. The creek is rich in bird life and we saw lots of wood ducks, herons, and a few anhinga. My highlights were seeing a large alligator and a black bear along the route. The scenery is beautiful, it is incredibly quiet (if the jets are not buzzing overhead), and it is a great combination of solitude, ease of access, and abundant wildlife. I can see why it is such a popular destination.

Cypress tree on Upper Milltail Creek

A large bald cypress beckoned us over for a closer look

At one point along the way, I noticed a large bald cypress tree hugging the shoreline. Its large limbs draped down, seemingly embracing the dark water, making it look like a perfect place to pull in and escape the sun.

Cypress tree trunk on Upper Milltail Creek

The giant trunk looked inviting

Melissa in tree

A great place to relax in the shade

Sure enough, it offered a chance to climb out of our boats, relax for a lunch break, and it provided a Swiss Family Robinson moment for a couple of thankful paddlers.

Our three days of paddling showed me the great potential for the Scuppernong region, truly one of the jewels of wildness in our state. I hope we can help foster an awareness and appreciation of the incredible resources of this unique area, provide some economic opportunities for local entrepreneurs, and maintain the incredible natural heritage and beauty of this wild landscape. On our way home, we decided to check out an area that is making a strong effort to do just that.

treehouse in Windsor

Recently completed tree houses along the Cashie River in Windsor

The town of Windsor is located along the Cashie River, between Williamston and Edenton. The town is making a commitment to ecotourism along its waterways (see Destination Windsor) with kayak and canoe rentals, pontoon boat tours, a wetlands walk, and the recently completed tree houses. These two tree houses, funded in part by grants, are to be the start of a village along the river including a few more tree houses and a renovated campground. They hope to have these available for rent starting this fall. It looks like a great start to getting visitors to come to appreciate their natural surroundings. Let’s hope they prove successful and can pave the way for more such ventures in the wilds of eastern North Carolina.