The distinctive roar of the longleaf was the sound the evening breeze made, and the odor of pine resin was the smell of the countryside…It was so much a part of their lives, so wound up with everything it meant to be southern, that it was as impossible to discern its influence as it was to imagine a world without it. Only when it was reduced, almost entirely, to a sea of stumps could we begin to get our arms around it.
~~Bill Finch in Longleaf, Far as the Eye Can See
These past few weeks have flown by with so much happening both at work and home. Highlights have included a couple of trips to a region of North Carolina that is quickly becoming a favorite, and is home to extensive longleaf pine savannas and their associated diversity of plants. The place is southeastern North Carolina, and the destinations are the Green Swamp Preserve and Holly Shelter Game Lands. One trip was with some of our trained volunteers from the NC Botanical Garden. The other was an educator trek highlighting the carnivorous plants of the region. Both were in collaboration with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Compared to our home here in the Piedmont, this land of longleaf really is a different world in the way it looks, feels, and sounds.Here are a few highlights from those trips (spoiler alert…more to come in future posts)…
The classic longleaf savanna has a dense understory of wiregrass and a host of other herbaceous species under a canopy of tall longleaf pines. Variations of this conifer-dominated community once covered 90 million acres along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Logging, the naval stores industry, land conversion, and fire suppression have reduced this once dominant plant community by 97%. Land managers are working to restore this treasure by using a tool that helped shape this diverse landscape – fire.
Scientists estimate natural lightning-caused fires once occurred on average every 3 to 7 years in much of the Coastal Plain. Years of fire suppression shifted the balance in plant communities to favor more deciduous species like turkey oaks at the expense of longleaf pines and the associated savanna species. Regular burns are helping turn this around, allowing the fire-adapted species to once again thrive. At both sites, we saw evidence of the adaptability of the many growth stages of longleaf to the effects of fire (see Melissa’s post from last year on longleaf). Plenty of singed needles, but the majority of growth tips survived, helping create a patchwork of green in the charred landscape.
Bring the plants back and you start to bring back the animals as well.
The federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker depends on mature longleaf pine forests for its nesting cavities. They are the only woodpecker that regularly excavates cavities in living trees. As such, they are considered a ‘keystone’ species, because use of their cavities (either for roosting or nesting) by at least 27 other species of vertebrates contributes to the species richness of the pine forest. We saw numerous cavity trees scattered about the savannas. Most are marked in two ways – one human, one avian. Researchers monitoring the birds’ population regularly mark nest trees with two bands of white paint around the trunk of the tree. The birds drill numerous holes above and below the nest entrance, creating a sap flow that dries a whitish color and is visible at considerable distances. The sap is believed to help reduce the threat to eggs and nestlings from predators such as rat snakes.
At our last stop in Holly Shelter, we enjoyed the beauty and fragrance of dwarf azaleas, Rhododendron atlanticum. This low-growing shrub makes an eye-popping display in the sea of wiregrass. A closer look revealed some other striking flowers under the pines.
The pine savannas are known for their unusual plants, including a host of native orchids. Early in the season, the grass pink orchids, Calopogon sp., dominate. The genus name is Greek for “beautiful beard”, referring to the cluster of yellowish hairs on the upper lip of the flower. This flower produces no nectar, but the bushy hairs resemble the pollen-bearing anthers of other flowers, thus fooling insects to land for a snack.
The upper lip of the orchid is hinged at the base. When an insect lands on it, the lip drops, flopping the insect onto the reproductive parts of the flower (called a column) hopefully leading to pollination. In the photo above, the twig pushing down on the lip shows what happens when an insect, such as a bumblebee, lands on the yellow hairs – it is dropped down onto the column.
We also saw a lot of other insects in the savanna including many Palamedes swallowtail butterflies. And where there are insects, there will be spiders, waiting…
This mother wolf spider is carrying her egg sac on the tip of her abdomen while the spiderlings hatch and crawl onto her back. They will cling to her for a few days until their first molt.
Our savanna time was well spent and we all came away with a new appreciation of the magic of this habitat. The gentle roar of the wind in the pines is definitely a soothing sound.
And, if you take the time to stoop down and look closely, there are many marvels to see…