Fire & Water in the Blue Ridge

We like to briefly enjoy early spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains while visiting our farm near Galax, VA, in mid-March. It still freezes almost every night and we often need a roaring fire to keep warm, but a few days are sunny and the signs of early spring are all around. Tree swallows are migrating through, woodcocks are peenting, the spring peepers and wood frogs are breeding, and a few flowers are blooming.

A wildlife management tool we utilize at this time of year is burning of some of our grasslands. We are hoping to achieve a greater amount of open ground under and between the clumps of grasses and wildflowers to encourage grassland birds such as grasshopper and savannah sparrows, meadowlarks, bobolinks, and quail. If you look at a panoramic photo of the area surrounding our 1880's farm house, you will notice a wide variety of habitat types: cow pasture in the foreground, hayfields made up of exotic grasses such as fescue in the background, restored meadows planted with 7 species of native grasses and 12 species of wildflowers, mowed lawn, gardens and various out-buildings, brush piles, marshes with spring-fed streams, small ponds, forests on the far horizon, and shrub borders/hedgerows. Such a diverse mosaic of habitat types is essential for maximizing biodiversity.

We have constructed 8 small ponds as part of our plan to increase habitat diversity and several of them can be seen in the photo of the house. An additional part of our plan is to maintain some ponds with and some without fish, since different communities of aquatic insects and amphibians will exist in these two situations. Three ponds near the house contain fish, in part due to colonization upstream from a creek below, and also from our stocking of the ponds. We also have four ponds that lack fish and which are beginning to attract amphibians that require such habitat. For example pond 7 (see photo) a tiny pond surrounded by woods, had 6 eggs masses of wood frogs deposited recently. The embryos are developing rapidly and will soon hatch and feed on the abundant algae. The adult wood frogs spend their entire lives in the woods except for a brief period at breeding. There was also one egg mass of the spotted salamander in fishless pond 8 nearby (see photo of milky egg mass). This was very exciting since these predatory salamanders are rare in our area. Their egg masses may be milky or clear; the cloudy masses contain large numbers of tiny crystals of protein that reflect light, but the purpose of this is unknown. It is known that the two egg mass varieties are laid by the same species. The egg masses usually become quite green later due to colonization by a symbiotic algae that helps to keep the embryos supplied with oxygen in exchange for carbon compounds excreted by the baby amphibians.

The only flower in bloom at this time was coltsfoot (see photo), introduced from Europe because it was widely used to treat colds and asthma. It has since become suspect since it contains toxins that can damage the liver. This close-up view reveals that this "flower" is in fact made up of numerous smaller "flowers" which carry out distinctly different functions. Thus the widespread and very common members of this Asteraceae or sunflower family used to be called "composites" since the flowers are made up of many individual flowers with functions that differ (ray and disc flowers). But I hardly thought of this as I simply enjoyed the first flower of spring.

So venture out beyond the confining walls of human habitation and enjoy the natural beauties of spring, one of the most wonderful times of year since it exemplifies rebirth and renewal of life after a winter period of quiescence.

Bill Dunson