July 23, 2011.
Grayson Highlands State Park, Sullivan Swamp, Quebec Branch Headwaters Bog
7 am. Cloudy, breezy and cool.
After meeting in the Massey Gap parking lot the SiteSection crew ascended the trail to the Quebec branch headwaters bog. The wind was steady and cloud cover thick. We proceeded to basecamp, with Carol Broderson and Scott Jackson-Ricketts leading a group of six to the site. Devin went to the campground to find Peter Dutnell and Dave West, both of which traveled from Charlottesville to participate. Having found them and leaving maps showing location of the bog, Devin returned to join the others in the bog.
The crew for the day was Carol Broderson, Scott Jackson-Ricketts, Mica Paluzzi, Allison Herrington, Mason Pullam, Toby Hash, Kelly Servick, Cecelia Mathis, and Devin Floyd, later joined by Peter Dutnell and Dave West. Andy Holland emerged from the Rhodo thicket to join the crew as well.
Throughout the day we rotated between conducting survey and reviewing and developing protocol for the program.
After a morning of exploration and discovery we regrouped at basecamp for a lunch break (11:15). Eight participants planned to stay for only a half day. Earlier, while Devin, Cecelia and Mason were surveying around the southwest portion of the bog we came across Andy Holland. He was looking for the BRDC crew and had been roaming the area for about an hour. Among his first comments were, “I just saw a bear, a male, about 150 pounds!” I did not know Andy but knew he’d be joining the SiteSection survey crew at some point in the day (Scott J-R had invited him). I could tell immediately that his skills would be of help. The tattoo of a rare Appalachian minnow on his forearm served as supporting evidence. He is skilled in in the areas of reptiles, amphibians and fish, but it was also clear that his repertoire included navigation, reading the landscape, tracking, and flora identification. This would be demonstrated during afternoon expeditions to another more remote area of the bog.
The final activity just prior to lunch break was to collect a good rock sample. I reviewed the geology of the mountain, its intense and explosive volcanic origins, and the make-up of the rock. We passed fist-sized samples, freshly broken, around the group for a closer look and the mineral content of the rock. All samples were bagged, as we wanted to ensure we weren’t creating any new artifacts. All flakes and chunks of rhyolite were carefully collected after making fist-sized specimens with the rock hammer.
Morning explorations were a great success. Participants added many new species to the SiteSection inventory list, including ruby-throated hummingbird, willow fly catcher, bob-white, fragile fern, lady fern, black bear, wood nymph butterfly, small green woodland orchid, and fireweed. The cedar waxwings were there in droves with 20 + reported. Small green woodland orchid counts were arbitrarily halted at 50+. They were everywhere in the bog. The most common butterflies were wood nymph, variegated fritillary, and Aphrodite. A deep exploration of several unidentified plants and mushrooms produced notes and photographs that will (hopefully) shed light on their identication.
Noteably, we confirmed that the bluet species dominant in the bog is in fact a creeping variety, sending out runners. This very prostrate growth pattern in combination with the tiny ovate leaves point to thyme-leaved bluet, or creeping bluet.
“9:15 am. Vaccinium species; green leaf, small amount of red. Small bell shaped flowers, red color. Green/brown new growth; 5.5 feet tall. Greener variety nearby seems to be older, possibly the same species. Non-hairy twigs and leaves; not bristled-toothed, gray-brown bark on older growth.” E.B.
“9:27 am. Butterfly caught…brown underwings with black stripes and 6 small spots. Top of wings black with orange-golden tips of the wings with two dots on each end. Allison- 4 photos, Toby-2 photos. 4 seen” (Cercyonis pegala, wood nymph butterfly)C.B.
After lunch, and after a couple of hours of sharing basecamp with “wild” feral ponies, the remaining crew (Scott, Devin, Kelly and Andy) made plans for an expedition to a hard-to-reach and unexplored portion of the bog. It has been known since the onset of the project that the flattest and lowest portion of the bog (an open area dominated by rushes and sedges) exists in an area in the north part of the 10 acre bog. It is an island of a clearing completely surrounded by Rhododendron, Kalmia, Spruce and numerous other “thick” growing species. Trying to reach the clearing from basecamp by crawling had not worked during the May visit. We got stuck in the thicket and abandoned the effort about an hour into it. This time the strategy would be different.
Following the recommendations of Andy, we set off to find a way into that remote area of the bog. We worked around the southwest end, around the west side and through the shrubs and trees upslope of the bog on its north side. Eventually tiny islands of well lit green clearings could barely be seen through the Rhododendron wall. Andy guided us toward what he thought (and correctly so) was an entry that we could see on our aerial photograph (google maps). We ended up following a spring and seepage downslope into the thicket, hopping from one clearing to another. Slowly but surely sphagnum and cinnamon ferns began to appear. We were at the edge of the bog. It reaches upslope along its small tributary feeders.
The Quebec Branch Headwaters Bog is a very amorphous shape and the edges of it reach out in fingers and leaves little pockets, peninsulas and islands of sphagnum and associated bog indicator species. The bog is in fact a very complex network, its edges looking very little like the shape noted by the DCR (I imagine mapping it in detail would be nearly impossible). The ecotone of the bog is beautifully complex, and it holds in its patterns echoes of change and transition.
As we entered the north side of the bog network we encountered plants not seen yet. We saw more green woodland orchid plants but this time accompanied by a bugleweed species (a mint). It resembled the mountain mint observed in the west end of the bog. At this locality a small trickle of a stream passed through and among its small rhyolite pebbles were a beautiful salamander and a fuzzy dragonfly nymph.
We moved on. Moments later we broke through a thicket. Ahead of us was a wet meadow opening to the west.
Upon entering, and after being coaxed into inquiry by a deciduous holly growing in the muck, it became clear that the community of plants on this end of the bog (north end) was a bit different than that we had been studying on the southeast side. The most obvious differences were in the numerous grasses, sedges, rushes and the shrub diversity. The graminoids were waste deep and new species of willow and serviceberry were found. The ground was flat, very flat, and the moisture was continuous. As we explored this new area the diversity and the newness of the species made it clear that a focused return visit would be necessary. We opted to continue navigating the clearing and its network of thickets and openings. Very little time was given to surveying and documenting new species. Priority was given to getting familiar with the clearing and finding a good path in and out. We did note a new species of Galium, small colonies of silky willow, and a very unusual alternate-leaved, five-petaled flower.
We utilized a bear path, as it was recently pressed through the grasses. Footprints were still visible in the soggy sphagnum, hummocks were dug into, and potential ground bee and grub sources had been disturbed. In one location a serviceberry tree had been pulled over. We did not see, hear or smell the bear, but it probably saw us!
Because of the impenetrable wall of Rhodos and Kalmia, we were forced to use the same path to exit this new clearing. We retraced our steps and walked uphill. Slowly the hawthorns and gooseberries appeared again and we found ourselves on dry land, climbing a fence and entering the well-established trail that would take us back to the intersection of the Appalachian trail an Rhododendron Gap trails. Along the way, and after passing a couple of small semi-wet seepages, Andy pointed out the primary spring that forms the origin of Quebec branch. It maintains a clear pool along the trail, open to the sky. Elderberry grows above it and silky willow chases the moisture as it seeps, trickles and flows downward into the 10 acre bog. We returned to basecamp and packed everything up.
After a busy day, an exhausting and exhilarating series of adventures, Scott and I pondered the good fortune of our new State Park partnership. We felt clear that this program, SiteSection, could draw the interest of a diverse audience. Young and old alike enjoyed the program. It was clear that the program could could have a very positive impact on the lives of the high school students and adults that are “local” to the habitat being targeted by the program. It also seems possible that great resources featuring amazing Blue Ridge habitats may result from the activity of the program. What remains unclear is how the program will be funded. Clearly a variety of entities and individuals would need to be convinced of the undeniable and lasting impact this program can have on underserved Blue Ridge communities and the broader public. We hope that the enthusiasm generated by this explore + discover + share based program will be contagious. We will need funding before the full vision of the SiteSection program can be realized.