2012 SiteSection, Part I

 Sullivan Swamp, Quebec Branch-Wilson Creek Confluence Bog. 
A Southern Appalachian Shrub Bog 

One does not need to travel to the far reaches of the world to find incredible ecological richness. There are places right here, in Virginia, that harbor some of the most fascinating and beautiful ecological treasures on the planet. The Blue Ridge Mountains are home to many of these wonders. This weekend, in cooperation with the Department of Conservation and Recreation and Grayson Highlands State Park, Blue Ridge Discovery Center’s SiteSection program took its staff and participants to the Blue Ridge highlands of Southwest Virginia to explore one of these “ecological treasures”. It is known locally as “Sullivan Swamp”. Biologists call this ecosystem a southern Appalachian shrub bog. There are only about 30 occurrences of these small and unusual ecosystems on the planet!
Bright and early Saturday morning participants met at Grayson Highlands State Park. As participants gathered around maps to orient themselves, a small “birding” team was sent ahead to take advantage of the early morning avian activity at the bog. The rest of the crew piled into our transport vehicle and we began the bumpy ascent from the parking area to the bog. We climbed to about 4,350’ elevation’. we passed through a northern hardwood forest, a forest with its roots anchored in an ancient terrain held up by a volcanic rock called rhyolite. Upon arrival and with our “Research and Collecting Permit” in hand, our crew of 10 people began to ponder the phrase “southern Appalachian shrub bog”. 
Questions followed. What is a bog? What plant species are the indicator species for this particular ecosystem? Can you locate the bog, and how do you know if we have actually found the bog? 
Inquiries followed questions. The group began to look for the required features: greater than 50% sphagnum moss ground cover, large hummocks of cinnamon fern, silky willow, rhododendron and highbush blueberry shrubs, red spruce, red maple, tawny cottongrass, and last, but definitely not least: that super squishy ground that sinks, moves and rebounds beneath your feet!
The bog was officially located, and we set up base camp on a flat terrace at its edge. The SiteSection survey participants and staff gathered around to review protocols that included survey, journaling, animal catch-and-release, and habitat navigation techniques. We divided the group into 2 survey teams, one focused on plants, the other on birds, with the understanding that any quickly moving life form that made itself present (like a salamander, butterfly, or small mammal) would be given temporary priority over the assigned subject matter. The teams were launched into two distinct sections of the bog and survey began. As the participants began to explore, the moments of discovery began to unfold. Through the process of keeping a detailed journal, taking photographs, keeping a species list, and using various keys to identify species, the teams became more and more efficient throughout the day.

With a soft mist falling during the first part of the day the story of this ecosystem began to unfold. Our understanding of the parts of the ecosystem and how they related grew steadily. The sun emerged just prior to noon and the afternoon hours were alive with moths and butterflies. By day’s end we had thoroughly observed and documented more than 110 different species and dozens of unique micro-habitats within the larger bog. Some highlights were Appalachian brown butterflies, northern bobwhite, magnolia warbler, canada warbler, steeplebush, swamp rose, lesser Canadian St. John’s wort, black bear, and a very diverse array of rushes, sedges, and other grasses. Maybe the most interesting discovery of the day was the recognition of habitat variety within the Appalachian shrub bog. The seeps, pools, and gurgling streamlets, the hummocks of orchids and ferns, meadows of grass and sphagnum...the colonies of silky willow, swamp rose, and rhododendron...and many interesting plant communities. Each of these little areas held an entire world of unique living things that would take a lifetime to fully explore!

After a day of exploring this beautiful biome we were all overwhelmed by the diversity of unfamiliar species and overcome by the sheer exhaustion of spending that much time navigating the unstable surface of the bog. Butterflies were released. All data, species sheets, cameras, and journals were checked in at base camp, and we closed down operations for the day by 4pm. With soggy shoes and smiles on our faces, we piled back in the transport vehicles and made our way back to the parking area. As we traversed the bumpy cobble and boulder strewn trail, a black bear bound around the bend just ahead of us and disappeared off the bank toward Wilson Creek. There’s nothing like spending a day in that wilderness. And there’s nothing quite like exploring, discovering and sharing the rare ecological treasures of the Blue Ridge. We look forward to returning later in the summer for a second day of survey!

I would like to say thank you to all that participated in the Saturday survey and the Sunday laboratory event! I hope you had a great time honing your observation skills, chasing birds, moths and butterflies, and romping in the muck. Your contributions are meaningful, as your observations, notes, photographs and the list of species forms the beginning of a valuable resource. This resource will undoubtedly be enjoyed by individuals, schools, and park managers for a long time to come. The things you discovered will also help inform those that make decisions about managing this resource. Please join us for the next outing and help us continue to share the wonders of the Blue Ridge with the world! -Devin Floyd, SiteSection Director

Survey Participants and Staff: Maggie Borchgrevink, Shae Hawks, Amanda Crede, Devin Floyd (Program Director), Debby Greif, Scott Jackson-Ricketts (Field Assistant), Aaron Floyd (Site Data Manager), Hardin Halsey, Billy Mac Halsey, Buddy Halsey, Dr. Robert Perkins (SiteSection advisor, insect specialist), Bill Perkins. Additional Laboratory participants: Rebecca Absher, Lydia Absher, Courtney Armstrong, Cecelia Mathis.

Special thanks also goes out to BRDC’s SiteSection program advisors: Rebecca Rader (fungi), Clyde Kessler(lepidoptera, general natural history), Bob Perkins (insects), Chip Morgan (ferns), Lonnie Murray (orchids), and Doug Ogle (Mount Rogers area natural history/ecosytem/flora expert). 

And finally, thank you Theresa Duffey, Natural and Cultural Resources Manager for the DCR, and Kevin Kelley, Chief Ranger at Grayson Highlands State Park for helping with permitting and site access.