Thursday, June 14, 2012

Pine Mountain Flora and Fauna

Cumberland Azalea
Although the peak of wildflowers had passed, we still saw enough blooms to delight our eyes. This lovely bright orange is the Cumberland azalea, not the flame azalea. Ben Begley, naturalist at the Pine Mountain Settlement School, says the Cumberland blooms in June and the flame in May, so they are easy to tell apart despite the similarity in color.

Late-blooming mountain laurel and rhododendrons could still be found in the proper habitat. Laurels prefer the sandy drier slopes and ridges, while rhododendrons thrive around moist stream beds. We didn't see any of the pink Catawba rhoddies though.

Rose Pogonia
The Appalachians are noted for rare plants and animals, and this rose pogonia is a rare orchid found in wet marshy places. This one was in a wet spot, but right out in the bright sunshine.

Pipsissewa, or spotted wintergreen, popped up on each day we climbed in sandy acidic soils. Since it is neither spotted nor a wintergreen, we developed the habit of calling it pipsissewa - a much more fun name to pronounce. It grows low to the ground though, and I had a hard time getting focused on it. In fact, the light levels in the forest were so dark, I had trouble focusing on most things.

Roundleaf Catchfly
Another rare flower is the roundleaf catchfly, to be found ONLY in areas with shaded sandstone cliffs. This one was in a sandstone overhang at Camp Blanton. Even then, only a few plants grew - a very small population.

Eft of a Newt
At Bad Branch on our first day, we had to look sharp to avoid stepping on all the newts, and their bright orange young, all day. I always thought these were hard to find, but you just have to look in the right place.

Ant Lion
As we rested after climbing to the sandstone overhang at Blanton, Ben spotted some large anthills. Not only were the hills large, but they were home to the ant lions. The ant lion larva eats ants and other insects. In sandy regions, ant lion larvae dig a shallow cone-shaped pit and wait at the bottom for an ant or other insect to slip on the loose sand and fall in. When this happens, the ant lion eats the insect. These pit-digging ant lions are called "doodlebugs" in the United States because of the wandering designs they make in the sand while looking for the ideal spot to dig a pit. When it finally finds the right place to dig, the 'doodlebug' makes circles in the sand with its head, each deeper than the last, until its pit is excavated. Then it buries itself at the bottom so that only its head, with jaws open, can be seen, and there it waits for its prey. Look at those huge pincers!

Fence Lizard
The sandy ridge tops were often home to fence lizards, who calmly stared at us, assuming that we couldn't see them.

Click Beetle
My favorite insect was this large eyed click beetle. Click beetles get their name from the sound they make when they flip themselves upright. The loud click is made when they snap a 'spine' under their thorax. This motion helps turn them right-side-up, and is quite startling to a potential predator.

We didn't see any live bears, which is a good thing, I guess, since I know I could never outrun one if needed. Of course, the saying is that you don't have to run faster than the bear, just faster than the guy behind you! Everyone sure jumped when a large branch fell nearby though. We all thought it was a bear. Ben told plenty of snake stories too, since rattlers and copperheads are common in the mountains. He checked the territory of a resident rattler at High Rock on Bad Branch trail before we passed in that direction on the way down. I would like to have a snake photo for this trip, but am just as glad we didn't actually find any.

Next post - how I became a changed woman on this trip!

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