Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Short Swamp Walk

Last Sunday, before we left Goose Creek State Park in North Carolina, we took a short walk on a wooden walkway through a thick swamp.  Carlton and Libby had hiked this the day before and saw tree frogs and anole lizards.  It was a great place to slowly explore and look for critters, of which we saw a few - birds and reptiles and amphibians.  We walked for about 45 - 60 minutes, very slowly, probably only covering about a mile of walking.

The trail was called the Palmetto Trail, and it went right through the swamp.

This southern leopard frog was one of many that we saw.

Cattails in a marshy area.

This fungus is called witch's butter.  Does it look like something you would like to spread on your pancakes?  Not me!

This is a palmetto and you can see it has a bumper crop of berries, which are eaten by a wide variety of wildlife.

We studied this snake for a while.  We wondered if it were a cottonmouth, but a close up photo of its head that Carlton took did not reveal pits that vipers use to sense the heat of their prey.  The same photo, when compared to pictures, made us believe that it is a nonvenomous banded water snake.

Again, I am very glad we didn't risk it going out to Shackleford Banks and instead enjoyed camping out and exploring in Goose Creek State Park to salvage our trip.

Friday, October 7, 2016

When Plan A Fails, Go to Plan B!

Exactly a week ago, at this time (5:15AM) I got on the road to pick up my friend Carlton and his 10 year old daughter Libby.  We were headed to Beaufort, NC to do two nights of backpacking out on Shackleford Banks.  Because there is no fresh water there, we were carrying about 7 gallons of water between us.  We had greatly anticipated this trip for two months!  But we forgot to include Mother Nature in our plans!

We got to Beaufort just after noon, and just after that, the skies opened.  Thunder roared, lightening flashed, drenching rains poured.  We ducked into a restaurant for lunch, checking the radar app on our phones continually.  It showed a long line of thunderstorms headed right over the island stretching back to Savannah, GA!  After talking with the boat company, the National Park Service (Shackleford Banks is part of Cape Lookout National Seashore), and my spouse, we finally gave up our plan at about 2:45 and checked into a motel.  We got in a little hiking at Croatan National Forest, had dinner, and went to bed, getting up early to find - more thunderstorms!  It looked like steady rain there at least until the afternoon, and more storms coming in for the evening, overnight, and Sunday.

So using Google on my phone, we came up with a plan B - Goose Creek State Park about 60 miles to the north of where we had spent the night.  We headed there right away, hoping that maybe we could get a campsite, of which there are only 14.  And we were in luck, because there were still two sites open.  The map below shows the location - the red arrow shows our original destination, and the star shows where we ended up.  You can see the Outer Banks, including Cape Hatteras, to the east of Goose Creek.

It was a delightful park.  The campsites were spacious and also widely spaced, and in an open grove of tall longleaf pines.  The gravel pad was plenty big enough for our two tents, and we had a picnic table and fire pit.  There was a very nice outhouse nearby, and pumps for water (although we never needed it with all the water that we brought with us).  And the weather was generally good - warm and muggy, but dry, other than a couple hours of rain Saturday afternoon, and a thunderstorm in the night.

Here is Libby in front of their tent.  My tiny tent is behind this one:

We spent most of the day hiking and exploring.  We hiked a total of about eight miles - a short loop near the campground, and a longer loop through the rest of the park through forests, swamps, and by marshes and rivers.  The mosquitoes were fierce at times, but the birding was great.  The map below shows my track.  The campground is on the far left.    The arrows show the direction of travel - clockwise - for the longer hike.  Coming back in the steady rain, and Libby and Carlton having stopped hiking with me when Libby got tired, I ended up walking along the road when a section of the trail was totally flooded by deep water in a swamp.  There was no way around without wading.

Here are photos of the many sights along the way, starting with a pretty - but likely poisonous - mushroom.

Here is a view of Flatty Creek on our first short hike.

This bracket fungus reminded me of burnished wood.  I thought it was beautiful.

Carlton knows enough mushrooms that you are probably not going to die or go hungry if you follow his advice.  This one is called Hen of the Woods, and is a delicacy.

I can't remember if this one is edible or not.

The park has great interfaces between the forests and rivers.  I think that this is the Pamlico River.

I can't remember what this is, but Carlton said not to eat it.  However....

This one is the Old Man of the Woods, and is very good to eat.  Just cut off the gills.

Here is what it looks like cut open in a cross-section.  It's hard to see, but the color is changing and it is turning black.

Lots of open pine forests in this area.

Here is another view of the river.

Southern leopard frog, which we saw all over the place.

Edible or not?  I don't know, but it didn't look that appealing.

More of the pine forest that once was a huge industry for naval stores (pitch, pine tar).

A short boardwalk got me over this swamp, covered with duck weed.  I heard a very large animal crashing and splashing through one of these swamps, likely a deer or bear.

Here is a pretty wild flower.

I got though this section of widely flooded trail with dry feet by walking carefully along the slippery logs.  Later, there was a section that was so deeply flooded that there was no getting around it.

No idea if this one is edible or not.  The bad thing about mushroom identification is that there is a very high penalty for being wrong if you eat them.

We sat out the rest of the rain storm back in camp, ate dinner, and got a fire going.  As it turned dark, we got a real treat - three different screech owls calling in the night, and a male and female great horned owl calling back and forth.  The owls called for about 20 minutes, and we were enthralled as we listened to them.  In the morning, we did a little walking - here is a sunrise view at Flatty Creek -

and here you can see the contrail from a jet reflected in the creek.

Then we ate breakfast, packed up, and did one last hike on the way out.  Because this post is so long, I will create a separate post for that hike.

Well, Plan A didn't work out, and that was very disappointing.  But we were able to come up with a great plan B to visit a really cool place with amazing birding and habitats, and comfortable camping.  So, no complaints!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Rose River Falls

Last Friday, I had the day off and it was going to be a little cooler in the mountains, so I headed to Shenandoah National Park to hike the Rose River Falls loop - actually, more of a lollipop than a loop, strictly speaking.  It is 6.5 miles and passes by two nice waterfalls: Dark Hollows and Rose River.  It's my first hike back up there since running into the bear, and I carried bear spray with me this time, since I was alone.

This hike is a good workout, and as I inexplicably forgot my trekking poles at home, it was harder than usual on my knees and hips, especially the steep downhill sections.  And my right ankle still hurts a lot, so I just went at my own pace and did the best I could.  I would have held a group up for sure.  Here is a track of the loop, arrows showing that I hiked counter-clockwise.  The Rose River Falls is marked by a purple star.

Other than the waterfalls, there is not a whole lot of scenery on the hike - it is mainly a walk in the woods.  I kept alert for wildlife, and saw a number of animals of the smaller, less spectacular types.  I thought of doing a "What am I?" for a change, but the animals that I saw were small and hard to identify.

Here are some photos along the way of my trek, starting with the first hints of fall:

I am not sure what this flowering shrub is, but I call it pretty:

Maybe not as pretty is this orb weaver.  I don't know the species, but its rear legs reminded me of candy canes.

I felt really bad for this baby cedar waxwing along the side of the trail.  It should be in a nest with parents.  I hope very much that its parents were around somewhere, but saw no sign of them.

This is Dark Hollow Falls.  It is only about 3/4 mile from the trail head, and you have to drop 500 feet from there to get here.

I don't know if this waterfall has a name or not.  It was a short way below Dark Hollow Falls.

This little fellow is a white-spotted slimy salamander.

There are two parts to the Rose River Falls.  The Upper Falls, shown here, drops about 25 feet.  The light was not right for a great photo.  See the log in the upper left?  I watched a young man walk out on it, rocks behind him and shallow pool in front, and dive in.  I was convinced that he would break his neck, because the pool could not be five or six feet deep at its deepest spot.  But he was okay.  The Lower Falls drops about 40 feet but is supposed to be quite steep and dangerous to reach, so I passed.

After a sharp climb from the falls, I reached a mellow woods road that dropped gradually for a mile or so back to just below Dark Hollow Falls.  From there, it was the steep slog back to my car.

Along the Dark Hollow Fire Road, I spotted this red admiral, and

this red-spotted purple.  (The red spots are not really apparent with this one).

Here is one more wildflower that I need to identify.  Pretty!

The last wildlife of the hike was this red-backed salamander.

Great hike!  Pretty forests and waterfalls, and lots of interesting animals, even if they were on the small side.  I hope that the poor little cedar waxwing will be all right.  By the way, it is against the law to collect animals in national parks unless you have a special permit, plus I had no way to carry the little bird safely.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A Very Cool ID From the Past!

Nearly seven years ago, I was hiking in Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, and came across a bird of prey that had killed a kingfisher and was eating it.  The bird grabbed some of the kingfisher and flew to the top of a utility pool.  I took a long range photo into the sun but could not identify it.  You can read about the encounter here.

Fast forward seven years.  About a week ago, I've gotten involved in the Virginia Wildlife Mapping Project as a volunteer, and as part of this, you post your wildlife photos along with some data about each observation, including where they were taken.  You state what you have identified the animal as.  Then others have the chance to confirm your identification.

In the case of the bird of prey, I finally decided that it must be a red-tailed hawk.  But two other naturalists came forward and said, no, what I saw was a peregrine falcon!

So how cool is that - to have seen the rare peregrine falcon just after it successfully hunted?  I've blown up the photo I took digitally - it is very grainy but it is the best I have to share of the encounter:

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Checking Out the Ramsey Draft Wilderness

I've heard a lot about the Ramsey's Draft Wilderness just west of Staunton, Virginia, and since  we broke camp early Wednesday a week ago in West Virginia so my brother Chris could get back to Missouri, I drove right by the trailhead on the way home plenty of early enough to try a short hike and check it out.  I could quickly see that this place is not for sissies.

Wilderness areas don't get the same careful care that parks do because they are, well, wilderness.  There are no trail blazes to show one the way, and there is no trail maintenance.  If a big tree falls across the trail, deal with it.  If the trail becomes choked with vegetation, press on.  It the trail seems to disappear, figure it out, or turn around.

I knew I didn't want to try a long difficult hike.  I just wanted to do more of a scouting trip to see what it is like, and I only went about a mile up the trail along Ramsey's Draft.  Then I returned and hiked a half mile or so up another trail that started out being out of the Wilderness area.  I've read accounts that the conditions for hiking here can be confusing and very difficult, and I believe it.

Here is a track of my hike.  The red arrow indicates the mile hike up along the creek, and the blue arrow points to the closing hike up the side trail.  If I kept going along either one, I could have reached Hiner Spring, which is supposed to be a beautiful area to camp in.  But you're talking 9 to 11 miles of difficult going to get there.  Maybe I will come back and do a longer hike or a backpacking trip here, but I can see that I will have to be fully prepared for tough going.

Here are some pictures from my hike on August 24, starting with a view of Ramsey's Draft at the start of the hike.

I thought that the yellow beetle, which I need to try to identify, on the yellow flower was really

This mushroom was as large as a small dinner plate!  I wonder if it is edible, or if it would destroy your liver cells, leading to an awful death?

Hemlock is supposed to be common up here.  I know that it has been decimated in many parts of the East by the woolly adelgid, a tiny bug that came from East Asia.  Many of the huge hemlocks in Shenandoah, for example, are ghosts now.

I bet that woodpeckers love this tree!  I heard a pileated woodpecker but didn't see one.  Nor, other than that beetle and a few butterflies, did I see any wildlife.

Sometimes the trail was distinct, and other times I was not sure if the trail had crossed the stream and I was on a game trail.  Without trail marking, it is difficult to follow.  Imagine being an Indian or explorer 250 years ago here when it was true wilderness!

Sometimes the trail - if this even is the trail - was totally choked with vegetation, including thistles.  After a mile, I reached a point where I felt like the real trail had to have crossed Ramsey's Draft, and I had no idea where, so I turned back.

This is the Bridge Hollow Trail, out of the wilderness area and marked with yellow blazes (and maybe yellow mushrooms - see below).  It climbs steadily for two miles and is very easy to follow.  At that point, it connects to the Bald Ridge Trail, which goes back in the wilderness area up to Hiner Spring.  Part of me wants to try this on a 2-3 trek. Part of me says it would be tough going.

Well, my hike was short but sweet, and I at least got to check out Ramsey's Draft Wilderness a bit.  When my ankle and foot are close to 100%, I think I'd like to come back.  But you don't want to tackle this place if you are not at your game!