While spring marches on in the lower elevations of Rappahannock County, the green wave creeping up the slopes of the mountains has not yet reached Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.
Last Friday (April 24) — a cold, blustery but sunny day — a friend and I drove up to the Park to have lunch at Skyland and take stock of spring’s progress up there. Entering the park on U.S. 211, we were greeted with a show of redbuds and dogwoods in full bloom along the road, but the blooms and new green vegetation at the lower elevations dwindled as we approached the Drive. The lunch was good, but the best part of the meal was the great view of the Shenandoah Valley from the Skyland dining room. Most of the valley below us was emerald green, having long ago been converted to pastureland with nonnative cold-season grasses, which get a jump on our native plants every spring.
After lunch, we visited the Byrd Visitor Center, at Big Meadows. The view of the meadows from there was bleak, with wind whipping over mostly brown and gray native warm-season grasses, forbs and shrubs that had yet to revive from the winter. In talking with a park ranger and a host at the nearby campground, we learned that migratory birds that breed in or near the meadows are slow in arriving this year, except for fox and chipping sparrows, towhees and a few others. On the way home, I was already planning when to go back to see spring’s progress there, keeping in mind the Drive around Marys Rock Tunnel will close for maintenance in early May (see sidebar).
The next morning I woke up to the hauntingly beautiful sound of a wood thrush, then an eastern towhee, regular migratory breeders here. Later that day, I caught sight of two American redstarts also apparently checking out nesting sites in the forest. At the hummingbird feeder, two male ruby-throated hummingbirds were jockeying for position; the females had yet to arrive.
Earlier in the week, I had walked to the pond up the mountain from my house and found the masses of frog eggs that I saw the last time I was there had turned into hordes of tiny, wriggling black tadpoles. Many were bunched along the shore where deer have churned up the soil as they came in to drink, in the process also likely turning up food for the frog larvae, which were probably from the wood frogs and spring peepers that had bred there earlier in the spring. The egg masses of red-spotted newts, stuck to branches and other debris in the pond, still looked intact.
Checking spring’s progress in the wetlands at the base of the mountain, adjoining one of the ponds there, I found wood anemone had bloomed, and its white flowers, along with those of the star chickweed still blooming there, added accents to the verdant carpet of skunk cabbage, mayapple and unfolding ferns. Around the edge of the pond, I found Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) hiding under the umbrella-like leaves of mayapple, as it likes to do. It was just starting to bloom, and the mayapples’ tiny round flower buds should pop open soon.
While some Jack-in-the-pulpits have brown stripes, the ones around the pond have only subtly contrasting pale-green ones, blending in well with the mayapples. According to the Lady Byrd Johnson Wildflower Center website, some authorities recognize one species of Jack-in-the-pulpit, and others three, on the basis of minor differences in size, leaves and spathe (the leaf-like bract that forms the roof of the “pulpit” over the stamen).
In photographing the little Jack-in-the-pulpits, and earlier some false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum) along the Buck Hollow Trail (in the Park), I had to practically lie on the ground. That made me acutely aware of the thousands of little three-leaved plants popping up everywhere now and slowly unfolding their shiny leaves. Their small size and tender leaves bely the threat they pose to those of us unlucky enough to be allergic to this prolific native plant — poison ivy.
While I’m not seeing a lot of fungi yet, morel hunters are apparently having a good year, according to reports coming into my email inbox recently.
© 2015 Pam Owen
Part of Skyline Drive to close temporarily
Skyline Drive between the gate at Panorama Comfort Station (mile 31.7) and Hazel Mountain Overlook (milepost 33) to the south — is going to be closed beginning May 4 for maintenance around Marys Rock Tunnel. Work is expected to take a maximum of two weeks, according a park spokesperson. The area had a “significant” rockfall in March, she says, with a smaller rock falling within two weeks after that. This problem is not new to rock faces in the Park; the regular freeze-thaw cycle can cause exposed rock throughout the Park to break off and fall.
The engineers believe there is no imminent danger, according to the spokesperson, but they suggested that it would be “prudent” to remove potentially loose rock. All facilities, including the parking area around Panorama Comfort Station, will remain open as scheduled during the closure, and no trail closures are associated with the tunnel work and closure.
With spring just getting started up along the drive, the timing of the maintenance work is certainly unfortunate. The Park has more than 850 species of flowering plants, about 70 percent of which are native, and the Park is celebrating them by holding its 29th annual Wildflower Weekend on May 9-10 (download a schedule here). Anyone wanting to go to the many walks and other programs that will take place at or near Big Meadows and Skyland during the the event will probably have to get to that section of the Drive by way of U.S. 33, or hike up.
The north section of the park will still offer great opportunities to view wildflowers, including some special walks during Wildflower Weekend. It’s also a good time to explore trailheads at the base and other nearby public lands, such as Shenandoah River State Park and Thompson Wildlife Management Area (for wildflower viewing opportunities, see last week’s column online.