Wild Ideas: Big trees, small lizard

A chestnut oak leaf stands out against the green of a Christmas fern. Pam Owen
A chestnut oak leaf stands out against the green of a Christmas fern.

Although the leaves are all but gone from our deciduous trees, this fall continues to offer fine weather for enjoying nature.

On warmish days, I’m still seeing mantises, walking sticks, harvestmen and other invertebrates on my house, taking advantage of the weather. A lone volunteer evening primrose growing against the sunny south side has also continued to bloom, the only native plant still doing so on the property, as far as I can tell.

Continuing to take advantage of the weather every chance I get, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Shenandoah National Park. A couple of Sundays ago (Nov. 7), I joined a Virginia Native Plant Society walk to look at some trees at Skyland and elsewhere in Page County that are listed in the Virginia Big Tree Program database.

The day of the walk, some leaves still remained on the deciduous trees in the Blue Ridge, particularly on the lower slopes, and quite a few visitors were in the park enjoying them, although not nearly as many as during peak leaf-turning. It was a sunny but cool fall day and, even without the educational component, the tour of the “big trees” was a great way to enjoy the weather. (You can read more about this walk and the program in an upcoming column.)

A few days later, on my birthday, I wanted to try out a fancy new day pack I’d gotten as a birthday present from my brother. Jeremy’s Run Trail, only a few miles north of Luray, looked worth checking out, so I headed there. The trail runs through forest and along the stream (more of a river at the lower trailhead) for which it is named. The first half-mile is on private land, starting flat but going over a low but steep ridge, where it crosses the park boundary.

Going up the ridge, I found the trail narrow and rather precipitous, with a thick bed of dried leaves making the footing tricky. Thinking the trail was going to be flatter, I’d left my hiking pole in the car and therefore was going very slowly up and then down the ridge, continually looking down at the trail to check for unseen hazards under the leaves beneath my feet. My diligence was rewarded by not only by my not falling over the edge but also my spotting a small lizard that I might have otherwise stepped on.

A small eastern fence lizard basks in the sun on Jeremy’s Run Trail, in Shenandoah National Park.Pam Owen
A small eastern fence lizard basks in the sun on Jeremy’s Run Trail, in Shenandoah National Park.

The little reptile, an eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus), blended well into the brown leaves on which it was basking in a patch of sunlight. With its pronounced scales and brown-and-gray coloring, the lizard reminded me a bit of a less-horny horned toad (also a lizard, despite the name) or a teeny, tiny Godzilla. It had a black chevron pattern running down its back, the pattern broken along the spine.

Male eastern fence lizards have blue coloring on their undersides, but I could only see this one’s back and didn’t want to risk scaring off the lizard by kneeling down to try to see more of it. It was about 3.5 inches long, at the lower end of the total-length range for this species (7.2 inches is the max), according to the Virginia Fish and Wildlife Information Service (VFWIS). Although mature females are larger than the males, the proportionate length of this one’s tail made me think this was a young female.

Common throughout Virginia, the eastern fence lizard makes its home in a wide variety of habitats. Despite its somewhat fierce expression, it is not aggressive or dangerous (although pretty much any lizard may bite if sufficiently threatened). The Virginia Herpetological Society’s website has information from the VFWIS booklet on this species, along with some great photos.

Leaving the little lizard behind, I made my way carefully down the rest of the steep incline, after which the trail once again flattened out and followed a lovely stretch of the river. I continued on for about a half mile, finding a nice spot to sit by the river for a while. With the sun already having gone behind the ridge on the other side of the run, I decided I’d come back another day to explore the rest of the trail.

The next day, on the way back from running an errand in Luray, I was lured back up to Skyline Drive by more fine weather. Getting to Skyland in mid-afternoon, I noticed the park visitors, like the leaves, were mostly gone, with only a few cars in the lot near the dining room. I bought a latte inside and sat out on the terrace in the waning sunlight to enjoy the coffee, the fine fall weather and the view of the Shenandoah Valley and the mountains beyond.

While most mature deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, this small red-oak sapling's leaves retain their bright-red fall color.Pam Owen
While most mature deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, this small red-oak sapling’s leaves retain their bright-red fall color.

That weekend, after a chilly, breezy Saturday, Sunday broke bright and warm, the wind gone. I took a break from doing some research to take a short walk on nearby Thornton River Trail, which is beautiful any time of the year. The large deciduous trees there have now lost their leaves, but pines and hemlocks scattered throughout this mixed hardwood forest offer patches of green high up in the crown of the forest.

Finding sun and shelter on the south side of Pam Owen’s house, a lone evening primrose stubbornly continues to bloom despite recent frosts. Pam Owen
Finding sun and shelter on the south side of Pam Owen’s house, a lone evening primrose stubbornly continues to bloom despite recent frosts.

A few accents of fall color remain in the park’s forest, but I’ve had to look down to find them. Young red-oak saplings, only two to three feet tall, are here and there in sheltered spots on the forest floor, their bright-red leaves catching sunlight that pours through the now-bare branches of their elders. Fewer in number, some white-oak saplings have also retained their round-lobed leaves, which are a duller shade of red. On my Thornton River walk, I also found a beautiful little red-maple sapling with bright-red leaves.

Even when lying brown and dead on the ground, leaves of deciduous trees still offer variety in size and shape and, more subtly, in hue. On a morning walk through the woods next to my house recently, a chestnut-oak leaf caught my eye — its shape and caramel color standing out against the rich green of a Christmas fern onto which it had fallen.

© 2015 Pam Owen

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