With my brother’s bringing some sunny, springlike days with him on a visit earlier this month, hikes in Shenandoah National Park seemed in order. We first took a walk on the short Jordan River Trail, which climbs up a lovely wooded slope near Flint Hill.
On the trail we saw a variety of spring flowers, among them Showy Orchis (Orchis spectabilis), a delicate little orchid, and Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora), a strange ghostlike plant. Also known as Corpse Plant, it’s a bit of an oddball among the other pretty spring ephemerals.
Translucent white, fleshy and scaly, each stalk ends in an elongated bowl of a bloom. Put together, it looks like a weird, inverted pipe. Instead of producing chlorophyll, it gets its nutrition by stealing it from other plants through associated fungi.
Also an intriguing sight along the trail was a species of millipede that was at least 3 inches long. Its many brown segments were edged in red, making them quite lovely on close inspection. Although there are more than 200 millipede species in Virginia, I’ll hazard a guess that, based on its size, this is the North American Millipede (Narceus Americana). These invertebrates meandered everywhere along the trail and over the many fallen logs in this rich woodland setting. Feeding mostly on rotting vegetation, they help to break it down into nutrients that are more accessible to plants. These millipedes are harmless, rolling up into a ball when threatened and exuding a sticky, smelly liquid if the first strategy doesn’t discourage predators.
The weather was still beautiful the next day, so my brother and I headed up to Stony Man Mountain in the Park. We figured it would be a good day to enjoy the view and maybe see a pair of Peregrine Falcons that had been nesting on the mountain.
We hiked up the short loop trail to the face of Stony Man, taking a break to absorb the gorgeous view west across the Shenandoah Valley and the Valley and Ridge physiographic region beyond. Looking for the sight of the Peregrines, I instead spotted Rolf Gubler, the biologist who oversees Peregrine restoration in the park, sitting on the edge of the cliff face, talking about the birds with a couple of park visitors. I’d kept in touch with him for years about the restoration program, so was eager for an update.
Peregrines, like many other birds of prey, had suffered serious population declines from pesticide use in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2000, the Park partnered with the Center for Conservation Biology at William & Mary and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries in a program to boost peregrine populations in the Virginia mountains, including the Park. Populations of this speedy raptor were already coming back in some lower areas of the Old Dominion, so for years Gubler and his team had been “hacking in” chicks from nests along the James River to a site near Stony Man, raising them with limited human contact and releasing them with the hope that they would return to breed.
Gubler reported that a pair of Peregrines was in the area but had not settled into nesting. The male was likely one of the hacked-in chicks who had paired with a young female from elsewhere and had been nesting on the mountain for years. Unfortunately, they had had problems successfully raising their young. Peregrines lay their eggs on a bare “scrape” on a rock ledge, and the female had chosen a depression in the rock. Cold water accumulated there after rains, killing the eggs through hypothermia. Raccoons had also raided the Stony Man site one year, but the park staff had created barriers to help with this.
An added issue with this pair, Gubler said, is that the male had proven to be overly aggressive with other males for quite a distance around the site, making it difficult to release other hacked-in young males there. The program staff were contemplating setting up another site in the northern section of the park this year to resolve this issue.
On our way out, we took Gubler’s suggestion to check out trillium that were growing along the trail near the outcrop. We found even more trillium and other wildflowers along the Passamaquoddy Trail, which hooks to the Stony Man loop. This longer trail goes through the forest but eventually leads back out to Little Stony Man and then wraps around and hugs the mountain, narrowing and becoming more rocky. It offers great views of the rock formations on the mountains’ face as well as of the valley falling away to the west.
Along with several species of trillium, we spotted blooming Wood Anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), Golden Ragwort (Senecio aureus), Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), Spring Beauty (Claytonia caroliniana) and Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis). Of these, Lousewort (also known as Wood Bettony) was arguably the strangest looking, with its wispy red blossoms set against dark-green, fernlike leaves. According to “The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers,” it got its name from the farmers’ mistaken notion that sheep and cattle became infested with lice when they grazed on the plant.
Also on the trail were more of the huge millipedes we had seen along the Jordan River Trail and many species of butterflies – Red Admirals and Mourning Cloaks chief among them. The decaying trunks of Eastern Hemlock, destroyed by the infestation of Hemlock Wooly Adelgid aphid in recent years, stood upright or lay along the trails. They now served as hosts to a variety of fungi, including Turkeytail (Coriolus versicolor) and what appeared to be Veiled Polypore (Cryptoporus volvatus or Polyporus volvatus), an uncommon golden fungus similar to a puffball. It was a somewhat arduous hike because of the narrow, rocky trail, but well worth the effort.