Wild Ideas: Limberlost and nature found   

The Limberlost Trail in Shenandoah National Park has long been one of my favorite short hikes because it’s relatively flat yet offers beauty and biodiversity.

Last Monday (June 12), as temperatures rose into the 90s around Sperryville, my friend Robin Williams, her husband, Bill, and I heading up to the Limberlost to beat the heat. Reaching the trailhead around 9 a.m., we found the Limberlost gorgeous, fresh and cool. At nearly 3,400 feet in elevation, it usually is.

In 1996, the park, with help from several nongovernmental organizations, redid the 1.3-mile trail a bit, making it wheelchair accessible, and added benches and resting areas. About a decade ago, the Limberlost most of its ancient hemlocks to the wooly adelgid, but that opened the forest canopy, allowing more sunlight to reach the floor. A variety of plants took advantage and thrived, offering visitors a good example of forest succession. The chipmunk population also boomed there, perhaps from all the seeds in the cones that came down with the hemlocks.

In early spring, the Limberlost’s boggy areas host some of the earliest forbs (herbaceous flowering plants) to emerge, such as green false hellebore, which has large, ribbed leaves. By mid-spring, marsh marigolds, trillium and some other spring ephemerals are in flower.

In June, the Limberlost comes into its real glory with the blooming of mountain laurel. A large stand greets visitors at the trailhead. On the hike last week, I took a lot of photos of the laurel’s lovely, shell-like blossoms in varying combinations of pink and white, which contrasted with the the shrub’s waxy, evergreen foliage.

The shell-like mountain laurel blooms range in color from white to pink. By Pam Owen

Warblers, Acadian flycatcher, veery and rose-breasted grosbeak, among other species, breed in the Limberlost. I saw my first scarlet tanager there many years ago, high in the forest canopy near a large hemlock stand. The dense thicket of laurel we were traveling through attracts a lot of songbirds. and we heard several but could only get a glimpse of them as they flittered around in the thick shrubbery.

Moving on, we soon ran into a photographer walking toward us with a camera equipped with long telephoto lens mounted on a tripod. I asked him what he was hunting for. An avid amateur photographer specializing in birds, he said he was on a mission to photograph the Canada warbler. I was about to ask him his name, when I noticed a large black shape just off the trail not too far from where we stood.

It was a bear, rooting around on the forest floor and pretty much ignoring us. The photographer whipped his camera and tripod around to try to get a shot of the bear through the dense undergrowth and shifting patches of shadow and sunlight. I half-heartedly put my 100-300 mm zoom on my camera, knowing it was unlikely to yield anything usable under those conditions.

The bear kept working its way down the trail, then cut across it and stood up against a tree, perhaps marking it with a message for other bears. I had seen a yearling near this spot last July and wondered if this could be the same bear, which seemed about the right size. The bear continued with its foraging, eventually moving out of camera range. The photographer went on his way to find the warbler but, at my request, was nice enough to send me photos of the bear later. I found out through email I exchanged with him later that his name was Gary Robinette, from West Springfield, and he posted his nature photos on Flickr.

A black bear, covered with seeds and other flora detritus, chews on a plant along the Limberlost Trail. © Gary Robinette

The rest of the walk was a bit anticlimactic but thoroughly enjoyable. The hellebore I’d seen in April all along a boggy stretch (where the trail is covered by a boardwalk) was much taller but not yet in bloom. Robin identified large ferns clustered together as interrupted fern, named for the gap its spore-bearing leaflets leave when they fall off in midsummer.

White baneberry was just starting to bloom, as was fly poison. The latter, with grass-like leaves, has densely packed flowers with short stalks that run up the stem, resembling hyacinths. The flowers start out bright white, then turn green or red over the bloom period. Its bulb can be crushed and mixed with sugar to kill flies — hence its common name.

Eastern red columbine was in bloom, and golden ragwort and bluets, which have a long bloom season, were at various stages of flowering. Robin identified an early meadow rue that had gone to seed, and mayflower that was done blooming. Reaching a huge white oak, we stopped to admire its “bones.”

Although I saw deer the last time I was in the Limberlost, the bear was the only megafauna in sight that day. We did see plenty of common eastern chipmunks scurrying around, as usual, and I noticed a tiny green caterpillar that looked like an inchworm. The larva of the winter moth (Operophtera brumato), it caught my eye as it hung in mid-air, suspended by a barely visible silk thread.

Limberlost hike slideshow — best viewed in fullscreen:

We saw lots of another beneficiary of the downed hemlocks — the hemlock varnish shelf mushroom (Ganaderma tsugae) — which feeds on the hemlocks’ now-rotting wood. When the mushroom first blooms, it looks like a fat, shiny spatula, sticking out of its host, varnished in hues of blond to caramel. Its underside is bright white and filled with tiny pores rather than gills. It grows as large as 12 inches, and as it grows, it loses much of its shine, and takes on the shape of a plate stuck halfway into its host, forming a shelf.

Although the Limberlost Trail is short, there is enough along it to keep nature lovers and photographers busy for hours. We didn’t get back to the car until almost noon and then headed to Skyland to eat. Nothing caps off a nice walk in the Limberlost better than a dish of blackberry ice cream.

© 2017 Pam Owen

Save the date for butterfly count

The seventh annual Washington-Rappahannock County Butterfly Count is set for Saturday, July 22. Old Rag Master Naturalists, which hosts the count, will also repeat last year’s well-received and -attended  “Kids Count Butterflies” event the Saturday before, July 15. Look for more about the count in this newspaper soon or go online to ORMN’s website.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 346 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”