En­joy­ing a wet­land pre­serve

Rappahannock News - - OBITUARIES • NATURE - PAM OWEN wil­dideas.va@gmail.com MORE WILD IDEAS ON­LINE See more col­umns from Pam Owen on­line at rapp­news.com/ wil­dideas

Liv­ing in a heav­ily forested area in the Blue Ridge Moun­tains, I some­times yearn to see the ecosys­tems of open spa­ces, in­clud­ing wet­land mead­ows. I found such a place this sum­mer near Hay­mar­ket.

About three miles west of the grow­ing town, at 16290 Thor­ough­fare Rd., Leopold’s Pre­serve sur­rounds the Vil­lages of Pied­mont com­mu­nity. Open to the pub­lic, the 380-acre pre­serve of­fers a net­work of seven miles of mostly flat, “nat­u­ral sur­face walk­ing trails, pedes­trian bridges, view­ing plat­forms and numer­ous in­ter­pre­tive boards that pro­mote the flora, fauna, ge­o­log­i­cal, hy­dro­log­i­cal, and his­tor­i­cal fea­tures of this spe­cial prop­erty,” as the pre­serve’s web­site (leopold­sp­re­serve.com) de­scribes it.

SUM­MER SOL­STICE WALK

To cel­e­brate this year’s sum­mer sol­stice (on June 21), I at­tended a walk at the pre­serve led by plant ex­pert Car­rie Blair, from the Vir­ginia Na­tive Plant So­ci­ety. The weather had been hot, but cloud cover of­fered some relief as we started the walk from the park­ing lot on the west side of Thor­ough­fare Road. We took a trail that loops around a wet meadow on the east­ern side of a more ex­ten­sive wet­land with many small streams and ponds, and a large pond at the north end. An in­ter­pre­tive sign near at the head of the trail tells about Aldo Leopold, for whom the pre­serve was named (see side­bar), and the ecosys­tems there and has a map.

A Peter­son wild­flower guide in hand, Car­rie stopped fre­quently to dis­cuss and iden­tify some of the plants in the meadow. Most — in­clud­ing Philadel­phia flea­bane, Queen Anne’s lace and al­lium — sported sub­tle spring col­ors of white to pale blue and pink. They served as ac­cents to the ver­dant green car­pet of grasses and sedges that other­wise dom­i­nated the land­scape dur­ing the spring.

We soon came to a plat­form of­fer­ing a good view of the wet­land, with in­ter­pre­tive signs ex­plain­ing its eco­log­i­cal im­por­tance. Near the plat­form, Car­rie pointed out some damplov­ing shrubs and trees grow­ing along the edge, in­clud­ing winged sumac, which was not yet bud­ding, and sy­camore. As she talked, I heard bull­frogs croak­ing nearby. Few birds were calling, which was not sur­pris­ing for that time of day.

As we con­tin­ued down the trail, the clouds broke, bathing us in hot sun­light, so Car­rie sug­gested we head for for­est on the other side of the pre­serve. As we walked across Thor­ough­fare road, she stopped along its edge to iden­tify the lilac-col­ored blos­soms of wild petu­nia and the thick pale-yel­low spears of mullein. Along one edge of the park­ing lot were east­ern red cedars loaded with blue fruit.

At the far side of the park­ing lot, we en­tered a for­est that looked like some­thing out of a Tarzan movie: long, thick vines hung from, and wrapped around, many of the trees. Non­na­tive in­va­sive plants, in­clud­ing the dreaded mile-a-minute vine and lady’s thumb, seemed more preva­lent there than in the meadow. But Car­rie also pointed a num­ber of na­tive trees, in­clud­ing elms, pines and oaks.

On the other side of the short stretch of for­est were more bloom­ing na­tive wild­flow­ers, such as the tou­sled blue blos­soms of wild berg­amot and the del­i­cate white clus­ters of com­mon yar­row and smooth sumac. As we ap­proached a small pond dammed by beavers, east­ern pond­hawks, wi­dow skim­mers and other drag­on­flies be­came more numer­ous. At that point, I’d had about all the heat I could han­dle for the day, so thanked Car­rie and headed home, plan­ning to re­turn to the pre­serve later in the sum­mer.

AUGUST VISIT

On the sunny but rel­a­tively cool morn­ing of Aug. 19, I headed back to Leopold’s Pre­serve to see what was now bloom­ing. I planned to fin­ish the loop trail on the west side, which I had all to my­self. It wound through a shal­low wet­land but was built up enough that water­proof boots weren’t needed. Nest­ing boxes for song­birds, ducks and bats had been erected here and there through­out the area.

Winged sumac, my fa­vorite among sumacs, was ev­ery­where along the trail and in every stage of re­pro­duc­tion. The pol­li­na­tor-at­tract­ing clus­ters of white blos­soms on some stood out against the shiny, deep-green leaves and “wings” along the sides of the cen­tral stalks of the com­pound leaves. The fruits on oth­ers ran the gamut from lilac to al­most red. The fo­liage on a few of the sumacs was al­ready turn­ing a bright red, a tra­di­tional early har­bin­ger of fall in Vir­ginia. The grasses and forbs along the trail were chang­ing from ver­dant green to var­i­ous shades of brown.

The south end of the trail borders a wet­land for­est pop­u­lated by mostly oak and pine, with di­verse shrub species along the edge. I spot­ted more blooms here and along the sec­tion just on the other side of the bend than along the trail be­hind me. Most of the blooms dis­played the in­tense col­ors of late sum­mer, in­clud­ing the bright-yel­low petals and pur­ple an­thers of par­tridge pea, the in­tense ma­genta and yel­low of New Eng­land aster and the golden glow of sun­flow­ers and gold­en­rod.

A lone monarch but­ter­fly flut­tered by, and skip­pers and spice­bush swal­low­tails were feed­ing on nec­tarpro­duc­ing blooms. The trail also hosted a bul­bous species of mush­room mea­sur­ing up to eight inches across and vary­ing in color from white mot­tled with brown (new blooms) to deep brown or black (ma­ture ones). After later con­sult­ing my fa­vorite mush­room guide, I de­cided they were prob­a­bly pur­ple­spored puff­balls.

East­ern pond­hawks buzzed around, their pow­dery blue bod­ies and green faces mak­ing them easy to spot. An­other dragon­fly had a body that was sim­i­lar in color but flat­ter at the end and a black face. After later check­ing Bug Guide (bug­guide.net), I fig­ured this was a male slaty skim­mer. Other tiny drag­on­flies and dam­sel­flies were also tear­ing around, so fast I only got a glimpse of them.

I could hear birds singing, in­clud­ing field spar­rows, but they were al­most drowned out by the loud hum of ci­cadas, from scis­sor grinders in the trees to swamp ci­cadas in the mead­ows. As loud as the bugs were, the traf­fic com­ing from nearby U.S. 55 and Int. 66 of­fered stiff com­pe­ti­tion. I thought about how much more peace­ful the walk would have been if we all drove elec­tric cars.

(See a slideshow of the pre­serve at rapp­news.com/ wil­dideas.)

LEFT | On a sum­mer sol­stice walk, Rap­pa­han­nock res­i­dent Alexia Mor­ri­son and her grand­daugh­ter, Izzie, use a fold-out field guide pro­vided by walk leader Car­rie Blair to iden­tify com­mon milk­weed at Leopold’s Pre­serve.

RIGHT | A slaty skim­mer dragon­fly alights briefly.

PHO­TOS BY PAM OWEN

ABOVE | New Eng­land asters.

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