May 9, 2016

Spring Comes to the West Virginia Highlands

Back in the early days of our marriage, we lived in Virginia and became avid hikers. We made several forays to the highlands of West Virginia, to such places as Otter Creek Wilderness, Cranberry Backcountry, and Dolly Sods Wilderness. Each was full of scenic highlights and new experiences. Now, forty-some years later, we are visiting some nearby places in West Virginia, hiking much shorter distances each day but probably seeing much more.

Our recent forays began in 2013 when we signed up for a field trip to the highlands that was part of the New River Nature and Birding Festival. Led by ace Ohio naturalist Jim McCormac, the trip featured the Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, a refuge for plants and animals which are usually associated with areas far to the north. The high altitude, long ago glaciation, underlying geology and relative isolation have allowed formation of sphagnum bogs, red spruce and hemlock forests, and a lush understory of ferns and wildflowers. That trip opened up a whole new area of exploration for us and we have returned many times since then.

Our most recent trip was just last week. A major feature on the way to the highlands is the New River Gorge, formed by one of the oldest rivers on the continent:

Flanked by steep sandstone cliffs and verdant hillsides, the river is quite popular with whitewater rafters.

As we drove higher we began to see some trees and shrubs that were quite different from what we typically see in Ohio. Here is the dramatic bloom of a Fraser magnolia:

Another tree that we noticed as we drove along in the highlands was Bartram's Serviceberry, which is easily distinguished from the serviceberry which is common here in Ohio (Amelanchier arborea) by the coppery early spring foliage:

Here is a closer look at the leaves and flowers:

I also noticed a flowering shrub that I couldn't immediately identify:

A closer look revealed it to be red elderberry, a cousin of the white-flowering elderberry that is common in wetter areas here in Ohio.

Once we got to the highlands we started with a walk around the boardwalk that traverses the Cranberry Glades, near the Cranberry Mountain Nature Center in Pocahontas County. The weather was cool and misty, giving the area an other-worldly atmosphere. 

In the foreground is the sphagnum bog where cranberry plants will soon be blooming. The bog also features two carnivorous plants that will bloom later in the summer: sundews and pitcher plants. In the background are spruce trees, found much more commonly far to the north.

Along the boardwalk the marsh blue violet was present in large numbers:

As we reached the end of the boardwalk we noticed this gorgeous painted trillium:

These trilliums are quite rare in Ohio but we saw many of them in West Virginia last week--more than we have ever seen before!

After traversing the boardwalk, we spent a lot of time on the Highlands Scenic Highway (SR 150) through the Monongahela National Forest, and its various side roads and trails. Views were wonderful, even though the day was overcast, and we had a picnic at this lovely spot:

Here are some of the wildflowers that we encountered along the roads and trails:

Wild geraniums and miterwort were
common on the lush hillsides.

This is the unusual rose form of Trillium grandiflora,
 the state wildflower of Ohio. It is pink during its
entire blooming period, as opposed to the white
form which turns pink after it is pollinated.

Canada violets are one of the taller violets,
and feature yellow centers and a blush of
purple on the back of the petals.

Phlox stolonifera, or creeping
phlox, added beautiful color to the
sides of some of the side roads.

We heard a lot of warblers singing in the forest, but most were hard to see and impossible to photograph. This hermit thrush, though, was quite cooperative:

Here it shows its white undertail coverts, presumably
 to scare away potential predators.

The hermit thrush has a beautiful song, but this one
was giving a sharp vocalization instead.

Here is a video:

We figured that we were too early in the season for the flowers of the yellow clintonia or blue-bead lily. We saw large colonies of the plants and we were pleased when we spotted a few that had started to bloom.

On our way back to the New River Gorge area we stopped to hike along a rushing stream. Lots of interesting plants lined the trail:

This is brook lettuce, a type of saxifrage, that
commonly grows in Appalachian streams.

Tiny Canada Mayflower was just
starting to bloom.

The trail featured several stunning pink
lady's slipper orchids.

These are the unusual flowers of the striped maple, a
small tree in the forest understory.

The day was quite cool so there were few
butterflies, but we did see this West
Virginia White on a lovely foamflower.

Now we are looking forward to another visit to the West Virginia Highlands in early summer, when Canada lilies, rhododendrons, white clintonia, and many other spectacular plants will be in bloom!

March 31, 2016


Typically, March is not my favorite month. Dreary, cold and windy describe most Marches in central Ohio, making an out-of-town Spring Break sound quite appealing. This year, although there were some dreary, cold and windy days, March had many warm days and even some warm nights. Warm nights plus a bit of rain in the early spring trigger an astounding amphibian mating frenzy that can extend into April. Many of these animals, which are generally quite hidden during most of the year, find their way to ephemeral ponds called vernal pools, and do their best to perpetuate their species. 

Why gather in vernal pools? These shallow water bodies dry up rapidly in summer and do not seem to be hospitable places to lay eggs that need to undergo complex metamorphosis in order to become adults. They have one big thing going for them though--no fish! Fish would relish eating the frog and salamander larvae in the vernal pools. The amphibians deposit vast quantities of eggs in the pools, and while some may be lost if the pool dries too quickly, overall reproduction is more successful than it would be if there were fish to contend with.

We've had several early spring adventures in central Ohio that featured vocal frogs that were out and about calling for mates. One of most common (and largest) is the wood frog:

Here is a brief video that illustrates the barking sound of this amphibian:

At another vernal pool a cacophony of chorus frogs greeted us, sounding like someone is scraping a fingernail across a comb:

We were lucky enough to get a view of a chorus frog:

We recently heard some chorus frogs calling from a large puddle near a parking area in Scioto County. I walked over to the puddle and was partially hidden from view by some construction debris so this little frog kept right on singing:

Here he is, belting out his message:

After mating, western chorus frogs will be hidden in the mud and leaf litter most of the year. We were quite fortunate to see them! 

A spring peeper is tiny, only about 2 inches in length, but makes a huge sound. This photo illustrates the typical "X" mark on its back:

Although they are quiet, many salamanders also gather in large numbers in early spring in the moist forest and in the vernal pools. Here are a few that we were fortunate enough to spot this year, hiding under logs in the wet woods.

The redback salamander is one of our most common, and it often hides under fallen logs anywhere in the moist forest:

The redback is one of the few salamanders that lives entirely on land and generally does not go into the water, even to breed. 

Although they can be found in a variety of habitats, we don't see many smallmouth salamanders, but enjoyed seeing this one:

The spotted salamander is always fun to find. They are fairly common but seldom seen except in early spring:

Despite the fact that most people are totally unaware of them, all of the animals featured in this post are locally present in large numbers in our forests and are important components of healthy ecosystems. Unfortunately, their numbers are declining in many parts of their ranges due to habitat loss and other factors. Their fascinating life cycles and utilization of the vernal pool habitat makes them well worth our attention. These critters made our March and early April much more fun and interesting than I anticipated!

March 16, 2016

Butterflies Have Re-appeared!

Last summer we had a lot of fun discovering Ohio's butterflies, so we were looking forward to seeing early species emerge this spring. Different butterfly species have different ways of coping with winter. Some can't live through our winters at all, and have to re-colonize our area from the south. Some overwinter here as eggs, some as caterpillars, and some as adults. Those that spend the cold months as adults tend to be among the first to emerge in the spring, ready to take advantage of warmer weather. 

Last week we hiked the wonderful Miller Sanctuary State Nature Preserve near Bainbridge. It was a lovely warm day and as we ambled down the trail I noticed a flash of orange that landed on a tree trunk. A closer look revealed it to be an Eastern Comma, one of the butterflies that overwinters as an adult while protected in a crevice or under some loose bark. 

As we got closer, I noticed some odd markings at the base of the tree:

After a moment I understood what I was looking at. A beaver had chewed the bark off parts of the trunk, and the tree reacted by exuding sap. Insects arrived to feed on the sweet liquid, including several more commas and a lot of flies:

I had certainly never thought about this particular interaction among trees, insects and mammals!

Miller is a great place to view spring wildflowers, and in a few weeks it will have impressive displays of Virginia bluebells, large-flowered trillium, and many others. Although we were too early for most of the flowers, we spotted a few early bloomers, including hepatica,

the tiny harbinger-of-spring

and snow trillium.

Spring is just beginning--we have many more wildflowers, butterflies and hikes to look forward to!

March 13, 2016

Exploring the trails at Old Man's Cave

I mentioned in my last post that we recently visited the Old Man's Cave area of Hocking Hills State Park. This is arguably the most scenic attraction in all of Ohio, and it is accessed by a network of trails that features tunnels, stairways, bridges and narrow pathways. We have lived in Central Ohio for 30 years, yet until this year we had only been there once before quite long ago. I think we avoided the area for several reasons--the trails can be quite crowded, it isn't a very good area for seeing birds (our main hiking priority for many years), and wildflowers are scarce in the surrounding hemlock forest. We rediscovered it this winter and found this magnificent gorge to be well worth our attention. In fact, we have hiked the area twice in the past 2 weeks.

We began the trail above the upper falls, where a series of cascades barely hints at what hikers will see in the gorge:

The upper falls are beautiful right now; later in the year the area will be nearly dry:

The trail through the gorge leads by steep cliffs that were covered with icicles on our first visit:

We encountered several bridges as we made our way down the stream:

This one was covered with ice and quite treacherous on our first visit last week:

The sandstone bedrock has been sculpted over time into cliffs, caves, and this nearly circular formation:

Named for a hermit that lived in the area in the early 1800s, Old Man's Cave is a deep recess in a magnificent sandstone cliff:

The cave isn't easy to photograph but here is another view:

The trail system gives access to many interesting rock formations and small waterfalls:

I loved the blue-green pool at the base of the lower falls:

The trail continues about 3 miles down the gorge to beautiful Cedar Falls:

Very little sunlight reaches the floor of the gorge so we didn't see even a hint of a spring wildflower there. Along the rim, though, coltsfoot was just starting to bloom and added a welcome spot of color:

The Old Man's Cave area is extremely popular and can get crowded at certain times. The scenery is fantastic, though, and I'm glad we have rediscovered it!

March 10, 2016

Central Ohio Waterfalls

This winter we have stayed pretty close to home, in contrast to 2015 when we were frequently out of town. We have enjoyed this relatively mild winter at home more than I expected, largely thanks to the fact that we have gotten out to explore various natural areas nearly every day. Since there has been plenty of precipitation, we have made a point of visiting several waterfalls within about an hour drive, most of which we had never seen prior to this winter.

One cold day in January we headed west to Greenville Falls, which is part of the Miami County Park District:

Another view of the falls shows the ice formations along the sides of the stream:

From there we headed to nearby Ludlow Falls, a pretty good drop considering the generally flat topography in this part of Ohio :

My favorite waterfall that day was West Milton Cascades, tucked into a ravine right in the small town of West Milton:

Here is another view, from the icy steps that were constructed long ago to give access to the falls:

Hayden Run Falls is about 5 minutes from our house, and I had only been there once many summers ago when just a trickle of water fell over the ledge. That visit involved a messy scramble down a steep cliff, but several years ago the City of Columbus parks department built a stairway and boardwalk to give safe access to the falls. The contrast between our January visit and my long ago trek was quite dramatic!

A few weeks after that photo was taken, we stopped back by Hayden Run after much of the ice had melted:

What a difference a few days of warm weather makes!

On another one of the warmer days this winter, we headed to Knox County to 25-foot tall Honey Run Falls: 

We had never been there before, and enjoyed the hemlock forest, impressive sandstone boulders and a short trail that leads from the falls to the Kokosing River.

Another interesting waterfall that neither of us had ever been to is Indian Run Falls in Dublin:

Located in a steep ravine behind the Dublin Library, Indian Run is rather hard to photograph but is well worth a visit. The City of Dublin has constructed a series of stairs and trails to allow safe access to several viewpoints.

One weekend we headed west to Charleston Falls Preserve in Miami County. This park has an extensive trail network in addition to the waterfall, which is the main attraction. The bottom of the falls is accessible via a series of stairs and a boardwalk, which were quite icy the day we visited. I actually preferred the view from above, with the falls flanked by a stately sycamore and a tall cedar.

Last week we topped off our series of waterfall visits with a trip south to Hocking Hills State Park. My favorite was this view of the upper falls at Old Man's Cave:

Just above the falls is a series of scenic cascades:

Here is a photo of the lower falls at Old Man's Cave. 

The entire hiking experience at Old Man's Cave is great (if it isn't too crowded) and I highly recommend it. 

Cedar Falls was flowing quite well; I liked the way the water splits over the rock and comes together again:

Our last waterfall in this series is at Ash Cave, another part of Hocking Hills State Park. It didn't have a lot of water, but the setting is so impressive:

A trail leads behind the falls to another view which includes the massive recess cave for which the area is named:

All in all, we have managed to enjoy this winter here in Columbus (much to my surprise!) and our waterfall expeditions have been some of the highlights. If you would like to see more pictures of some of these falls, check out Jim McCormac's excellent blog here.