Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sprewell Bluff WMA

My second field trip of the 2018 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (see here for the first field trip) was to the Sprewell Bluff WMA. It is a 2,800-acre area that crosses three counties: Meriwether, Talbot, and Upson. The area that we explored was a tract that was fairly recently acquired from timber companies and is in the process of being restored: longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) seedlings were being planted and restorative burns are being conducted.

Longbract baptistia (Baptisia bracteata) showing the bract near the flower

We took a long, dusty road to the top to reach the tract and were immediately greeted by blooming flowers. Our trip leader, Hal Massie, told us that the area had been burned only two months before our visit (a shock to all of us given how much vegetation was there). Clumps of blooming goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana) were mingled with blackseed needle grass (Piptochaetium avenaceum), spiderwort (Tradescantia sp.), toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis), and ragwort (Packera anonyma). We also found a few examples of longbract baptisia (Baptisia bracteata). Hal explained that it is one of the few species which has a horizontal bloom stalk instead of a vertical (not to mention those noticeable bracts).

Goat's rue (Tephrosia virginiana)
Skullcap (Scutellaria pseudoserrata)

As we walked along the path that would lead us to a bluff of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and gorge rhododendron (Rhododendron minus), we found more of the other things that make this place special. The first was the large-flowered skullcap (Scutellaria pseudoserrata). I enjoyed seeing an abundance of aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica) in fruit; it looks so much like poison ivy that it’s fun to see peoples’ reaction to it. We found one lone blooming Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) and everyone sighed over its loveliness (and took a lot of pictures).

Aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica)
Squarehead (Tetragonotheca helianthoides)

It was great to have such a site-knowledgeable leader. Hal was able to take us straight to the right places to find cool things. Perhaps the most exciting plant of the day was squarehead (Tetragonotheca helianthoides), a member of the Asteraceae family with flowerbuds that have a square shape. For many of us, this was our first time seeing it. We later found it near the parking area too (which was a better place to see it on the afternoon version of this same trip).

Seedling Pinus palustris

We continued to pass great populations of the goat’s rue (which never got old) and fantastic examples of bull thistle (Cirsium horridulum). Hal pointed out the numerous longleaf pine seedlings that they have planted here as part of the restoration efforts. He also told us that the timber company has been very good about not harvesting the original mature longleaf pine trees here.

Nice pink form of gorge rhododendron (Rhododendron minus)
Mountain laurel clings to the bluff while a longleaf pine on the
left rises up from below.

We reached the bluffs area and delighted in the spectacular blooms of the mountain laurel and the gorge rhododendron. It was truly a heath family bluff, complete with two blooming species of blueberry (Vaccinium stamineum and Vaccinium arboreum). The vistas with the old longleaf pines were spectacular and one couldn’t help but be grateful to have this place preserved.

Monarch on milkweed
Asclepias amplexicaulis flower

As we walked back to the parking area, we saw a sprouting American chestnut (Castanea dentata) among the many sprouting chestnut oaks (Quercus montana). We had seen numerous clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) in bud but we finally found one with an open flower and another with a monarch caterpillar on it! In the afternoon hike on the same site, we also found butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with a tiny caterpillar on it. These butterflies were satisfying reminders of just what kind of wildlife can be managed here in addition to the more obvious kinds advertised.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Big Lazer Creek WMA

The 2018 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage hosted by the Georgia Botanical Society was a nice romp through the counties of Upson, Meriwether, and Talbot during the first week of May. The area is considered to be within the Southern Outer Piedmont area (45b) and our sites were largely on or near the Pine Mountain ridge (45h). The map picture below, sourced from The Natural Communities of Georgia book (my favorite resource for understanding the different communities in Georgia), illustrates the area where we were. My first field trip was to Big Lazer Creek WMA.

That shoals spiderlily is just a little out of reach

From The Natural Communities of Georgia
Wildlife Management Areas are state-owned, DNR-managed properties that are open for many recreational activities; for the 7,200-acre Big Lazer Creek WMA, these include:  hunting, fishing, geocaching, boating/canoeing, camping, hiking, and wildlife watching provided you have the proper licenses to enter (hunting, fishing, or lands pass) and follow any rules posted by season.

We started our hike near Potato Creek. As we waited for everyone to arrive, we explored the roadside, pointing out good native plants as well as pesky weeds. The sunny side of the road had a beautiful population of false indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) that was just starting to bloom. The bees were loving it. Once inside the wooded portion, we found blooming partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and plenty of familiar plants that enjoy good moisture, like silverbell (Halesia sp.).  We were looking for something really special, however, and after about 30 minutes, we found it: Eastern fringed catchfly (Silene polypetala or Silene catesbaei). Although this species is propagated by several nurseries, it is rare in the wild because of habitat destruction and listed as G2/S2 endangered (both in the state and at the federal level).

Amorpha fruticosa, wild indigo bush
Silene catesbaei, fringed catchfly

The population we found was happily blooming in a sunny opening in the woodland canopy. Several of us left after that and traveled further into the WMA to a recommended viewing area for the shoals spiderlily (Hymenocallis coronaria) along the Flint River. We were advised that the lilies were not quite blooming yet but expected to see beautiful views of the river regardless.

Our first attempt to find the recommended area was incorrect, but we enjoyed the spot we found anyway and it had beautiful views of the shoals. We saw lots of beautiful and blooming mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), and partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). On our way back to the car, we found a blooming dutchman’s pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa) complete with last year’s seed pod and this year’s caterpillar!

Aristolochia tomentosa flower
Kalmia latifolia on the edges of the shoals

We left there and found the right path. Although the lilies were not yet blooming in mass, we found plenty of interesting plants to admire. I was excited to find, for the third time ever, a population of wild oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). This population is even closer to where Bartram originally found it in 1775. We found more of what we found at the earlier site plus reticulated clematis (Clematis reticulata), alumroot (Heuchera americana) growing on rocks, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata), even blooming poison ivy!

Who needs a cultivar? Heuchera americana in the sun

Clematis reticulata

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Happy Mother’s Day To All The Mothers

Hallmark holiday or not, it doesn’t hurt to remind people to celebrate mothers at least one day a year. I’d like to also remind you to consider the non-human mothers. Their selfless acts of nurture mean we have baby birds year after year, more bees to pollinate our flowers, and more butterflies to delight our senses (and to feed those baby birds).

Monarch female depositing eggs on milkweed in 2017

Help those mothers out by letting them go about safely as they perform the business of raising the new generation of the rest of the critters in this world. Give them pesticide-free plants and safe places to raise their young.
  • That bee boring a hole in your wooden structure is a single mom making a nest for her eggs. Or she might be excavating a hole in the ground for the same reason. Don’t get mad, share a little smile in appreciation of her hard work (and the tomatoes she pollinated for you on her way to gathering pollen for her babies). 
  • That butterfly flitting from plant to plant is looking for a host plant on which to lay her eggs. Make sure you have some native plants in your yard for her to find. Need some inspiration? Listen to/watch this talk by Doug Tallamy
  • The bird that keeps trying to build a nest in your hanging planter or the one who stole all your moss for her nest – think a little more kindly of her efforts.
Mother bluebird making her nest
Bee gathering pollen and nectar for babies

These are some of the many mothers in our world, and each one has a maternal job to do. Their efforts help make this world be the one that we know and love. Best of luck, ladies, and we're here to support you!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Mosquito Control And Its Effects on Wildlife

Home mosquito spraying is gaining popularity thanks to increased advertising by new, specialized businesses that promise to make your yard a ‘no-fly zone’ because ‘what good is your yard if you can’t enjoy it?’

Another mail insert showed up the other day, promising us the freedom to use our yard again. More than the incessant roar of gas-powered blowers, this subject makes me want to stand up and shout: “Stop thinking that humans are the only creature that matters!”

I grew up in the South. We had mosquitoes. We learned how to deal with them. Remember these tips?

  • Eliminate standing water: Cover, turn over, or remove any equipment, containers, or toys that might collect water.
  • Unclog gutters; they hold water when clogged.
  • Check for sagging tarps or other covers that collect water.
  • Check for standing water around outdoor faucets or air conditioning drains and correct.
  • Ensure that rain barrels don’t have openings.
  • Remove English Ivy (The dense nature of ivy allows it to hold in pooled water where mosquitoes can breed, provides a humid area that mosquitoes like, and protects mosquitoes from pesticide sprays.)
We also built screened porches to use, lit citronella candles, bought bug zappers, and applied bug spray. But that was only after we took care of the above issues to ensure they had fewer places to breed. This April 2018 article from Consumer Reports says that the CDC and the EPA still say those are the best and first approaches to try. The article also says “The use of automated spraying systems, which function like automatic water sprinklers, is growing. But the devices are not EPA-approved, and ... you’re better off skipping them.”

Red admiral butterfly
Why does one approach to dealing with mosquitoes matter over the other? There is growing evidence that these chemical sprays do more than kill mosquitoes. They kill other bugs: bees, butterflies, fireflies. As a result, they reduce food for all levels of the wild food chain – for example, birds eat a lot of bugs!

They harm humans that come into contact with them. And improper usage can lead to insecticide resistance. These are powerful reasons to reconsider what one family’s choice means for the rest of us.

Here are some of the articles available on the internet about the serious downsides of using mosquito control companies:

This story from 2016 covered the deaths of millions of bees after aerial spraying in South Carolina. While home spraying would not cover such a large area, it shows that the chemicals are toxic to other insects.

This article from 2015 illustrates how spraying can introduce chemicals into water and onto plants. It also talks about the chemicals used – permethrin, one of the common ones in mosquito misting systems, is toxic to bees.

And this article indicates that lab testing “specifically found that butterflies are being exposed to naled, permethrin, and dichlorvos - insecticides sprayed locally for mosquito control - far more than is acceptable, as it was already known that these chemicals were toxic to many species past a certain concentration.” Permethrin is the one advertised by most of these companies as the one they use.

What about humans? The companies say their products are safe for humans, but has there been enough research? This article in 2016 references a study that found a potential health link: “The authors report that kids living in zip codes where the spraying was done each summer had around a 25% higher risk of an autism diagnosis or developmental problem compared to kids living in areas without the aerial spraying.” Obviously, more studies need to be done but are more studies being done?

Don’t be fooled by assurances from the companies themselves. Remember these companies exist to make a profit, not to do what is right for the environment. All they want is for you to believe their promises and so that you’ll sign up for a regular spray program. Listen carefully to what they say:

  • They will tell you that their products are biodegradable and that their systems are EPA approved (but the Consumer Reports article says not all systems are approved). You’d be surprised at what the EPA approves and biodegradable does not mean that the chemicals are not toxic and won’t kill every bug that comes into contact with it (that is their goal after all).
  • They will tell you that their systems are safe for children and pets (notice the use of the word ‘system’ not chemical). Ask them if their products are safe for bees, butterflies, and fireflies. They don't know. No one speaks up for the invertebrates (the insects).
Dragonfly = mosquito eater 
For many years humans have assumed that businesses have done their research and are offering safe products. We found that was not always true, usually after some species suffered as a result of our negligence (remember DDT, or the more recent research on neonicotinoids?). These home spraying programs have all the hallmarks of profit-driven, consumer-scare tactics. “It’s YOUR yard – take it back!”

We’ve got to think about our neighbors and the hundreds of other species that depend on us not to poison their world. It’s up to us to make the right decision – for us and for the critters around us.

Need a good resource for dealing with mosquitoes at the community level? Check out this PDF from The Xerces Society.