Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Friendly Faces in New Territory: Virginia Part One

     The whole school year, I was determineed to keep my summer schedule free. Why? you might ask. Well, because I then I fill it with chance opportunities like this!! A trip to South Western Virginia, to the humid hills, and Appalachian country, and to a region which, I would say, offers the most salamanders a wildlife biologist like me could ever dream of!!
     Back during the school year, my best friend had asked me if I would accompany her to visit her horse trainer, who now lives out near Meadowview, Virginia. How could I say no to a cross country trip Appalachian country? Well, I couldn't! and so at 6:00am one summer Sunday, we loaded her truck and headed East! Both her and I were seasoned road trippers, so driving the whole 16 hours in one whack was a piece of cake for the two of us!
     We arrived at Jim and Jan's house around about 11:00 that night and stayed up until night-noon (that's midnight for you normal people) just talking and catching up. Jim was an avid outdoorsman, hunter, and professional horse rider himself, so we clicked pretty well together right off the bat, sharing hunting stories and close calls in the field. Jim and Jan were two of the nicest people I ever did meet! Very gracious and accommodating, as they put my friend, Jenae, and I in our own rooms in for the week.
     Jenae is an amazing horse rider herself, and it's easy to see why with a coach like Jim to teach her! I even got to ride around a little bit, as they both taught me the basics of horse riding. It's amazing to understand the connecting and learning capabilities of horses! They're sharp as a wit! But this strapping green bushman will stick to his own two feet for venturing through the bush at least. And what a strike of fortune! Tomorrow we'd be going for a trail ride!! And by we, I mean Jenae, Jim, and another student would be on the horses and I would be on foot. This sounds like I'm the slave labor here and don't get the easy way up the trail, but that's the exact opposite! I had the easy option here! I could go at my own pace, flip all the rocks my heart desired, and catch all the critters I could find!
     As we rolled into the trail parking lot the next morning at 9:00, and I was as jittery as a sprinter at his first Olympics! I get this way when I'm about to explore new territory :) As the riders were saddling up their horses, Jim gave me the go ahead to hit the trail. "Meet back here at 10:30", he said. No problem!  One hour going in and a half hour coming out! I lit out like a hound off his leash, eye's wide, ears keen, and nose sniffing.
     The forest was gorgeous! Just like the rain forest only at a seasonal latitude! Mosses and lichens grew everywhere, and the ground was covered with a moist blanket of leaf litter. And the rocks! There where rocks everywhere! These mountain looked like regular dirt hills, but under the veil of the forest, there were tons of rocks to provide habitat for some of my favorite critters!
As I advanced up the trail, I came to a small water flow that cut across the trail. The water here was crystal clear! Not like the muddy milk that fills Nebraska's lakes and streams. I began to flip a few rocks in this flow, hoping to find some amphibian action. And by golly, I'm getting spoiled! With the second rock I flip I find an Black Mountain Salamander! I'm far from a pro when it comes to salamander ID, since Nebraska only has a few species. I was thrilled to have caught the first of many animals for this trip! A few choice pictures and I replaced the little fella under his rock, and I continued up the trail

The Black Mountain Salamander, Desmognathus welteri, belongs to the Plethodontidae family. It's habitat includes temperate forests, rivers, freshwater marshes and springs. They forage mostly at night and eat flies, beetles and other insects, as well as their larvae. The Black Mountain Salamander looks a lot like other similar looking species of dusky salamanders. Its range includes eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and eastern Tennessee in wooded mountainous countryside where it hides under rocks and logs in swift flowing streams, pools, or anywhere else there's reliable water. Reproduction occurs in the spring or summer. The female lays clusters of about 25 eggs in or near streams. The larvae are aquatic and take almost two years to complete metamorphosis. The average life span is about 5 years for the Black Mountain Salamander. One thing of concern is road building and strip mining, which turns up a lot of silt in the water ways and has a bad effect on these as well as other salamander populations.

     This hike was just ecstasy for me! My Merrill Trail Gloves made zero noise as I glided up the trail, feeling every step as the trail came to my foot. Various song birds filled the jungle with a beautiful tune, one of the advantages of morning hikes. I was also stoked to see so many different bugs and insects. Talk about biodiversity! If I was a more devoted entomologist, I would be filling specimen jars right and left out here.
Towards the middle of my hike, I spotted a backpacker's camp sight (these are common up here, as the Appalachian trail travelers need places to stop each night.) But I usually do pretty well flipping the rocks around fire rings. I think it might be because ants and other small insects come to clean up any food particles left behind, and the herps come to eat the bugs. Classic camping food web here! And as par for the course, my last rock housed a nice little Black Mountain Salamander!
     After leaving the salamander back at his humble abode, I hiked another half mile up the trail before turning to gallop back down. I wonder how my horse riding friends faired on the trail?
As I waiting in the parking lot, I found a crap ton of Tiger Swallow Tail butterflies, enjoying..... yep, a pile of horse crap! Jim said they like the moisture in the horse poop. I reckon they might take some nutrients from their smelly buffet too.
     I have the utmost respect for my horse riding friends! Not only can they connect with these horses after many years of training and hard work, they must also be constantly aware of how well the horse is reading their commands in order to keep both horse and rider in tip top shape. Not to mention, Jenae said she got a face full of spider webs being on the tallest horse :P
     A bushman like myself can certainly enjoy a good hard hike, especially when I can sit here with my shoes off while my friends must unsaddle their horses both covered in sweat and hair. I sure do love this life! It's going to be a great week!