#119 Fernbrook Natural Area hosts winter landscapes and much more

Massive hunk of sooty mold

January 15, 2009

Fernbrook Natural Area in northern Albemarle County near Stony Brook is host of images of death, decay, and resurrection in the flora and fauna of the Piedmont woods.

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The January cold spell has arrived – always a harsh reminder, especially here in Virginia – of the intractability of winter.  Being from New England, it feels welcome, like a patch of remnant habitat – familiar and necessary for my survival.   The bite of cold when I first leave the house for my walk, the peeling back of layers as heat of my body meets morning chill. The knowledge of light that has come with experiencing over half a decade of Januarys, as the skies are brighter, the days are longer, but still, somehow, muted by the cold.  My need to be outside is greater at this time of year than others –against the inertia that a warm house foster, an urgency tugs at me as the voices of the winter landscape are calling.

I went to feed this winter hunger last weekend at Fernbook Natural Area, the  63-acre preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy in northern Albemarle County near Stony Point.  This time of year, it is a palette of earth tones, rich with every shade of brown, red, yellow, orange, and black.  Green pokes up here and there: running cedar emerging from the layer of leaves, the rhododendron on the northern slopes; and the ever-reliable, Christmas fern, though sagging from the weight of wingter, it is still standing, ready to be counted. The trail slopes down through a tall stand of red oak, hickory and yellow poplar towards a small stream that drains the ridge.  Only the beech trees and few oaks still hold their leaves, browned now, quaking in the slight wind.  The late afternoon light is mediated by clouds, occasional patches of blue lingering before a darkening sky.

This winter in particular, I am attuned to disintegration and death, and a forest like the one at Fernbrook is as good a place as any to find it.  Decay is everywhere:  dense downed logs along the trail are scuffed by travelers’ boots into light tufts.  The bark of Virginia pine still standing, is pocked by holes that spiral round the trunk marking the drill of the downy woodpecker.  A cavity higher up could be home to a pileated.  These are some of the larger agents of change in the forest, foraging for a meal beneath the bark of host trees giving way slowly to insects.

Still on the branches of beech trees, are black clumps of sooty mold.  A hunk the size of my fist has dropped to the ground at the base of a beech, and I pick it up – light as a sponge, this is final stage for the mold that is unique to the beech tree.  Scorias spongiosa, as a species of sooty mold that grows below colonies of beech woolly aphids, whose honeydew – or excrement – provides nourishment through its life stages.  In January, these aphids are long gone, but when I pry the mold apart, I find shiny black ants feasting on the spores.

Cleared in colonial days for timber, Fernbrook was abandoned sometime after the Civil War.  But here and there, the pencil-sharp snags of Virginia cedar point skyward, and from time to time, the slope is anchored by a mound of rocks that marked perhaps the corner of an old field.  The small stream has the characteristic steep banks of our Piedmont streams that have been cut vertically during the years of high erosion when no protective measures stemmed the flow of topsoil from newly logged acres.

Just as surely as I am looking at death and decay, I am also witness to rebirth, in everything from the defiant fist-like buds of the dogwoods in understudy, to the delicate, cigar-shaped twist of the beech bud.  Each soggy, rotten log hosts its own ecosystem of fungi, bacteria, and insects, thriving in dark spaces, drunk on the nutrients they release back to the cycle of life.

Through the bare trees I can see upward to the sky, another gift of winter and my spirit, likewise, has been lifted by this time in the woods.

Contents Copyright 2009 Leslie Middleton


#118 You, Me, and Stormwater

January 8, 2009

The City of Charlottesville, along with Albemarle County, UVA, and PVCC, are all submitted renewal applications for the Virginia Stormwater Management Program (VSMP) General Permit for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4’s).  The permit describes how these entities will manage stormwater in their jurisdictions, but much of the management really rests on you and me and how we manage the stormwater that we create because of our modern lifestyle.

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Chilling, cold, welcome, seasonal.  These words could all describe the precipitation of the last couple of days.  Cold and chilling, as temperatures hovered below freezing, icing roads and dusting the Blue Ridge white.  Welcome, and seasonal, since we rely on wintertime precipitation to keeps our rivers and wells flowing, our groundwater replenished, our reservoirs full and to hold off the press of drought.

But this water – mostly clean as transits from clouds to earth – becomes something else once it hits our streets, yards, and houses.  It becomes storm water – and it is hardly benign. 

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#116 The Emerald Ash Borer

December 18, 2008

Learning to identify trees is the business of the amateur naturalist — and these days, one that includes learning about and spreading the word about invasive pests that are threatening whole species, such as the Emerald Ash Borer.

Last weekend I took a short walk along the scrubby and thinly buffered banks of the Rivanna near Free Bridge with some fellow Master Naturalists.  We were out to hone our tree identification skills – best done, I’ve found, after the fall of leaves when one is forced to use the most reliable tools of branching, bark, and leaf scar shape to confirm the ID.

Land disturbance and compaction at this site along the river has been pretty much uninterrupted

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#115 South Fork Rivanna Reservoir Stores Our Dirt, Too

December 11, 2008

There’s a lot of different ways to look at our diminishing resources — running out of clean water, clean air, and …. good dirt?  We might do well to look past the problem of the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir filling up with dirt — and try to understand the causes of — and consequences of losing dirt from the landscapes upstream.

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This show originally aired on December 11, 2008  on “The Rivanna Rambler,” a weekly public affairs show airing every Thursday at 11:55 a.m. on WTJU 91.1 FM or wtju.net.

There is slow steady winter rain that’s keeping temperatures hovering around forty degrees and the skies dark with winter gloom.  But the rain is good — for our groundwater, for our reservoirs, and it is good for the plants and animals that need this most essential resource to survive.  This rain is also filling our rivers – and I would wager – sending a good amount of water into the South Fork Rivanna Reservoir, along with a healthy amount of dirt.

Now, that dirt is slowly but surely filling the reservoir – each year, decreasing its capacity from 1 to 5 per cent since it was completed in 1969.  In another example of our human short-sightedness, like many public works installations of the era, the design life of this reservoir was only fifty years, at which time the reservoir would be filled to over 50% of its capacity.

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#114 Winter Stoneflies

February 28, 2008

In the midst of winter, there are bugs in the stream that are alive and well – and some, eve, are hatching out to become insects, having found their aquatic niche at a time when no others compete.  During StreamWatch sampling on the upper Doyle’s, we find several families of winter stoneflies.

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This show originally aired on February 28, 2008 and again on December 4, 2008 on “The Rivanna Rambler,” a weekly public affairs show airing every Thursday at 11:55 a.m. on WTJU 91.1 FM or wtju.net.

The upper Doyles River, like most headwater streams in the Rivanna watershed, is about as pristine as they come.  The waters that collect from springs and drainages of the land that is protected by Shenandoah National Park do not suffer the assaults of sediment and runoff that challenge the health of streams at lower elevations.  For this reason, the community based water monitoring program, StreamWatch, has chosen a spot high on the Doyles as one of several headwater streams that will be used during the next few years as “reference streams” – a standard of “as good as it gets in our watershed” — against which other tributaries of the Rivanna will be evaluated.

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