Landscape bed gardening tends to be mostly mundane work, pulling weeds and grass, trimming over-growth, spreading mulch. One of the rewards of this work is surprise discoveries of interesting things that are easily overlooked by those not getting their hands dirty. Today’s surprise was finding a small snake that seemed ill. Alerting my fellow gardeners, we all watched as the little Red-bellied snake wiggled around weakly, showed us his bright orange belly and then appeared to expire. It was an almost convincing act, but I suspected a trick. Sure enough, after we moved to another area of the CCC Museum garden, the little trickster came back to life, only to repeat the act for us when we came to check on it. This behavior is well described at animaldiversity.org. It’s the kind of thing that keeps us coming back to see what other surprises are out there.
The Eastern Fence Lizard
On a summer walk in the Pocahontas woods, you might be mildly startled by a rustling in the leaf litter. If you don't see a squirrel, it may be an Eastern Fence Lizard that has decided to take cover on your approach. They are not especially shy, so you might still catch sight of it hesitating on a rock or tree trunk. They seem as curious of us as we are of them, and will watch us from a safe distance if they don't feel threatened.
This lizard and several skinks are the only lizard species in the park. It is common throughout Virginia, one of the links in the ecosystem energy flow. Sixty years ago the Eastern Fence Lizard was grouped with several other species in a sub-family aptly called Swifts (just try to catch one). But taxonomy is constantly changing and that grouping has fallen by the wayside. It now belongs to the family Phrynosomatidae; try to say that without tripping!
That dark and obscure pool of water off in the woods that shows up during the winter, which we usually pass by with nary a thought, may be a forest biological hot spot. Vernal pools, as they are known, develop in depressions where water collects only during the wet weather of winter and spring. In these quiet, seasonal waters a variety of animal species find a hospitable habitat, primarily insects, crustaceans and amphibians. Water-dwelling insects as well as the smaller microbes pass through their brief life-cycles, providing food for the hatchlings of frogs, toads and salamanders who lay their eggs here. These larger predators are in turn part of the food web in the forest, so the vernal pools are an important component of forest ecology.
Pools which do not serve as a breeding ground for frogs and salamanders are not included in the “vernal pool” category, although they may still benefit the forest ecosystem. The Pocahontas Master Naturalists are developing a monitoring program for vernal pools in the park. So far, 28 vernal pools have been identified. There are probably many more yet to be discovered. Spring is the critical time of year to view them because frog and salamander egg masses are easily identified now.
It’s considered to be a common owl of the eastern United States. But there aren’t really all that many of them. As a carnivore of rodents and birds, the barred owl needs a sizable territory and a suitable habitat for roosting and nesting, such as Pocahontas, with almost 8000 acres and a variety of forest ecosystems. If you get lucky, you may hear one or a pair calling briefly in the afternoon, as I have along the Bright Hope Trail. Our expression “that’s a hoot” might come from listening to barred owls, as their vocalization can be quite amusing. This photo shows the pine stand where one of the owls was hiding, but I was unable to pick out its roosting place in the trees.
Thoughts on the park, its residents and how to preserve its natural beauty.