Archive for the ‘Naturalists Notebook’ Category

Leave it to Beavers

Thursday, April 13th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Adrienne Fouts


A beaver swims in Tomahawk Pond in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. Photo by Steven David Johnson.

From cutting down trees to flooding forests and fields, few animals are as influential on their surrounding environment as beavers. After being trapped for their fur to near-extinction in North America by the early 1900s, beaver populations were reintroduced across the continent and are now thriving, continuing their vital role in maintaining wetlands and supporting aquatic life — while occasionally being a nuisance to landowners.

Beavers are sometimes called “nature’s engineers,” and for good reason. By building lodges and dams as their homes, they physically alter the landscape to suit their own needs, similar to humans.

Lodges serve as houses for beaver families and are typically made of sticks, mud and rocks. To protect a lodge from predators, beavers build dams to flood an area, which creates a beaver pond upstream, surrounding the lodge with water. An underwater tunnel leads to the inside of the lodge, where dry chambers above the water level allow the beavers to safely live. As aquatic mammals, beavers are adept at maneuvering in water, so beaver ponds allow them to swim to nearby trees for food rather than having to travel more slowly across dry land.

Beaver ponds serve another vital purpose: attracting and supporting a variety of wildlife. Beavers have a large influence on other species in an ecosystem. The freshwater wetlands that beavers help create and maintain are among the most biologically rich in the world, especially in the southeastern United States, and can support many threatened or endangered species of fish, crayfish and other aquatic life.

Even dried ponds, called beaver meadows, provide a habitat for plants and wildlife long after the beavers have abandoned the area, according to Michael Fies of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. The nutrient-rich soil that was once at the bottom of a beaver pond grows different kinds of vegetation than the surrounding forest. Fies says that in the national forests of western Virginia, the U.S. Forest Service is interested in protecting beaver meadows because they recognize the value of those habitats.


A beaver swims at Tomahawk Pond in Virginia. Photo by Steven David Johnson

Not everyone is interested in keeping beavers around, however. Despite all the benefits that they bring to natural areas, beavers can also cause problems when their activities conflict with humans. To obtain food and materials for lodges and dams, beavers will often cut down valued trees on people’s property.

“Other times it’s flooding issues,” Fies says. “Beavers are very adept at changing their habitat, which is what makes them unique, but their dams can result in the flooding of farmers’ fields and state roads.”

Most states in Appalachia have a beaver trapping season between November and the end of March, varying slightly from state to state. In some cases, landowners are permitted to trap or hunt beavers year-round if they are causing issues on their property.

Beavers cause fewer harmful side effects in the mountains than they do in lower-elevation, large river systems in the Southeast, where they are more common, according to Fies. In the Piedmont of North Carolina, state wildlife officials have stepped up efforts to manage the beaver population after a study by Appalachian State University biology professor Michael Gangloff and one of his students found that beaver dams were threatening an endangered mussel species.

beaver lodge

A beaver lodge sits in a pond in the Laurel Fork area of Highland County, Va. Photo by Al Bourgeois.

“The mussels need flowing water and high oxygen levels to survive,” Gangloff says. “And beaver dams actually change the physical and chemical properties of the water, so there is a lower oxygen concentration.”

In the streams of the Appalachian Mountains, though, beavers are less likely to be a problem in the ecosystem because of lower population levels and naturally higher oxygen levels in the water, according to Gangloff. Instead, they help increase fish biodiversity and provide wetland habitat for numerous other animals, including frogs, snapping turtles and waterfowl such as wood ducks and herons.

Despite the headaches that they can cause landowners and wildlife officials, beavers play a vital role in natural areas throughout Appalachia and North America. With their human-like methods of building and changing their environment, it is inevitable that beaver and human activity will often clash. Society has come a long way since nearly trapping beavers into extinction, however, and hopefully humans will continue to work toward living in harmony with these clever and industrious animals.

Beaver Basics

  • The largest rodents in North America, full-grown beavers weigh around 60 pounds.
  • Family size can range from two to 12 or more beavers living in the same den.
  • Beavers’ large front teeth never stop growing; their constant gnawing on wood wears the teeth down and prevents them from growing too long.
  • In the 1950s, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission wanted to relocate beavers from residential areas to the middle of a roadless wilderness area. So wildlife officials put 76 beavers into small wooden boxes, strapped them to parachutes and dropped them out of airplanes into the forest. All but one of the beavers survived the fall. Watch footage here.

A Sweet Maple Harvest

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

Maple syrup in Central and Southern Appalachia

By Dan Radmacher

When most people think of maple syrup production, they picture a bucket hanging off a tree in Vermont, New Hampshire or some other New England state. But modern tapping involves miles of plastic tubing, not buckets — and a surprising amount of it is taking place in Appalachia, far from the Northeastern region best known for maple syrup.


Bethany Boyer-Rechlin works on a maple syrup tap at the Dry Fork Maple Works in Randolph County, W.Va. Photo by Mike Rechlin

“The Appalachian Mountains are home to some large populations of sugar maples, especially in the higher elevations,” says Ryan Huish, assistant professor of biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. “Historically, there was much more tapping in the region. You can still see names of roads, cities and geographic areas here that reflect the cultural significance of sugaring — Sugar Run Road, Sugar Grove, Sugar Hill, and so on.”

Mike Rechlin, a member of the board of the West Virginia Maple Syrup Producers Association, says mapling is seeing a resurgence in Appalachia. “The number of taps is expanding dramatically,” he says. “There are lots of people looking to get into the game.”

Dry Fork Maple Works in Randolph County, W.Va., which Rechlin helps operate, has 18,000 taps. “Traditionally, we hung buckets to collect sap,” he says. “The sap would flow out of a hole into a bucket, then you’d boil it down, adding nothing until the sugars are concentrated.”

Modern operations run a bit differently. “When you’ve got 18,000 taps, that’s a lot of buckets,” Rechlin says with a laugh. Today, plastic tubing runs from tree to tree to bring the sap down to a collection tank. While it’s possible to turn sap into maple sugar with nothing more than a pan and a heat source to boil it, Rechlin says commercial operations need to increase energy efficiency, so most use reverse osmosis filtering that concentrates the sugar in sap — about 2 percent when it comes out of a maple tree — up to about 12 to 15 percent before they start boiling it to create syrup.

tree hugging

Ryan Huish enjoys the day with student researchers and a sugar maple in Bolar, Va. Photo by David Bruce.

“The reverse osmosis filtering removes water in advance to reduce energy consumption and save time,” Rechlin says. “The heat in the evaporation process also results in chemical conversions that result in that classic maple flavor and color.”

Those chemical conversions create a variety of compounds in the syrup — and researchers are studying them to determine whether they have any health benefits, Huish says. “Researchers are still finding new compounds in syrup, some of which show antimicrobial and anticancer properties,” he says. “Some may even be novel therapeutics to manage diabetes — compounds that help the body process sugars more slowly.”

Huish says sugar maples can be found from eastern Canada and down along the Appalachian Mountains as far south as North Carolina and Tennessee. “With more and more people recognizing the values of local roots and traditions — and the health benefits of maple syrup — there seems to be a resurgence of maple tapping beginning in the Appalachians, which is refreshing,” he says.

Neil Shinholt of S&S Maple Camp in Maryland isn’t part of any resurgence — he’s been making syrup for 58 years, since he was 10 years old. “My granpap had this farm in the ‘30s,” he says. “We raise beef and make syrup. These trees, I learn from them every year. When I was a boy, we only had a couple of trees tapped, all on buckets, and every day we had to gather sugar.”

Now the farm has about 9,000 trees tapped. Shinholt has seen a lot of seasons, and every one has been different. Weather is key. Sap flows best when temperatures are freezing during the nighttime and thawing during the day.

Different grades of maple syrup are displayed in a window. Photo by David Bruce.

Different grades of maple syrup are displayed in a window. Photo by David Bruce.

During the summer, sugar maples produce carbohydrates from the sun’s energy through a process known as photosynthesis. Those carbohydrates are stored as starch in the trees’ roots, creating an energy reserve dormant trees use to kick-start growth in the spring. When cycles of freezing and thawing occur in the early spring, it creates pressure within the tree that draws water and dissolved sugars up through the tree to the buds. That’s the sap that taps collect.

“If you put a tire gauge in a hole in a maple, it will actually read the air pressure,” says Rechlin. “The hole in the tree relieves that pressure and causes the sap to flow out. Sap flow 101: no freeze and thaw cycle, no tap flow.”

That puts a definite crimp in the business. “Last year, we had a different kind of winter,” Shinholt says. “It didn’t get cold until late in the year. Temperatures were getting so warm in the day, up to the 70s. That’s something you don’t want. The water was cloudy coming into the tank. It had already ruined the flavor of the syrup, so we quit. Northern people were having ideal weather. They had a great year.”

A lot of different factors go into creating a good sap harvest, Shinholt says. The best he can remember in recent years was 2014. “The weather was perfect,” he says. “We just had to keep buying barrels. It’s the temperature fluctuation that makes the sugar flow. The ideal temperature is 25 at night and 45 during the day. You want wet, sloppy ground, too. Trees won’t produce if the soil’s dry.”

The Maple Climate

With the harvest so dependent on weather, it’s natural to wonder about the impact of climate change, which has resulted in record-breaking temperatures the last three years in a row. Shinholt has seen some changes during his lifetime. “I’m not going to say that I see temperatures warming,” he says. “But I do see that there are more of the prolonged cold and warm spells. And maples don’t operate in that kind of weather. A prolonged warm spell is really bad. Once the tree goes dormant, each warm day after that sap moves up from the roots to the bud pocket and it will eat some of that sugar. You want it to stay cold until the spring when things are starting to come back to life.”

The impact of climate change on the industry worries Rechlin, a native of upstate New York who’s lived in West Virginia for the last six years. “That is the $64,000 question,” he says. “I haven’t been down here long enough to answer that question, but I’ve been down here long enough to know we need to ask it. We need to have more serious research on some of those climatic issues here to be comfortable expanding the industry. The harvest was terrible last year because of the weather. We went 15 days without a freeze/thaw cycle in what should have been prime sugaring season.”

Mike Puffenbarger owns Southernmost Maple in Bolar, Va. Photo by David Bruce.

Mike Puffenbarger owns Southernmost Maple in Bolar, Va. Photo by David Bruce.

Huish says such concern is understandable, and climate change could definitely have impacts on the sap harvest. “Maple tapping is very dependent on the climate,” he says. “The sap won’t flow if conditions aren’t just right.” But he doesn’t believe the Appalachian industry is in mortal danger, at least for now.

“I see maple syrup production continuing in the Southern Appalachians for a long time — maybe even centuries,” Huish says. “However, there could be some threats to the southern [tree] populations that could jeopardize successful tapping in the very long-term. There are some climate projection models that suggest sugar maple may not prefer the climate so much in our neck of the woods in the future.”

Climate change could impact the quality of the syrup, as well. “When plants get stressed out, their defense mechanisms kick in, and their chemistry changes,” Huish says. “It is still unclear exactly how and to what level this is influencing the syrup, but we are investigating this.”
Huish is part of the Acer Climate and Socio-Ecological Research Network, a team funded by the U.S. Geological Survey and Northeast Science Center, with scientists from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth College, University of Quebec and Montana State University. The ACERnet team is looking into potential strategies for sap harvesting and syrup production in a changing climate.

Meanwhile, the market for Appalachian syrup and other maple products is booming. “The market is a great, great market,” says Shinholt. “The market is diversifying. People use maple syrup for a lot more than just pancakes. Some folks are even taking the water from the tree, pasteurizing and bottling it. People are drinking that. It’s supposed to be good for you, there are so many great things in this water for the human body.”

maple pork BBQ

Maple pork barbecue is popular at the Highland County Maple Festival in Monterey, Va. Photo by David Bruce

Highland County, Va., is holding its 59th annual maple festival in mid-March. “That festival draws thousands of people every year,” says Huish. The town of Pickens, W.Va., will also host an annual maple syrup festival in March.

Huish believes southern Appalachian maples may have higher concentrations of antioxidants and other phenolic compounds — and some people say it has more flavor. “Many people we’ve spoken to from both the north and the south have mentioned the southern syrup tastes better,” says the researcher. “Of course, that’s just anecdotal, and ongoing research will need to confirm this. We are still eagerly collecting and analyzing data.”

Last year, demand outpaced supply in Appalachia, Rechlin says. “Demand is good and growing as more people learn that we actually make it here,” he says.

Ponies of the Grayson Highlands

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Otto Solberg

herd of ponies in the snow

Ponies were introduced to the Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers area of Southwest Virginia in the 1970s. Since then, they have become a popular attraction. This image was also a Flora and Fauna Finalist in the 11th Annual Appalachian Mountain Photography Competition. Photo by Sharon Canter

Mare and foal

This mare and her foal were grazing at Massie Gap in Grayson Highlands. Photo by Martin Seelig of Catchlight Gallery

After just a few miles of walking through Grayson Highlands State Park, hikers can meet herds of wild ponies who are generally unconcerned by human presence. The rhododendron along the lower-elevation trails soon clears, giving way to the open grassy balds that characterize the Grayson Highlands and Mount Rogers National Recreation Area. The balds reveal stunning views of the Southwest Virginia mountains, and upon a closer look, hikers can spot more white and brown ponies grazing between the rock outcroppings on nearby ridges.

“I would bet that 50 percent of the people that come there, come for the ponies,” says Elizabeth Wegmann, a landscaper and animal photographer who hikes the area several times a month, learning the ways of the estimated 100 ponies that call these mountains home.

“[The Grayson highlands ponies] have 1,500 acres of contained area that they can roam in the state park,” says Teresa Tibbs, the office manager at Grayson Highlands State Park. In the neighboring national recreation area, the ponies are also contained in a fenced area of over 3,500 acres, according to Rebecca Robbins with the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

The ponies maintain the mountain balds by eating grasses and small shrubs.These open grasslands are not natural, but were cleared and used as farmland before the area became park lands. The ponies have not caused overgrazing issues, in Wegmann’s opinion, and in 2012, longhorn cattle were also added to the Mount Rogers area to help graze the balds during the warmer months.

The cattle are removed in the winter while the ponies stay and forage for food through the snow. Wegmann has observed that winter weather decreases the herds’ activity because they stay near various water sources, but harsh winters can force the ponies to spread out from their herds in search of food.

Troubles with Treats

headshot of pony with blonde mane

The ponies at Mount Rogers and Grayson Highlands graze the area despite the winter snow. Photo by Michael Speed

Pony Facts

  • The parks are home to 10-15 herds of varying size.
  • Mares breed once a year.
  • Like horses, ponies’ lifespans range from 8 to 20 years.
  • These ponies reach 10 to 12 hands tall, or approximately 40 to 48 inches high.
  • Despite their size difference, the ponies get along with cattle.
  • Signs in the park urge visitors not to feed the ponies, but Tibbs says the park has issues “continuously.” Dependence on handouts of human food can cause serious health and behavioral problems for the ponies.

    Ponies lack the ability to vomit, so human food can also cause health issues such as choking. Also, too much sugar can cause a disease known as laminitis, which causes the ponies to have sore and sometimes diseased hooves. When bad enough, the pain can severely debilitate the ponies. Without the ability to walk, the ponies will starve to death.

    Despite this danger, the wild ponies have grown accustomed to being fed by hikers, and will approach visitors without fear.

    “When you hand-feed a wild animal, you create a pattern that exists long after you leave,” says Wegmann. “You’re doing a disservice to the animal, and anyone that comes after you, by making them a beggar and a nuisance.”

    According to Tibbs, eating human food can make the ponies seem aggressive “because they know that people are going to feed them something, and that causes problems.”

    “They are wild ponies,” Tibbs says, “and they do bite.”

    Before the Grayson Highlands became a state park in 1965, the mountains were covered in farmland grazed by cattle and a few ponies. In 1974, Bill Pugh and another pony owner brought 20 ponies to the park to maintain the grassy balds that were no longer being grazed.

    foal and flower

    Some foals on the Grayson Highlands are rounded up every fall and offered for auction in order to maintain a healthy herd size. Photo by Elizabeth Wegmann

    The Wilburn Ridge Pony Association

    According to Tibbs, the ponies “were introduced as a resource management initiative.”

    In 1975, the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association was formed as a nonprofit organization to purchase the free-roaming ponies from Pugh.

    Although none of the original ponies are alive, the Wilburn Ridge Pony Association still maintains ownership of the mostly wild herds. Throughout the year, members ride horses through the park to check on the ponies and set out salt and worming blocks. Salt blocks give necessary minerals, while the worming blocks prevent worms that can cause intestinal issues.

    The association also holds a round-up every fall to check the health of the herds and to separate the foals for auction.

    Rounding up male foals is part of the association’s agreement with the national forest and state park to keep a healthy number of ponies in the herds. As the males grow into stallions they split away from their mothers, creating more herds, but of smaller sizes which aren’t as safe. The association’s members create round-up corrals with a V-shaped fence that allows the ponies to enter, but not escape. Similar to a lobster trap, this method allows the association to humanely separate the foals from the herd without hurting them.

    pony in snow

    A pony chews on foraged grass on a snowy day. Photo by Michael Speed

    Both male and female foals that have been rounded up are then sold at auction to individual owners, ranging in price from $35 to nearly $1,000. Foals from the park’s celebrity stallion, “Fabio,” are often the most desired for their long blonde manes.

    The ponies of Grayson Highlands and the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area not only provide a necessary resource to maintain the open mountain balds, but also draw tourism to the park.

    Although the ponies live wild on mountains with limited assistance from the Wildburn Ridge Pony Association, they have grown unafraid of human hikers. Their curious personalities give visitors a unique experience as they enjoy the immense views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

    trail sign with pony

    Trail signs — and a pony — at Grayson Highlands. Photo by Elizabeth Wegmann

    In search of the ponies

    To plan a trip to the Grayson Highlands, Wegmann suggests a good map such as the National Geographic maps that can be purchased at the park’s ranger station.

    For the best chance of finding the wild ponies, Wegmann recommends starting south on the Appalachian Trail towards Mount Rogers. The ridge offers a wide view to spot ponies. For more specific directions, contact Wegmann on Facebook @graysonhighlandsponies, or call the Grayson Highlands State Park office at (276) 579-7092.

    American Kestrel

    Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

    A Winged Predator Fights to Survive

    By Dan Bieker

    Photo by Cory Chen

    Photo by Cory Chen

    Nothing signals death to an unwary vole or grasshopper more suddenly than the piercing cry of a kestrel patrolling overhead. Sadly, that once-familiar call echoing over farms and fields is growing ever more silent.

    The American kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon and a proud symbol of the country’s rural heritage. Like its cousin the peregrine falcon, kestrels are sleek, agile and incredibly powerful for their size. Compared to most hawks, falcons are speed demons — think of an F16 fighter jet versus a B52 bomber.

    All native predators are critical in food chains, and the kestrel is no exception. Unfortunately, this handsome bird of prey is disappearing over much of its range, especially in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. Populations in the United States have declined by half since the late 1960s according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, a massive data collection effort overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey.

    Reasons for the decline are not fully understood, but culprits include monoculture farms, loss of open areas, competition from European starlings for nest sites and increased pesticide use. The neonicotinoid family of insecticides is especially harmful. Evidence continues to mount on the toxicity of these widespread chemicals to birds and other wildlife. Neonicotinoids also dramatically reduce the quantity and diversity of insects, and kestrels are voracious insect predators.

    What You Can Do

    • Build and install your own nest box if you have suitable habitat. Other birds that might use the box (and should be welcome) include bluebirds, tree swallows, flickers and screech owls. Starlings and squirrels — no!

    • Enhance habitat by preserving brushy areas, keeping old fencerows in place, leaving dead trees standing (where safe) and encouraging native plants.

    • Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania has excellent information on kestrel biology and building and erecting your own nest box. Visit

    • The American Kestrel Partnership also has information on kestrels and nest boxes, including a video of a female kestrel fighting a starling that is trying to take over her box. Learn more at

    Only about the size of a blue jay, kestrels reign terror from above. They patrol over pastures and other open areas, or sit patiently on utility wires, ready to pounce on whatever small critter lands in their sights. Besides voles and grasshoppers, they also prey on mice, moles, shrews, lizards, frogs, snakes and — rarely — small birds.

    Kestrels range over most of North America, with northern birds generally more migratory than their southern counterparts. They are primarily denizens of farmland and prefer open areas with short ground cover and scattered trees. Look for them on utility wires or exposed tree branches.

    With most raptors it can be difficult to distinguish gender, but not so with kestrels. They are the most colorful of all raptors, with males spouting striking blue-gray wings and females a rich, tawny brown all over.

    Cavity nesting is another relatively unique attribute of kestrels. Usually that means that they nest in old woodpecker holes, but kestrels will utilize a wide variety of opportunities, including holes in buildings and even the open ends of pipes on utility towers. Three to five eggs are laid and incubated for a month before hatching. The chicks then spend roughly another month in the nest before fledging.

    Fortunately, kestrels take readily to artificial nest boxes, which presents an opportunity for the public to help. Most state wildlife agencies can provide helpful information on how and where to erect kestrel nest boxes. Local bird clubs can also be of assistance. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources maintains a kestrel nest box project on public land.

    In the winter of 2014-2015, the Virginia Society of Ornithology began a five-year project to build and install kestrel nest boxes throughout the state. Project volunteers — nicknamed the Kestrel Strike Force — seek out suitable sites, knock on doors to get permission, then erect a box at no charge to the landowner.

    The volunteer Kestrel Strike Force provides nest boxes for the falcons in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Virginia Society of Ornithology

    The volunteer Kestrel Strike Force provides nest boxes for the falcons in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Virginia Society of Ornithology

    Boxes are placed on trees, sides of outbuildings, or, preferably, extended on treated two-by-fours and attached to fence posts. Most are raised about 12 feet above ground and oriented in an east to southeast direction. There is no maintenance involved for the landowner, but they are requested to report any activity in and around the box to the Strike Force, which maintains ongoing records. The project is funded through donations, and all aspects of the endeavor are carried out by volunteers.

    To date more than 240 boxes have been erected in 30 Virginia counties. While installing boxes, the Strike Force endures mud, barbed wire, ticks, chiggers and livestock of questionable temperament, but it carries on!

    A frequent question asked by those unfamiliar with kestrels is “will they eat my chickens, my cat or my poodle?” Once those fears are allayed, most folks are happy to host a box and take pride in knowing they are helping this fascinating little falcon continue to grace the countryside.

    Learn more at

    Dan Bieker is an assistant professor of Natural Sciences at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Va., and board member of the Virginia Society of Ornithology.

    Mistaken Identity: Recognizing the northern water snake

    Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by interns

    By Savannah Clemmons

    Summer in Appalachia is the perfect time for hikes, swims and camping trips. But outdoor adventures can create tense encounters with species that are traditionally labeled as dangerous, such as snakes. Some snakes, like the venomous copperhead, should always be avoided. But most Appalachian snakes, like the northern water snake, are harmless to humans.

    The northern water snake, or Nerodia sepidon, is one of the most common snakes in the eastern United States. Their habitat ranges from Maine to Georgia, and from the Great Plains to the East Coast.

    The northern water snake is a non-venomous snake found across Appalachia. Photo © John White / Virginia Herpetological Society

    The northern water snake is a non-venomous snake found across Appalachia. Photo © John White / Virginia Herpetological Society

    According to Michael Salotti, president of the Virginia Herpetological Society, northern water snakes never stray more than two or three hundred yards from water. This means that they can be frequently spotted at recreational water sources like swimming holes or waterfalls.

    Throughout the warmer months, this non-venomous snake will bask on rocks or hang on branches near the water. “I often notice them hanging in tree branches about six feet above the water’s surface,” Salotti says.

    The northern water snake emerges from hibernation between March and April. They mate in late April and give birth between August and September. The average female can give birth to around 20 live snakes at a time. The snake is most active in summer, just as people are flocking to water to cool off.

    Unfortunately, people sometimes kill these harmless snakes after mistaking them for a more dangerous species, such as a copperhead or water moccasin. Water moccasins are not found in the cooler, higher elevations of Appalachia. But copperheads, like northern water snakes, swim and can be found near water across the region. So, if a snake is not easily identifiable as a non-venomous water snake, it is best to beware.

    Northern water snakes can grow up to three feet long, and females are larger than males. The snakes have darker skin that ranges from brown to grey. According to Salotti, northern water snakes are more easily misidentified as they grow older, their patterns fade, and their skin becomes darker.

    Although this snake sometimes falls victim to death by mistaken identity, Salotti says the overall population is healthy. Despite loss of habitat due to human population growth, it is not an endangered or threatened species. Northern water snakes are also protected throughout Georgia, where it is illegal to kill or keep non-venomous snakes.

    Northern water snakes are relatively harmless creatures. Salotti says that if confronted by a human or larger animal on land, this snake will “try to flee into the water” to make an escape.

    But if a northern water snake feels threatened or backed into a corner, it just might defend itself. Water snakes have strong bites, which can leave deep cuts. They can also release a powerful-smelling musk from their tail, or eject fecal matter in self defense.

    According to the Virginia Herpetological Society, northern water snakes can also mimic venomous rattlesnakes by vibrating their tail to ward off predators.

    If encountered with a northern water snake, Salotti advises simply leaving the snake alone, as confrontation is unlikely. However, in the event of a snakebite, wash the wound with soap and water and apply antiseptic.

    Like other species of snakes, the northern water snake plays an important role in natural areas. The snake, which eats primarily amphibians and fish, acts as a major predator in forests and rivers and maintains balance in the food chain.

    “Everything plays a role” in ecosystems, says Salotti. “You remove one of the predators, and it has a trickle-down effect.”

    Venomous Or Non-Venomous

    The southern and central Appalachian region is home to more non-venomous snakes than venomous ones. The two important exceptions are the copperhead and timber rattlesnake.

    Typically, non-venomous snakes have rounded heads. But many harmless species can flatten their heads into a triangular shape to imitate a venomous snake. Most venomous snakes have slot-like pupils, unlike species like the northern water snake, which has rounded pupils.

    An easier way to identify a snake is by looking at its pattern. Northern water snakes have a bulb-shaped pattern that widens in the center, whereas the venomous copperhead has an hourglass-like pattern. Michael Salotti says that becoming familiar with the patterns of different species native to a specific area is the most reliable way to identify a snake.

    snake patterns

    The harmless northern water snake (left) and venomous copperhead (right) are often confused, but their patterns are distinct. Photos © John White / Virginia Herpetological Society

    A Magical Mycology Tapestry

    Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

    Mushrooms weave a network of ecology, medicine, food, and farming

    By Eliza Laubach

    Encountering a mushroom in the forest provides a glimpse to a web that is largely unseen, underground. The mushroom is a fruiting body that emerges from a network of branching mycelium, a cellular structure interwoven in soil. This mass thrives by connecting to other organisms, especially the roots of trees and plants.

    Alan Muskat admires a cluster of Laetiporus sulphureus, mango-colored mushrooms also known as chicken of the woods. Muskat has turned his love of foraging into a small business in Asheville, N.C.  Photo courtesy of No Taste Like Home

    Alan Muskat admires a cluster of Laetiporus sulphureus, mango-colored mushrooms also known as chicken of the woods. Muskat has turned his love of foraging into a small business in Asheville, N.C. Photo courtesy of No Taste Like Home

    The Appalachian mountains boast a wide diversity of fungi, the collective term for mushroom and mycelium. Fungi reach their highest diversity in the southern part of the mountain range, according to the Highlander Biological Center, and scientists estimate that only 2,300 of as many as 20,000 species have been identified there.

    Often, a mushroom patch represents a single organism. The subterranean net of mycelium can be large and long-lived, and “the mushrooms are just ephemeral, passing creatures,” says Dr. John Walker, a mycology professor at Appalachian State University. Walker studies fungi and their ecological relationship to roots.

    Nearly 90 percent of plants form a special relationship to fungi in natural areas. One type of fungi, called mycorrhizae, attach to plant roots, providing food and water to the plants and receiving sugars in return. This symbiosis connects an ecosystem’s extensive root and mycelium networks, and it can actually affect plant ecology in a habitat, such as a rhododendron thicket.

    A study Walker conducted found that native rhododendrons interact with a specific species of mycorrhizae, and this can suppress tree seedlings, thereby giving the rhododendron an advantage to flourish. The shrubs decrease light and develop a pervasive root mat, strong factors that, combined with human-caused ecological changes, have led to rhododendron thickets increasing in amount throughout southern Appalachia.

    Foraging for mushrooms can be dangerous since many varieties are poisonous. So, be sure to learn from an expert before collecting mushrooms yourself. Photo by James M. Davidson

    Foraging for mushrooms can be dangerous since many varieties are poisonous. So, be sure to learn from an expert before collecting mushrooms yourself. Photo by James M. Davidson

    These mountains encompass microclimates ranging from the second-highest amount of rainfall in the country to the least amount of rainfall east of the Mississippi. Given the steep elevation changes, various ecosystems are found in mountain hollers that host multitudes of fungi and soil types from creek to ridge, explains Chris Parker, owner of Asheville Fungi, a company that cultivates, sells and educates about all things mycology.

    Mushroom medicine

    After years of paying attention, Parker now recognizes how patterns of certain plants in an area to easily find and identify mushrooms in the wild. He was trained to see these patterns early on by Cherokee elders on his father’s side. When Parker learned that his great-grandmother died from a hip injury she sustained while mushroom hunting, he started asking questions.

    He learned that the Cherokee used mushrooms not just for food, but also medicine. But within what Parker calls a “present fragmented healthcare system,” he fears many healing ways are being lost.

    Scientific research backs what snippets he has uncovered, however, and reinforces folklore around the peculiar, white-fringed lion’s mane mushroom.

    Honey mushrooms form as parasites on hardwood trees. Their underground mycelia can be long-lived and immense. Photo courtesy of No Taste Like Home

    Honey mushrooms form as parasites on hardwood trees. Their underground mycelia can be long-lived and immense. Photo courtesy of No Taste Like Home

    Something as simple as a name can hold great knowledge. For instance, the Eastern Cherokee word for lion’s mane mushroom is wahuhi, a general reference to the owl — a cross-cultural totem for wisdom. Lion’s mane mushrooms have been extensively studied for their positive effects on brain health, according to an article published in 2013 in the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine.

    Foraging for mushrooms can be dangerous since many varieties are poisonous. So, be sure to learn from an expert before collecting mushrooms yourself. Photo by James M. Davidson

    Foraging for mushrooms can be dangerous since many varieties are poisonous. So, be sure to learn from an expert before collecting mushrooms yourself. Photo by James M. Davidson

    Since high school, Parker has devoted his life to mushrooms. He propagates medicinal and edible mushroom mycelium to spread healing through his community in Western North Carolina. He built a cultivation lab from scratch and earns his living teaching workshops about at-home cultivation and selling various products to help people grow their own mushrooms. He also sells foraged and cultivated mushrooms at local farmers markets.

    One of his most sought-after offerings is Ganoderma tsugae, a reishi mushroom native to Appalachia that specifically grows on the Eastern hemlock tree as it is dying. Throughout Appalachia, an invasive pest, the wooly adelgid, is attacking the great hemlocks, and Ganoderma tsugae is abundant. An Asian species of reishi has been revered for centuries in China, and both species are excellent at reducing inflammation and balance the immune system, says Parker. In his experience, the hemlock reishi works better for women.

    “What a gift that all these hemlocks are dying, and they provide a gift of female energy to the bioregion,” says Parker. He is inspired by fungi’s basic nature: decomposition, relaying healing power of transformation and rebirth, and embodying change by thriving on ecological edges, such as a riverbank, a log or the border of a forest.

    Embodying change within and without

    The potential that mushrooms have to bring change to Appalachia is a huge opportunity, says Brad Cochran, agent at the West Virginia State University Extension office. Cochran has spent the past five years educating interested farmers and landowners about mushroom farming. He also conducts research on how to successfully weave the practice into the local food movement.

    Chanterelle: bright orange, small, fan-like edible mushroom with apricot smell, found in late summer on dying trees. Photo by Strobilomyces via Wikimedia Commons

    Chanterelle: bright orange, small, fan-like edible mushroom with apricot smell, found in late summer on dying trees. Photo by Strobilomyces via Wikimedia Commons

    He experiments with innovative ways to grow mushrooms on logs, such as in high tunnel greenhouses and even underground — one project is located inside an abandoned underground coal mine.

    Morel: a fine edible mushroom with a coral-like cap. Found in early spring in recently burned areas, on/around dying trees. Photo by Gzirk via Wikimedia Commons

    Morel: a fine edible mushroom with a coral-like cap. Found in early spring in recently burned areas, on/around dying trees. Photo by Gzirk via Wikimedia Commons

    “We’re not afraid to think outside the box and find some potential for local foods and West Virginia’s economy,” says Cochran. He has taught at least 200 people about small-scale mushroom farming, with special interest from former tobacco farmers and those who are looking to cultivate a non-timber forest product.

    “It’s a very hands-off form of growing that is very profit heavy,” says Cochran. “People are really jumping into it.” While the economic benefits are slow to arrive, as it takes a few seasons for the fungi to establish a strong mycelium for full fruiting production, many mushroom farmers he has taught are approaching that mark.

    Oyster: an edible mushroom that tastes like its maritime namesake, found nearly year-round on hardwood trees. Photo by Daniel Neal via Wikimedia Commons

    Oyster: an edible mushroom that tastes like its maritime namesake, found nearly year-round on hardwood trees.
    Photo by Daniel Neal via Wikimedia Commons

    Cities provide a substantial market for edible mushrooms at restaurants and farmers markets, but in rural Appalachia, the economy is often not strong enough to support demand for higher-priced fungal delicacies. Some farmers try to increase their impact on an individual scale, says Cochran, like West Virginia mushroom farmer Susan Maslowski, who has a recipe section in her local paper.

    Others, like Billy Webb of Sheltowee Farm in eastern Kentucky, rely on the consistent market at high-end restaurants in cities. Webb started mushroom farming in 2001, and by 2006 had the largest natural shiitake log operation in the United States. Drastic droughts in 2007 and 2008 forced Webb to move his production indoors, which also allows him to cultivate year-round, but he still struggles with his farm’s resilience.

    Maiitake: an edible mushroom with medicinal properties. Found on roots of dying/dead oaks in late summer to late fall. Photo by Pethan via Dutch Wikipedia

    Maiitake: an edible mushroom with medicinal properties. Found on roots of dying/dead oaks in late summer to late fall.
    Photo by Pethan via Dutch Wikipedia

    The barriers Webb has faced have given him a cynical yet practical outlook on the economic potential mushroom farming holds. “If you’re in a poverty level area, people eat on a budget,” says Webb. A lack of demand at local markets has led him to sell direct to restaurants in Lexington, Ky., Louisville, Ky., and Cincinnati, Ohio.

    Webb sees the future of mushroom forest farming in Appalachia as being reliant on regional distribution hubs, with transportation and storage infrastructure being necessary for highly perishable mushrooms. “We want a project that will bring money back into this impoverished area,” he says.

    Filtering Water with Fungus

    In the town of Mars Hill, N.C., hydrologist Tim Ormond helped design a pilot project that used fungi to break down toxins in stormwater and agricultural runoff. Known as mycoremediation, the project is a type of bioremediation, a practice that uses microorganisms or plants to help filter pollutants from municipal and agricultural runoff. This project attempted to use the mycelium network to break down and sequester toxins. The results were inconsistent, and Ormand suggests that future mycoremediation project designers could redesign the system to more holistically mimic the way the natural environment would use mycelium to filter water.

    The West Virginia State University Extension office is conducting such a project, now in its second year. Four eight-foot box trailers modified into massive refrigerators will be placed regionally and then travel to local farms to pick up fresh produce, and then back to a regional hub for distribution.

    Also, diversification of both crops and enterprise will bring success to those who farm mushrooms, says Webb. “There are many aspects in the culture that will have to change: people willing to produce it, a market for it, distribution hubs,” says Webb. “It’s not going to happen overnight.”

    Alan Muskat, a wild forager and mycology devotee, sees mushrooms as being a gateway into deeper ecological awareness, helping the unlearned explorer see the forest as more than just a “green wall” of plants. He leads groups foraging in the forests in and around Asheville, N.C., and then brings the adventure to local restaurants, where experienced chefs craft his finds into delightful wild cuisine. The contentment Muskat feels when he is foraging for wild food has inspired his entrepreneurial business, No Taste Like Home.

    “Getting into mushrooms was all about free food — the treasure hunt,” says Muskat. “The mythical garden of Eden is very real for me.”

    Muskat works with the state to set standards for selling wild foraged mushrooms to restaurants, as the legality of the practice is currently murky at best. Along with mushrooms’ strong economic hook, he is also passionate about working with mycelium as part of fostering climate resilience skills, namely food security and conservation. He teaches youth about wild foraging and is excited about more people looking toward farming mushrooms to make income from large tracts of land without deforesting it.

    “We think we’re separate, but we’re not. We’re just like mushrooms, all connected to Earth,” says Muskat.

    Meet The Elusive American Woodcock

    Tuesday, April 12th, 2016 - posted by molly

    Dance of the Timberdoodle

    The American woodcock lives across eastern North America. It can be recognized by its long beak and distinctive call, but its camouflaged coloring makes it hard to find. Photo by Rodney Campbell

    The American woodcock lives across eastern North America. It can be recognized by its long beak and distinctive call, but its camouflaged coloring makes it hard to find. Photo by Rodney Campbell

    By Charlotte Wray

    Characterized by a long bill, short and stout stature, extravagant mating display and a nickname like timberdoodle, the American Woodcock would seem to be a bird that stands out. But that is not the case.

    Well-camouflaged and motionless until up close, the American woodcock is actually very hard to find. Capturing the birds for research requires a good eye for potential woodcock habitat, as they rest in dense forest during the day to avoid predation and roost, feed and perform courtship displays in open fields at night, says Joe Moore, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas. Moore works with wildlife agencies and other organizations to track the birds and learn more about their migration habits.

    American Woodcock Facts

    • They are short-legged, plump shorebirds, 10 to 12 inches long and 5 inches tall, with a broad wingspan of about 20 inches.
    • A long and flexible bill ranging from 2.5 to 2.75 inches allows them to capture creatures deep in the soil.
    • The mating ritual, called a “sky dance,” involves the male performing chirps, or peents, which transitions into a marvelous flying display where the males use their wings to create various repetitive twittering noises in their attempts to attract a mate. Watch the sky dance.
    • Nicknames for the woodcock include timberdoodle, night partridge, big-eye, bogsucker and mudbat.
    • The American woodcock is a popular game bird.
    • The woodcock’s signature sounds and dance moves have made it a bit of a YouTube sensation. Watch the woodcock rock out to Collective Soul, strut to Michael Jackson, and boogie to “Tequila” by The Champs.

    “You can walk within a foot of a woodcock and they’re not going to move,” says Jesse Pope, executive director of Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation in Avery County, N.C. “They’re just sitting there, really still, that’s their mechanism of survival. They’ll let a predator get within really close proximity before they fly.”

    Woodcocks are found throughout the year across eastern North America. The summer range of woodcock includes the northern Appalachians and the wintering range includes the southern Appalachians. States in central Appalachia are in the transition zone, providing habitat for breeding, wintering and migrating woodcock.

    Pope has spotted the woodcock occasionally throughout the winter in western North Carolina. In Appalachia, hens begin nesting in March, and lay eggs that hatch several weeks later, according to Pope.

    This region also provides a stopover habitat for the species, which is a place for birds to rest and “refuel” during long migrations, according to Moore.

    Many migration details are unknown due to the difficulty of locating individual birds multiple times throughout the annual cycle, but recent advancements in satellite transmitters now allow remote tracking of woodcock and allow researchers such as Moore to follow movements of individual birds and begin to unravel some of the mysteries of the migratory patterns of this cryptic bird.

    American woodcocks require two very specific habitats. During the day, woodcocks raise their young, avoid predators and find an abundance of earthworms to eat in thickets with wet grounds. In the evening, woodcocks move to open clearcuts, farmland or pastures.

    “It’s kind of interesting that a lot of the conservation for woodcocks involves clear-cutting, which is normally not what you think of when you think conservation project,” Moore says.

    Range-wide population surveys since the 1960s have shown that the American woodcock population is gradually declining at a rate of about 1 percent every year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

    This decline over several decades is primarily due to the overall loss of forested area due to urbanization in eastern North America and the conversion of early successional forests to mature forests, according to Moore.

    These open areas — known as singing grounds — are required to provide ample space for male woodcock mating displays.

    These mating rituals, which take place at either dusk or dawn in winter or early spring, begin with a repetitive buzzing call by the male woodcock, called a peent. The male bird then hovers and flies in a circle 100 to 300 feet above the ground. Following its descent, the woodcock continues its mating song. Each of these processes lasts about four or five minutes, but can be repeated for over half an hour.

    The woodcock may sing and dance in the fields, but the forests that they depend on for food are one of the most endangered habitat types in the Southern Appalachians, according to Pope.

    “They’re one of those species that are tied to a really fragile and rare habitat,” Pope says.

    Cougar: Ghost of Appalachia

    Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

    By Lorelei Goff

    North American Cougar:  Photo by Baranov E / Shutterstock

    North American Cougar:
    Photo by Baranov E / Shutterstock

    A phantom haunts Appalachia. Blurry trail camera pictures and occasional eerie screams in the forest keep the debate about the Eastern cougar’s existence alive among scientists and lay people, even after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the elusive ghost cat extinct in 2011.

    The Eastern cougar, Puma concolor cougar — also known as ghost cat, catamount, puma, painter, panther and mountain lion — once roamed Eastern North America from Canada to Florida. All but the Florida Panthers were wiped out by the early 1900s. Hunting by European settlers, loss of habitat and a decline in the white-tailed deer population — the cougar’s favorite meal — all played a part in its demise.

    Myths surround these tawny predatory cats, which can grow up to 8 feet long and weigh in at 200 pounds. One is the notion that they are man killers. The truth is, a fatal accident with a white-tailed deer is many times more likely than a fatal cougar attack, according to The Journal of Wildlife Management.

    “The chance of a cougar encounter is incredibly rare, much less, a fatal attack, even where there are established cougar populations,” says Joy Sweaney, a wildlife biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

    Cougar sightings east of the Mississippi River often turn out to be misidentifications of other wild animals or house pets, wandering western cougars, or captive cats that have escaped or been released. Ironically, whether or not the Eastern cougar ever existed as a separate subspecies is now a subject of scientific debate. The question of a distinct genetic profile, or even whether the cat is extinct or not, does not impact their protected status, however; hunting or trading any native species is still illegal unless a state management policy says otherwise.

    Cougar Facts

    • These unspotted, light brown to tawny cats range from 5 to 8 feet long and weigh 100 to 200 pounds, with a tail one third the length of its body.
    • It’s impossible to visually distinguish an Eastern cougar from any other subspecies of cougar.
    • Female cougars bear one to six kittens after a three-month gestation. The cougar lives approximately 12 years in the wild.
    • The cougar’s vocalizations include screams, hisses, whistles and growls.
    • Cougars can leap 15 feet.
    • Established breeding populations of the North American cougar remain in western North America and South America.

    Wildlife agencies in southern and central Appalachia receive a number of reported cougar sightings every year, which often turn out to be misidentifications or deliberate hoaxes. There have been some confirmed sightings, however, including a widely publicized 2014 report from a farm in Bourbon, Ky. After the farmer’s neighbor called the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, an officer from the agency shot the cat, believing it posed a threat to the public.

    Mark Marraccini, information officer at Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, doesn’t believe the Bourbon cougar arrived in the state on its own. According to Marraccini, the cat was too well fed to be wild and probably escaped or was released by its owner. DNA tests were withheld while a criminal investigation for illegal trade was underway, fueling a long-standing theory that state agencies have covered up evidence of cougars in the region. Doug Markum with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency says the conspiracy theory is really just a matter of miscommunication.

    “When somebody asked us about cougars, we didn’t say, ‘They’re not here,’” Markum says. “We said, ‘There’s never been good evidence that cougars are here.’ And then they misconstrue that to say, ‘The agency said there are no cougars here.”

    DNA testing later revealed that the Bourbon cougar traced its genetic origin to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

    Recent sightings have been confirmed in Obion, Humphreys and Carroll counties in western Tennessee. DNA tests from a fur sample show that the Carroll County cougar is a female, also with genetic origins traced to the Black Hills in South Dakota and Wyoming. Biologists believe it is possible that all three sightings are the same cat migrating further east.

    Photo by Emmanuel Keller

    Photo by Emmanuel Keller

    Does the recent increase in sightings mean that a breeding population of cougars may one day inhabit Appalachia? Many folks hope so, including Tennessee State Park Ranger Tim Pharis.

    “The way I look at it, if there are any resident cougars, they’re probably the ones that are wise enough to stay away from people,” Pharis says. “If there aren’t, this ecological niche is open. If they’re in West Tennessee, they’ll probably eventually be here, too. It’s just a matter of time.”

    Sumac: A Winter Spice

    Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns
    Staghorn sumac is identifiable by the bristly hairs covering its drupes and branches. Photo by Gregorio Perez

    Staghorn sumac is identifiable by the bristly hairs covering its drupes and branches. Photo by Gregorio Perez

    By Chris Robey

    Keep an eye to the roadside on your winter travels and you’ll likely glimpse a flash of red among the muted woods and snowy fields. The distinctive “spikes” of sumac berries are a common sight in winter, persisting long after other trees and shrubs have fallen bare.

    Tipping the sumac’s branches like red candle flames, the berries, called drupes, ripen in autumn and gradually turn dark red as winter sets in. When forage becomes scarce, these berries are an important food source for winter wildlife, including fox squirrels, cottontail rabbits, white­tailed deer and more than 300 species of birds.

    Their attractiveness also plays a key reproductive role: animal digestion helps the seeds germinate, while free­roaming wildlife help disperse the seeds through their scat.

    Given the right conditions — namely dry, well­-drained soils — sumac thrives easily, and is often among the first plants to re-­inhabit disturbed areas like roadsides, burns and mine sites. Sumac’s preference for poor, disturbed soils, as well as its habit of dropping root suckers wherever it dies, lends to its reputation as a pesky invasive species.

    Tangles of sumac, above, color the winter landscape with a splash of red. Photo by Chumlee10.

    Tangles of sumac, above, color the winter landscape with a splash of red. Photo by Chumlee10.

    A Dash of Sumac

    Until the Romans introduced lemons to Europe, sumac was used as a spice for thousands of years to impart foods with a lemony tang as well as a lovely burst of color.

    According to the cooking blog The Kitchn, sumac remains a key ingredient in many Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese dishes. The ground-up drupes can be used for rubs, marinades and dressings as well as for seasoning grilled meats and vegetables. Read more and pick up a few easy recipes with sumac at

    And that’s not the only reason sumac gets a bad rap. “Most people, when they hear the word ‘sumac,’ think poison sumac,” says Becky Linger, associate professor of medical chemistry at the University of Charleston and certified West Virginia naturalist, who is currently writing a book on edible and medicinal plants in Appalachia. Both poisonous and nonpoisonous sumac types are classified within the same family of plants, Anacardiaceae, along with poison ivy, cashews, pistachios and mangoes. That sumac is related to the cashew, whose husk is as toxic as its nut is nourishing, speaks further to people’s ambivalence toward this curious plant.

    While deserving of its toxic reputation for the painful rash it causes, poison sumac is relatively uncommon in the mountains. Distinguished by its pallid white drupes, it tends to prefer swampy lowland soils. “People have contact dermatitis against a lot of things,” says Linger, and just as people may mistakenly blame goldenrod for hay fever, sumac often takes the heat for other skin allergies. Besides poison sumac, there are four nontoxic species: staghorn, smooth, fragrant and shining or winged. Smooth and fragrant sumac are by far the most wide-ranging, found throughout the eastern United States. Shining, or winged, sumac is also fairly common. Classified as shrubs or small trees, their heights range according to type: Staghorn sumac plants are the tallest, reaching up to 35 feet while fragrant sumacs are the shortest at 2 to 7 feet.

    "Christmas Day Cardinal," Over 300 types of songbird, including this female Cardinal, depend on sumac drupes for winter forage. Photo by Trevor Jones;

    “Christmas Day Cardinal,” Over 300 types of songbird, including this female Cardinal, depend on sumac drupes for winter forage. Photo by Trevor Jones;

    Linger says another variety, staghorn sumac, is nearly ubiquitous in West Virginia and further north. It is distinguished by its delicately curved panicles as well as the fine, stiff hairs that cover its drupes and branches and resemble buck velvet. This particular variety is well-known for its use in making qualla, a tart, antioxidant-­rich drink made by steeping the drupes in cold water.

    First brought to North America by European colonists, who in turn acquired the plant from the Middle East, where it originated, sumac has a long history of use as a spice. The concentrated juice of the drupes also makes a good marinade, imparting meats with a lemony tartness. American Indians utilized sumac for a host of medicinal uses, depending on the variety. Teas made from the drupes or leaves of fragrant sumac were used to treat bronchitis, while the bark of winged sumac was used as a nursing aid for mothers. Leaves from the winged sumac, rich in tannins, were also used for treating toothaches, diarrhea, dysentery and other stomach ailments. These tannins are also useful in making dyes and tanning leather; in the Middle East tanners used a solution made with dried sumac leaves to achieve a soft, pliable leather and then dyed it a deep Moroccan red.

    The uses of sumac are as varied as its long, multicultural history. So when those bright red panicles next catch your eye, take a moment to pause and consider the richness bundled within.


    From the Archives

    Another plant that may catch your eye this winter is witch hazel. It’s scraggly yellow blooms stand out brilliantly against bare forests. Once farmers used its branches for making divining rods they believed would lead them to fresh water. Today, its extract is common in many skincare products.
    [ Read the original story from 2002, “The Spooky, Erie Nature of Witch Hazel” ]

    The Coyote Conundrum

    Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by interns

    By Laura Marion and Elizabeth E. Payne

    A coyote hunting in the Tennessee Valley. Photo by Matt Knoth

    A coyote hunting in the Tennessee Valley. Photo by Matt Knoth

    Once found in the United States only in the western plains, coyotes are increasingly at home in the cities and suburbs of central Appalachia.

    After European settlers hunted coyotes and other predators extensively — including wolves, cougars and bobcats — only the coyote population grew, writes Sharon Levy for Nature. With little competition, coyotes expanded east, reaching the Appalachian region several decades ago.

    Michael Fies, of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says that coyotes were first spotted in the mountains of southwestern Virginia in the late 1970s and have since spread throughout the state. This pattern has repeated across the region.

    Male coyotes are generally larger than females, weighing 18 to 44 pounds compared with females that weigh on average three pounds less. Adult coyotes are between three and four and a half feet in length. “Coyotes are now in every county of the nation, except maybe Hawaii,” the Fairfax County, Va., Park Authority reports.

    Fies estimates that the Virginia coyote population numbers at least 50,000. “Populations grew quickly when they first arrived,” he says, “and now they’ve kind of stabilized,” particularly in the western part of the state.

    Coyotes are predators that can inflict costly losses when livestock becomes prey. But according to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, coyotes also help control the population of animals such as white-tailed deer, mice and rats.

    Coyotes are very adaptable and “thrive very well in the presence of humans,” says Fries. “We are getting increased reports of coyotes in urban areas. So, although there’s not as many of them as there are in the rural areas, I would say that we can expect an increase in urban coyote issues in the future, for sure,” he says.

    Scientists from Ohio State University studying urban coyotes in the Chicago area have found that male and female pairs mate for life and only seek new partners if their mate dies. According to an article in National Geographic, this behavior gives the urban coyote a competitive advantage, since it allows the female to produce larger litters which the male then helps to raise and protect. This study also found that urban settings tend to make coyotes more nocturnal, since they choose to hunt when fewer humans are outdoors.

    According to the Humane Society of the United States, however, encountering a coyote during the daytime does not indicate that the animal sick. While it is true that coyotes have a greater risk of contracting rabies in areas with a large population of unvaccinated domestic dogs, being active during the daytime is not an indication that they have contracted this disease.

    The Wiley Coyote
    › Coyotes can run up to 40 mph and are also good swimmers
    › The main predator of coyotes in central Appalachia is humans
    › Coyotes will eat almost anything, but their main diet consists of fawns, rodents, rabbits, berries, fruits and carrion
    › The size of coyote packs depends on the availability of resources
    › Gestation lasts approximately 62 days, after which the female coyotes give birth to 4-6 pups

    A Virginia Tech study of coyotes completed earlier this year documented another adaptive behavior: when a population’s mortality rate is high, the females respond with a higher reproduction rate.

    “Sixty-three percent of the coyotes we collared were killed within the first year of being captured,” Dana Morin, a graduate research assistant on the Virginia Tech study told Allegheny Mountain Radio. “But the population density isn’t decreasing. And that’s because mortality doesn’t really have an effect on population density, because their reproduction increases in response to increased mortality.”

    Coyotes in North Carolina are having a negative impact on the endangered red wolf population, according to the National Wildlife Federation. When unable to find a mate, red wolves will breed with coyotes, and this interbreeding is one of the greatest threats to this fragile wolf population. Red wolves can also be easily mistaken for coyotes by hunters, and since 2013 at least 11 red wolves — or 10 percent of the entire wild population — have been shot.

    In response, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission approved temporary rules in January that would limit coyote hunting in the counties where the red wolf is being rehabilitated.

    Coyotes are naturally afraid of humans and generally avoid them, and attacks on humans are rare. When attacks do occur, however, they often involve coyotes that have been fed by humans or humans who were trying to save their outdoor pets from an attack, according to the Humane Society.

    It would seem that coyotes are here to stay. Let’s all take precautions so that humans, pets and coyotes can coexist peacefully.