Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cranberry Glades

Just getting back in the swing of things after romping all over Appalachia for the past ten days, with a visit to Lake Erie for International Migratory Bird Day yesterday. Internet access has been spotty, which was no problem as I didn't really have time to be posting/e-mailing/blogging anyway. A break from the "net" is a really nice thing, anyway. It's amazing how reliant many of us have become on techno-geekery.

Following a fantastic time at the 2nd annual (we hope) Flora-Quest, I dashed straight off to what has become perhaps my favorite locale in eastern North America, the New River Gorge and vicinity of West Virginia. There, I participated in the New River Gorge Birding Festival. This event is possibly the best of its type that I've been to, and I highly recommend it. Mark your calendars for next year - April 26th is the starting date, and it runs through May 2nd. Do the whole thing, or just part, you won't be sorry.

I had one free morning, and took full advantage to run up to a magical place known as Cranberry Glades, high in the mountains of the Monongahela National Forest. This is one of the field trip sites for the festival, and a coveted assignment for the guides that lead trips. Never having been there, I was filled with anticipation at exploring this area.

Cranberry Glades is legendary botanically, as it harbors disjunct boreal flora rarely seen this far south. At one time, when our climate was much colder, tundra-like plant communities ranged much farther south along the high crests of the Appalachians. As the climate gradually warmed, more temperate forest communities steadily advanced up the mountain slopes, eventually overtaking the northern boreal flora. The Glades is one of few remnant bog-like habitats remaining.

One instantly notices a conifer quite unusual this far south. Red Spruce, Picea rubens, dominates and creates a taiga-like habitat that harbors many outstanding breeding bird species. Canada, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Blackburnian, Nashville, Mourning, and Magnolia warblers, Northern Waterthrush, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Purple Finch, Hermit Thrush and others are all easily found. Red Crossbills also nest in the area. And plenty of others. The Glades is a birding paradise.

The open meadows at Cranberry Glades Botanical Area, as it is known. A half-mile boardwalk traverses this most interesting of Appalachian habitats. My first spin around, it took me two hours to make the loop. The scenery up here is breathtaking. Cold and moist the morning of my visit, wispy fumaroles of mist curled from the distant mountain slopes. Like smoky spectors, these plumes would come and go; diverted momentarily by a bird or plant, I would glance back and the whole landscape would have changed appearance. Black Bears are often seen foraging in these meadows.
Here's the namesake of the place. I was surprised to see that the dominant cranberry is Small Cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccos, not the commercially cultivated Large Cranberry, Vaccinium macrocarpon, although I did find a bit of the latter here and there. This elfin vinelet blankets acres, and produces these tiny, familiar berries. Not as succulent as its large counterpart, the bears nonetheless gorge themselves, I'm sure.

As I traipsed about seeking flora and fauna, I was delighted to encounter a patch of Bog-rosemary, Andromeda glaucophylla, in full bloom. This woody shrublet stands but a foot or so tall, and typically occurs much further to the north.

The swampy woodlands are a riot of interesting plants and birds. North meets south; dominant trees include Red Spruce, Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, Yellow Birch, Betula allegheniensis, while the understory is snarled with tangles of Great Rhododendron, Rhododendron maximum. One need not look hard to find Fraser Magnolia, Magnolia fraseri, and Cucumber Magnolia, M. acuminata. Shown above are the massive leaves of False Hellebore, Veratrum viride, looking as if made of corrugated plastic. This whopper will grow to several feet tall, eventually. On the right is a tussock created by a Cinnamon Fern, Osmunda cinnamomea, an obvious fern of these woodlands.

A real crowd-pleaser were flowering Painted Trillium, Trillium undulatum, perhaps the showiest trillium in North America.

I look forward to a return visit to Cranberry Glades, and hope that you can come, too. If you want an interesting experience, I'd encourage checking out the New River Gorge Birding Festival.

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