Saw Whet Owl (South Mountain, Maryland)

Holding these beautiful birds is best left to the professionals.  In this case, Steve Huy.

Holding these beautiful birds is best left to the professionals. In this case, Steve Huy.

Today, I was lucky enough to attend a saw whet owl banding in South Mountain State Park, hosted by the Potomac Valley Audubon Society (PVAS).  The banding season lasts a few weeks, from about Halloween-thru-Thanksgiving, and the process provides valuable information regarding the migratory patterns of the birds.

The saw whet is one of the smallest owls in North America.  Adults are roughly 8-9″ high with a wingspan of 17-22″, which isn’t much bigger than a robin or a blue jay.  On average, the female saw whet is slightly larger than the male, and they make up roughly 90 percent of the birds netted.

On South Mountain, a male call was blasted, and the lone female saw whet was caught in a mist net.  The mist net is so-named because it is visible to the human eye in a slight breeze and looks like a light wisp of fog.  We stayed with the group for around three hours, and a little after midnight she was caught and banded.  Afterwards, she was re-acclimated to the dark and shortly thereafter released back into the wild.  Seeing this saw whet owl was a great experience, and I will definitely be checking the PVAS website for further birding opportunities.

Wingspan runs from 17-22"

Wingspan runs from 17-22″

Cranesville Swamp (The Nature Conservancy)

A rustic sign heading into the small parking area at the Cranesville Swamp

A rustic sign heading into the small parking area at the Cranesville Swamp

I first saw the Cranesville Swamp on a map many years ago, and I’ve often thought about stopping for a visit.  Recently, by chance, I discovered that it’s only about 12 miles from the Hazelton exit on I-68.  I pass through that area pretty often, so it seemed like my destiny to finally see the swamp.  Unfortunately, I got sidetracked both heading in and leaving, but the good people of Garrett County, Maryland helped me first find the swamp and later the interstate.

Some information and a map of the trails!  Fortunately, it's almost impossible to get lost in the nature preserve

Some information and a map of the trails! Fortunately, it’s almost impossible to get lost in the nature preserve

Cranesville Swamp is owned and maintained  by The Nature Conservancy, and the site has grown to nearly 2000 acres in size.  The swamp lies between two hills (at roughly 2500′ above sea level), creating a “frost pocket,” and the captured moisture creates a habitat similar to what one would find in Canada.  There are more than fifty unique plants and animals that live on the preserve, and, surprisingly, these include sundews and cranberries.

Through the trees on the blue trail

Through the trees on the blue trail

The blue and orange trails form an outer loop for hikers, and the yellow and white trails cut across the center of the loop.  With a little bit of imagination, all of the trails can be walked with a minimal amount of repetition, and the entire course can be traversed in a little over two miles.  The elevation gain is pretty insignificant, but “swamp” generally means mud, so wearing hiking boots is definitely a good idea.

Crossing the swamp on the boardwalk was definitely the highlight of the hike

Crossing the swamp on the boardwalk was definitely the highlight of the hike

Another view of the swamp, including some standing water

Another view of the swamp, including some standing water

The highlight of the hike is a short loop across the actual swamp on a boardwalk.  Here, and throughout the rest of the preserve, are numbered posts that correspond to a downloadable audio tour that can be found on the Cranesville Swamp/Nature Conservancy website.  Taking the e-tour is something to be considered beforehand because cell phone service isn’t very good in the area.

In spite of my many failures as a would-be botanist, I did recognize ground pine!

In spite of my many failures as a would-be botanist, I did recognize ground pine!

The insects that live in the preserve are cataloged after being trapped in this device.  The only way out is to fall into a bottle (top left of the trap), and after being collected, scientists identify the insects through their DNA

The insects that live in the preserve are cataloged after being trapped in this device. The only way out is to fall into a bottle (top left of the trap), and after being collected, scientists identify the insects through their DNA

A naturalist of any stature could spend hours (or much longer!) in the Cranesville Swamp, but I went about my business in a little over an hour.  I’m not the world’s most-skilled woodsman, so the only things I identified were a couple of deer and squirrels and a small patch of ground pine.  Nevertheless, this was a great side trip for a traveler heading from Morgantown to Martinsburg.  I would like to come back better prepared to appreciate this wonderful little preserve.  It’s definitely worth another look!

Orange trail sign.

Orange trail sign.

I had the whole place to myself!

I had the whole place to myself!

Buck Hollow/Buck Ridge Loop (Shenandoah National Park)

Starting down the Buck Hollow Trail

Starting down the Buck Hollow Trail

As terrain goes, this hike is very similar to so many others that begin on Skyline Drive.  A few walks do follow the ridgeline, but it seems like most go straight down a mountain, only to head back up at the end of the day.  So it went today!  The Buck Hollow Trail dropped toward the valley below with a vengeance, following a stream along the way.  As the stream grew larger, so did the fact that we had a really big climb ahead of us.

Following a small stream down the mountain

Following a small stream down the mountain

I do enjoy hiking in the mountains, so the terrain wasn’t all that disappointing.  The problem was that the main purpose of the hike was to find Indian pipe–a ghostly white plant that is reputed to grow in the area.  We struck out on the way down, and as we hung a right and started up the Buck Ridge Trail, I began to lose hope of seeing the elusive plant.

Taking the steps up the Buck Ridge Trail--sorry no escalator

Taking the steps up the Buck Ridge Trail–sorry no escalator

More steps

More steps

Buck Ridge begins its ascent moderately, but quite suddenly, a flight of literally hundreds of rustic steps appears, and the sight is pretty intimidating.  Perhaps I haven’t been “around” as much as some of my fellow hikers, but I have to say that this is one of the steepest stretched that I have encountered to date.  Nevertheless, I’m going to give the engineers behind the step project kudos. These well-placed logs take a considerable amount of sting out of the climb.

Indian pipe!

Beyond the steps, my usual sense of botanical failure took a turn for the better, as we spotted the first of two clusters of Indian pipe.  The white plant stood about 8″ high, and it was surprisingly unspectacular at first.  I have since blown up the picture and seen a sort of odd beauty in the plant.  It’s kind of hard to explain, but the initial sighting of the Indian pipe provided a spark that made the last couple of miles of climbing much easier.  Then again, adrenaline doesn’t really require much of an explanation.

Hiking over rocks on the Buck Ridge Trail

Hiking over rocks on the Buck Ridge Trail

And a few more rocks on the Buck Ridge Trail!

And a few more rocks on the Buck Ridge Trail

On the way back to the park’s northern entrance, we were fortunate to catch brief glimpses of two bears, and this helped to make for a great day in the woods.  The final stats for this hike (starting at mile 33.5 on Skyline Drive) were 5.8 miles with a cumulative elevation gain of 1645′.  There was a significant amount of blueberries (mostly unripened) along the Buck Ridge Trail, so at some later date, a lucky hiker has a good chance of seeing a bear or two,  That’s about as good as it gets!

A closer look at the Indian pipe.  While not in the mushroom family, this plant is parasitic, hence it lacks the usual green (chlorophyll) of other plants

A closer look at the Indian pipe. While not in the mushroom family, this plant is parasitic, hence it lacks the usual green (chlorophyll) of other plants

Wildcat Mountain Natural Area (Marshall, Va.)

Getting ready for a surprisingly tough climb to the top of the ridge

Getting ready for a surprisingly tough climb to the top of the ridge

I do enjoy hiking!  I suppose it’s pretty obvious, but I do have mixed feelings about hiking on holiday weekends,  The crowds in some of our usual places leave me scrambling for possibilities in lesser-known areas, and the Wildcat Mountain Natural Area sounded like a good place to take a walk in the woods on this busy Sunday.

Seeing this jack-in-the-pulpit was almost enough to make the long drive worthwhile all by itself.  By the end of the day, I was glad I didn't spend yet another holiday weekend catching up on the laundry!

Seeing this jack-in-the-pulpit was almost enough to make the long drive worthwhile all by itself. By the end of the day, I was glad I didn’t spend yet another holiday weekend catching up on the laundry!

This relatively unknown spot at the end of England Mountain Road has a 2.9 mile, yellow-blazed lariat trail that starts off with a bang–a steep half-mile trek to a rolling (roughly) two-mile loop at the top of the ridge.  On the way up, we heard a loud thrashing in the woods, and knowing that bears have been seen in the area gave us high hopes of seeing one.  Such was not the case, but the 667′ of total elevation gain gave us a good cardiovascular workout.

I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree--or will I?

I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree–or will I?

At the top, we opted to head in a counter-clockwise direction, following an old stone wall before bearing to the left.  Along the way, the highlights were a small pond, a spring house, and a couple of really small stream crossings.  The hike, of course, ended by traveling down the same hill we climbed in the beginning.

A well-constructed stone wall near the beginning of the upper loop

A well-constructed stone wall near the beginning of the upper loop

In all, a nice map is available at the kiosk, and there are several interpretive signs along the trail that help in identifying many of the trees.  Thus, this hike is a great learning experience for would-be woodsmen.  We traveled a long way for such a short hike, but it was a worthwhile trip to a very nice place.  It’s just too bad we didn’t spot the large animal making all of the noise: that is always worth a few bonus points!

This pond is about two-thirds of the way into the walk.  In the summer, I imagine that it's much smaller.

This pond is about two-thirds of the way into the walk. In the summer, I imagine that it’s much smaller.

Beecher Ridge/Haskiell Hollow Loop, Shenandoah National Park

Haskiell Hollow Trail.  This is actually toward the end of the hike.

Haskiell Hollow Trail. This is actually toward the end of the hike.

The Haskiell Hollow hike is a fine example of what Shenandoah National Park holds beyond Skyline Drive.  The downhill portion takes in an overlapping part of the Overall Run Falls loop, so there will be other hikers.  However, taking the Haskiell Hollow Trail back to the top makes for three of the more secluded miles in the northern section of SNP.  The author of a trail book that I’ve been reading brought up the fact that waterfalls and overlooks aren’t part of the journey, but the odds of seeing a bear or two looked pretty good.

On the Matthews Arm Trail

On the Matthews Arm Trail

The hike begins in the lot near the Matthews Arm Campground, and the route follows Traces Nature Trail before turning left onto the Matthews Arm Trail.  For the next .8 miles, an unusual array of wildflowers lined the wide path.  There was a large number of jack-in-the-pulpits, but we arrived too early to see them in bloom.  That was probably the most disappointing part of an otherwise great walk in the woods.

A clearing near the Matthews Arm Trail

A clearing near the Matthews Arm Trail

At the 1.4 mile mark, we took a left onto the Beecher Ridge Trail and entered familiar territory for the next 2.3 miles.  At about the same time last year, we turned right and headed back toward Thompson Hollow at the junction of today’s 3.7 mile mark.  However, on this occasion we took a sharp left and continued on the Beecher Ridge Trail.  Before reaching the Haskiell Hollow trail, we had two significant stream crossings:  the first on East Fork and the second n Moody Creek.  After several days of rain, the water ran knee deep at East Fork, but the “buried” rocks were broken and slime-free, which made for an easy crossing.

This jack-in-the-pulpit wasn

This jack-in-the-pulpit wasn’t quite ready to be photographed.

After meeting the Haskiell Hollow Trail and starting uphill, there was a third crossing of the day–once again on Moody Creek.  From here, the trail is a wide track that heads steadily uphill without switchbacks. Nevertheless, the 1780′ of elevation gain is spread out evenly over three miles, and I don’t recall breathing hard at any point along the way.

Near the end of Haskiell Hollow, we met up with a female turkey that slowly ambled up the trail ahead of us, obviously trying to lead us away from her nest.  I also caught a two second view of a bobcat crossing the trail about fifty feet out.  It was only the second bobcat that I’ve seen in the wild, so it definitely elevated my overall impression of the hike.

East Fork left us wet up to our knees!

East Fork left us wet up to our knees!

At the end of the Haskiell Hollow Trail, yet another left turn starts the final leg of on a service road, and the starting point is about a half-mile away.  At 7.6 miles with a 1789′ elevation gain, this loop is rated as strenuous, but all of the difficulty was evenly distributed, and the overall result was a great hike with numerous opportunities to view wildlife.  It just goes to show that waterfalls and overlooks aren’t essential for a great day in the park.

Moody Creek crossing on the Haskiell Hollow Trail

Moody Creek crossing on the Haskiell Hollow Trail