Stauffer’s Marsh Nature Preserve (Potomac Valley Audubon Society)

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Entrance sign (above) and trail map (below)

Entrance sign (above) and trail map (below)

Stauffer’s Marsh is a 45.7 acre nature preserve just south of Shanghai, WV along Back Creek Valley Road.  The site is especially popular for birdwatching, as approximately 150 species have been spotted there to date.

A view from the West Pond Trail

A view from the West Pond Trail

The hiking opportunity consists of approximately 1.3 miles of short, linked trail that begin at the roadside parking area.  The Marsh Trail and Marsh Overlook Trail offer an opportunity to view the large pond.  From there, the Connector Trail leads to the Back Creek Trail, which runs from the creek back to the parking area.  Finally, the West Pond Trail is an out-and-back trip that leads to further views of the marsh from a roadside vantage point.

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Interesting reading.  There are several signs and a kiosk at the marsh

Interesting reading. There are several signs and a kiosk at the marsh

Fishing, for the most part, is not allowed in the marsh, although locals with prior permission are still able to wet a line.  Nevertheless, there is enough diversity in avian and aquatic wildlife to make for an interesting hike.

On the Marsh Trail

On the Marsh Trail

The Potomac Valley Audubon Society has four local preserves (also including Yankauer, Cool Spring, and Eidolon), so there are ample opportunities to check out the eastern panhandle’s flora and fauna.  The brochures and interpretive signs at each site add greatly to the learning experience and make for a really nice family experience.  I would highly recommend a trip to any of  these PVAS operated tracts.

From the Marsh Overlook Trail

From the Marsh Overlook Trail

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.