First off let me say I am not a biologist, ecologist, scientist by training but these ﬁelds and what they investigate are of immense interest to me. Coming from a background in art I have spent the better part of my life observing and recording what I see & experience. There are not to many times this has not served me well. A couple weeks ago there was a bio blitz at Turkey Creek Nature Preserve. For those not familiar it is an intense look into the life forms and the environment of a particular area. This can be expanded on but the best way to understand how it works is to be involved with one and I will do my best to relate my experiences and thoughts on it.
To start dress appropriately, sturdy shoes, wet weather gear since it is a rain or shine event and salamanders enjoy that sort of thing. Layers are a good bet since its Alabama weather so you can bet it will change. Finally something to record what you see, pen and paper or in this case species lists and pencils.
We met near the entrance gate to the preserve and the weather was wet and chilly so we made sure to get in the drainage swale and turn over rocks and piles of leaf litter. What? you say. why yes because thats precisely where we ﬁnd Mr Slimy salamander. That and about half a dozen craneﬂy larvae. Let me start with Slimy or Plethodon mississippi Slimy Salamander (Plethodon mississippi)
as the name suggest this fellow can excrete a slime like substance, despite this it is a handsome black with white spots and can reach 4- 7 inches in length. Just try to get him steady on a measuring tape though. We would ﬁnd many more his/her kin throughout the day.
Crane Fly larvae (Tipulidae sp.)
The craneﬂy larvae was rather strange, imagine a small almond sized sack much like a bellows or accordion texture with a star shaped mouth that just wriggles around in the muck. To me it looks like it is food for other swifter predators ie Slimy! That’s another story. Interestingly there is an orchid by the name Craneﬂy orchid whose root looks somewhat similar to the larvae I just described.
That was how it started and as usual the further we wandered into the preserve the more we got ‘distracted’ by this or that. For me its plants. I was called ‘the plant guy’ and though I have no formal training to ID plants I enjoy trying to ﬁgure them out. The biodiversity of this 460 odd acres is impressive. If we think about the terrain for a
minute we have ﬂoodplain or riparian zone adjacent to the creek, which is right next to montane and rock outcrop habitats that blend into Longleaf pine and mixed hardwood forests.
Searching the rocks at Blue Hole
Each of these has its north and south facing slopes morning or afternoon sun exposures adding the fact it has been protected from development (thankfully) it can be a refugia of sorts for many types of plants. A great example of this is the Blue hole area where many folks swim and ﬁsh. Across the street we found Mountain Laurel, Prickly pear and Styrax americanus in full bloom!
American Snowbell Tree (Styrax americanus)
Fire Pink (Silene virginica)
The Firepinks or Silene virginica were also in bloom. Blue clusters of Houstonia and hairyleaved Hieracium gronovii carpeted the mossy slopes beneath the beech and pine trees, which literally look like they are falling slowly down the hill.
Queendevil (Hieracium gronovii)
Around the bend we follow our a trail up the slope past Paw Paw -Asimina triloba, Witch hazel Hammamelis virginiana and Heuchera americana or Alumroot. I am trying to look, hike and write all at the same time which, as impossible as it sounds, can be done but one ends up with a face full of branches if one is not swift enough. As we break into the sunlight atop the hill a sweet patch of sandstone greets us, great loaves of lichen covered rock turned sideways or on end depending on your perspective to catch the sandy gritty soils and natural debris. “Perfect timber rattler habitat.” Andy Gannon says with a grin. “Oh ok. Cool.” I say, but I am really focusing even more on the plants. Virginia pine hangs on the edges with many bluestem grasses, cat brier or
Smilax, beautyberry, and.. wait! Is that what i think it is!
There is always one of those moments at a bio blitz, for me it was with a plant I ﬁrst encountered several years ago in that same location. I could not identify it then and the picture I had was not detailed enough to get any of my plant geek friends interested.But this time I was in better company and had the beneﬁt of taking some great courses at the Botanical gardens in Birmingham through Certiﬁcate in Native Plant Studies. I highly recommend these for the amateur or professional the subjects range from botany, taxonomy, propagation and many more. Anyway I digress. So, with more information and conﬁdence and a better way to address my subject, I was able to inspect the plant closely and see that It had the same white ﬂowers I remembered but was not a phlox as I had ﬁrst guessed. The ﬂower parts were external and with many phlox blooms the parts are inside the ﬂoral tube. Also the shape of the petals was not like a phlox. The leaves were ﬂeshier and about 2 inches long and narrow with a slight widening at the tip, I remembered seeing the ﬁrepink near bluehole and thought this cannot be coincidental. Comparative analysis helped me narrow it down but my gut was telling me Silene but which one? We will have to ﬁnd out later.
It is such an honor to be able to interact with the world in this way not as a taker but more as an observer. We do our best to put things back as wen ﬁnd them while keeping some of the more interesting critters out for show and tell. A small scorpion
Cave Scorpion (Amblypygi sp.)
was plucked from its damp mossy cave as was a snake or two! The Midland water snake or Nerodia sipedon is an impressive specimen its musk is impressive as well..they can reach 50 inches or more and are mistaken for cottonmouth or copperheads.
Midland water snake (Nerodia sipedon)
Handling wild animals should be done by qualiﬁed persons or certiﬁable persons. But seriously, approach with caution and respect.
Once back at base camp, another biologist Scott Duncan, was able to verify that I had seen a silene as there were other populations found in the water shed. When I met with a native plant expert named Jan Midgley I found it was Silene caroliniana. It inhabits dry or well drained sites, rock outcrops, does not get very tall and ranges from white to pink in its ﬂower habit.
Oh wait there’s more under the pile of old rooﬁng. A king snake who also is rather musky, was waiting for sunnier days, these snakes will eat poisonous snakes so if you like that idea let these guys live under your wood pile a while.
The interesting thing here is not everything we come across is clearly identiﬁable right away in my own notes I recorded over 150 plants ( many I had seen prior to this event and are a separate list) Each person will gravitate to different things and some have areas of expertise and so on so that will inﬂuence what is recorded. Its encouraging to know there are still some discoveries to make even when its just off the side of a road
near a place called Turkey Creek. I will be back to explore some more later this year and I was glad to participate in the event.
Mystery Moth (unknown)
Arnold Rutkis is Stoneshovel designing naturalistic, edible, earth and stone landscapes.His website is http://www.stoneshovel.com or his blog at stoneshovel.wordpress.com you can see some of his work near the falls at Turkey Creek Preserve in the Eco scape there.