RMNA Survey Notes: Preliminary Walk-Through Day 1

A day in the field is always preceded by a
long period of excited anticipation and obsessive preparation. What could be
more enthralling than diving into the unknown with the goal of discovering
something? For me and the countless others that are enthralled by discovery,
this great delving into the unknown is what drives us. It’s a compass. It’s
grounding. It’s how we plug in, consciously, to the great soup of elements that
spun off a mammal known as Homo sapiens.
It was with this great anticipation that
Rachel and I headed into the forests of Ragged Mountain Natural Area to prepare
for survey by approximating ecosystem variety and sizes. Our primary objective
was to identify all unique ecosystems and find locations within those to place
sample plots.
RMNA wraps around an extensive reservoir and therefor the survey area is
belt shaped. This belt is just wide enough to prevent a viewer from clearly
seeing across it. In order to be certain we could make visual contact with all
portions of the survey area, we assumed a method that would takes us near the
property perimeter when hiking out, and near the interior water’s edge on the
hike back. 
On our first day in the field we covered the entire east
side of RMNA (except for some remote areas on Round Top Mountain). Here are a
few of the day’s highlights.

  • Chestnut Oak-Mountain Laurel Heath. We encountered
    our first example of this plant community type at RMNA. always on northwest
    facing slopes (at RMNA), the heath is a beautifully simple habitat containing
    species specially adapted to the dry, acidic, low nutrient and full shade
    setting. These include chestnut oak, mountain laurel, deerberry, hillside
    blueberry and striped wintergreen.  
  • Enormous Trees: The east property lines provide
    refuge for exceptional specimens of trees, including giant short-leaf pines and
    towering chestnut, white and red oaks. These trees inspired the creation of our
    Amazing Trees of RMNA youth program. 
  • Old Woods: Approximately halfway to the northern
    tip of RMNA the forest changes in its stature. The trees get bigger, and canopy
    diversity increases. Some sections have many dozens of trees that approach 4
    feet in diameter (at chest height). The forest containing this old stature does
    have a strong tuliptree component in the canopy, likely due to either thinning
    or American chestnut decline.
  • White Pine-Oak Heath: A forest type more typical
    of northern landscapes, we find this one haunting dry microclimate settings on
    north-to-west facing slopes. Two small patches of this ecosystem type were
    noted, one of which contains a specimen that is more than 3 feet in diameter.
    Growing with the white pine are species such as mountain laurel, black oak,
    chestnut oak, black gum, Christmas fern and slender woodland sedge. 
  • Pine-Oak
    In a
    southwest facing cove we encountered a bit of an anomaly in the base-rich
    oak-hickory forest that blankets. Sharing the canopy with large oaks are
    large-diameter short-leaf pines. This species is known to germinate early in a
    forest’s successional develop and survive well into forest maturity due to its
    shade-tolerant nature and ability to reach the upper canopy. As a general rule
    of thumb, a shortleaf pine embedded in an old woods is likely the oldest tree
    in that woods. With a cluster of them, we have the potential for a unique
    ecosystem with its own unique assemblage of plants and animals. 
  • Rich Ravine: Having explored a rich ravine and
    north-facing slope earlier in the season, we knew in advance we would want to
    place a sample plot there. Only a small portion of the larger ravine is on RMNA
    property, but in that corner are at least 8 species of fern. In the gully just
    to the east is an enormous colony of log fern (a rare plant in the Piedmont).
    It is critical that we sample the base-rich ravine forests of RMNA, as they
    contribute significantly to the overall biological richness.

By the end of the day we had located 7 preliminary sample
plots. Exhausted, we packed it in and headed for home to have a look at
photographs, maps and notes. The next preliminary walk-through will take us to
the south side of RMNA, an area seemingly dominated by north facing basic mesic forests. -D.Floyd