Sunday, October 13, 2013

Weymouth - Woods of Wonder

An excursion to Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve always comes with a few surprises (like our recent encounter with a cottonmouth), but it never disappoints. 
Saturday morning was no exception.  
A state park ranger met us at the entrance to inquire as to the purpose of our visit. 
Apparently the trails would be busier than usual due to a meet up of very committed runners hosted by the Southern Pines Ultra Running Club who'd be knocking out 10, 25 and 50K runs throughout the course of the day. Upon learning that we were not here to run, she kindly directed us to a parking area reserved for hikers, and gave us some guidance regarding the lesser traveled trails.

Before we even departed the parking lot, we were star-struck by a profusion of purplish-pink blossoms. 
In the recently burned and wide-open understory, legions of Carphephorus bellidifolius, or sandy-woods chaffheadboldly illuminated the bed of brick-red needles beneath a canopy of impressive long leaf pines. Members of the aster family, but lacking the petal-like ray flowers, chaffhead boasts an enticing cluster of rose-pink trumpets with star-shaped rims that pollinators find virtually irresistible.

In the wet bottom dividing one sandy ridge from the next, a stand of mature yellow poplars were beginning to sport their fall colors, and a large and untidy "nest" of leaves and branches hinted at the presence of eastern fox squirrels, a native species which has become increasingly vulnerable in North Carolina due to habitat loss and degradation. Weymouth's woods are a perfect refuge for Sciurius niger, offering a healthy mix of long leaf pines with an abundance of the sizable seed-filled cones they favor, as well as poplars and other bottomland hardwoods with plenty of hollows and high branches suitable for nesting and safe haven from predators. 

Purple was by far the dominant garb among the flora we encountered, as we glimpsed several smaller species of purple aster than those we met last week in addition to the ubiquitous chaffhead. This lovely had the look of flaxleaf aster, but we'll leave it at aster until we can get a definitive ID from the experts. And although morning temps were in the low sixties fahrenheit, a few intrepid pollinators were making their rounds in advance of even colder temps to come...

More signs of fox squirrel. Eight inch long leaf pine cones completely bereft of their scales and seeds litter the trail as we proceed, igniting hopes of an encounter with the elusive eater itself.

Chaffhead was almost as abundant as the long leaf pines, providing ample opportunities for the camera and our curious eyes. Here's a better look at the classic tubular aster disk flowers, looking quite star-like with their five-pointed openings.

Wait, was that a falling pine cone scale? Look there, high in the tree, could it be? 
Fox Squirrel!
Another wonder from Weymouth's woods.

More of the sandy-woods chaffhead...

Just as a few pollinators were busily battling the chill, pollinator predators were still on the prowl. Or, in the case of this funnel web spider, still lurking motionless in the mouth of its lair, betrayed to our roving eyes by droplets of last night's drizzle.

More purple, or lavender, or lilac asters, perhaps flaxleaf. 

Liatris, or blazing star. Again unsure of species, but yet another aster. It, like chaffhead, lacks the ray flowers.

Seemingly every twist and turn in the trail brings glimpses of purple-colored members of Family Asteraceae, and neither we nor the camera are complaining.

Liatris sp., up close and personal. Twenty or so North American species, common names include blazing star or gayfeather. 

Looking skyward, we see the gnarled crown of a venerable old long leaf, twisted and bent in its youth by an ice storm or hurricane, perhaps; undaunted, it rules this sandy ridge line with hunch-backed grandeur, a broad-shouldered titan among giants.

This relative youngster met a different fate, its lifeless trunk finally yielding to the periodic fires which eliminate the competing hardwoods from this pure stand of fire-resistant pines and maintain the increasingly rare and unique "pine barrens" ecosystem which once dominated the Sandhills and much of the Carolina coastal plains.

As our eyes return to the forest floor, we spy a young long leaf pine, barely out of the grass stage, overtaking the dead and burned trunk of a young oak which succumbed to the most recent fire.

Another purple aster peers forth from its sandy roots among the green blades of wiregrass and the reds, browns and golds of the fallen long leaf needles.

And just next door, this little golden aster gives purple a brief respite as it gleams in the needle-strewn sand.

These little brown mushrooms find life in the midst of death and decay, as the humble, rotting, woodpecker-riddled flesh of a former forest giant nourishes new life with its corpse.

And still more purple flowers, wet with the life-giving rain.

Lovely autumn color creeping in; look, but leaves of three, let it be. Please don't pick this poison for your autumn leaf collection!

And yet another variety of purple aster, this time smaller still, and in lovely clusters of palest lilac.

Wandering with eyes too intently focused on the flora of the forest floor can lead to unpleasant surprises, and the Weymouth woods are not free of hazards such as these...

Crisis averted, thanks to the slightest hint of a silken thread brushing the forehead just before contact... then eyes back on the ground just in time for the Indian pipes, relative of the rhodedendron and blueberry, but totally lacking chlorophyll. Like its more colorful cousins, however, it is still attractive to nectar lovers such as this hover fly. 

Weymouth has blessed us with many wonders today, and as we prepare to part, she gives us a glimpse of another, a sap-covered nest tree of the red-cockaded woodpecker, a federally listed endangered species. Whether this tree is an active nest site or not, it's good to know that these rare birds are still active in the area.

Another orb weaver scurries past, just overhead, and we head back to the parking area, weary but wonder-filled, armed with questions aplenty about the day's encounters.

Another clump of Indian pipes, just yards from the car...

and one last glance at the chaffhead before parting. Another wonder-full morning at Weymouth,

just about enough to last until we meet again.

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