It seemed like the perfect WABC overnight trip:  Escape the heat and humidity of DC for a weekend in the West Virginia mountains looking for northern and montane species at Spruce Knob (highest summit in WV) and Canaan Valley NWR.  Four of us had plans to go; one was joining us from his home in WV on Saturday morning, one was staying in Franklin near Spruce Knob, and Tom Stock and I overnighted in separate hotels in Harrisonburg VA Friday night and planned to drive up to rendezvous with the others at 10 am Saturday morning.

I planned to do some lepping en route to Harrisonburg but was bumped off schedule when I hit a tire tread that flew off a semi on the Interstate, wiping out the rubber heat shield on my Prius.  I limped into a combo mechanic/bait shop/deli in rural Virginia, where the resident mechanic was fishing but was summoned to return by a cell phone call.  I waited out his drive back at the local Burger King, where I summoned the willpower to resist the new “Bacon Sundae.”  I learned the local name for the tire tread phenomenon is “running over an alligator,” and once Johnny had returned from the lake I was back on the road in short order minus the rest of the heat shield.

Met up with Tom in Harrisonburg and we cruised around a very hot early evening looking for a good restaurant.  Stumbled onto a likely looking spot — LOCAL Grille and Chop House — that nearly scared us away with the pricey menu for the white tablecloth service in the main dining room.  But the very nice greeters at the hostess stand convinced us to stay and order from the bar menu, a perfect solution and a super restaurant (can’t say enough about the duck fat fries and microbrews, but I can’t wax too poetic about the beer or be accused of plagiarizing Bob Pyle in Mariposa Road).

Leaving the restaurant, the same helpful greeters warned us to be careful outside — there was a storm brewing with a lot of lightning.  Indeed — and 70 mph winds, torrential rain, and of course the same lightning that would wreak havoc in the DC area a few hours later.  Dodging flying trash cans, falling limbs, and emergency vehicles as we sped back to our hotels, we considered ourselves safe and secure until the power went out for hours.  Can’t complain too much, even as the temperatures rose to lobster-bake levels in our hotel rooms with windows that wouldn’t open — power was back up in a couple hours.

Next morning’s drive to Spruce Knob was quite an adventure:  We moved some limbs to continue up the mountain, even though it was clear that the major trees that had fallen in the night (and there were many) had already been attended to by Forest Service crews.  We arrived only a few minutes late to find Walt Gould already at the summit (in actually he’d arrived the day before and scoped it out extensively, and had come out early because his motel in Franklin was still without power, as it seemed was the case with most of West Virginia). Our fourth prospective attendee was swamped with chain saw work to clear his yard and couldn’t make the drive down.

The first leps we saw were the first of two target species:  pink-edged sulphur, phosphorescent greenish yellow with pink edging, multitudes of them, a hundred or more at Spruce Knob Lake (our first stop) and at the summit.  Only a few orange sulphurs competed for sulphur space.  We dipped on the (introduced to the area) common ringlets, as Harry Pavulaan thought we might, being between broods — although Walt had two tattered specimens the day before.

Other excellent finds around the lake and the summit included large numbers of Aphrodite and Atlantis fritillaries, flying in roughly equal numbers and frequenting milkweed, daisies, black-eyed-susan, and clovers.  European skippers were abundant (the true meaning of abundant only became clear the next day at Canaan Valley for this species), a few long dash skippers, and two black dashes.

Also flying were tiger swallowtails, some easily referred to appalachiensis and some very typical Eastern tigers.  We also puzzled over some azures that seemed to be hanging out near the cherry trees around the summit, but as cherry gall azure is reported to be single brooded and earlier in the season, eventually settled on azure spp for these critters.

We headed separate ways from Walt at midafternoon:  He was headed back to his home in Laurel (and, sadly, power outages there) after spending the two previous days already in the field farther south in Virginia.  Tom and I headed up to Canaan Valley, where we had rooms Saturday night at the Canaan Valley State Park Resort and Lodge.  Slow going because of the road debris, but we still made good enough time to look around a bit (it was quite windy so not much was flying), take a shower, and explore a couple of trails to hit in the morning.  Then we headed into Davis WV for dinner at the highly regarded Hellbender Burrito cafe.

We arrived in Davis about 7:30 and found long lines at all the local watering holes, plus signs in most of them that said they would be closing by 8 pm that night so the town could empty out to go to the fireworks display in nearby Thomas WV.  Not wanting to be too rushed, we drove back toward the resort to take advantage of dinner at the lodge, checking out a couple of places along the way.  We finally decided on the colorfully named Big Al’s Grubberia instead of the lodge, and made it back for a decent night’s sleep.

Tom and I hit the trail for birds early the next morning (alder flycatcher was the best find of the day) but the butterflies were out early.  European skippers were EVERYWHERE, as were Peck’s, duns and long dashes.  Only Aphrodite was flying in the NWR, and the sulphurs were all orange and clouded.  We took a break for breakfast, and came back to find the fields along the Beall South Loop (with abundant dogbane and milkweed) alive with common wood nymphs as well.  The milkweed umbels were only just beginning to open, and they were in great demand by all the skippers, as was the lespedeza and clover.  Words just cannot express the numbers:  in the one dogbane patch alone, we estimated at least 15,000 European skippers and thousands of Peck’s and long dashes. Meadow fritillaries and a solo great spangled rounded out the frit contingent.

The south loop trail took us back along the river, where we happened into a few Appalachian browns and good numbers of northern pearly eyes.

Clouds began piling up and the wind was rising by 2 pm, so we decided to call it a day and head our separate ways back to the DC area — Tom straight back, and me by way of Blackwater Falls.  Little did I realize that Canaan Valley was a little oasis of power in WV:  The most common sign I encountered as I looked for food and diet Mountain Dew until I hit Romney WV was “Closed.”

Lists for the weekend (courtesy of Tom):

6/30/12: Spruce Knob Lake
Orange Sulphur (3)
Pink-edged Sulphur (14)
Cloudless Sulphur (1)
Summer Azure (1)
Aphrodite Fritillary (6)
Atlantis Fritillary (8)
Meadow Fritillary (2)
Question Mark (1)
Gray Comma (2)
Mourning Cloak (1)
Red Admiral (3)
Red-spotted Purple (1)
Common Wood Nymph (1)
European Skipper (common)
Peck’s Skipper (common)
Cross Line Skipper (3)
Long Dash (6)
Little Glassywing (2)
Black Dash (2)
Dun Skipper (6)
6/30/12: Spruce Knob
Pipevine Swallowtail (1)
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (1)
Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail (2)
Cabbage White (3)
Orange Sulphur (7)
Pink-edged Sulphur (common)
Eastern Tailed Blue (1)
Appalachian Azure (2)
Great Spangled Fritillary (2)
Aphrodite Fritillary (11)
Atlantis Fritillary (6)
Silvery Checkerspot (1)
Eastern Comma (1) fresh road kill
American Lady (3)
Painted Lady (2)
Red Admiral (4)
Red-spotted Purple (1)
Common Wood Nymph (2)
Monarch (2)
Silver-spotted Skipper (1)
European Skipper (common)
Peck’s Skipper (1)
7/1/12: Canaan Valley NWR
Pipevine Swallowtail (1)
Black Swallowtail (3)
Clouded Sulphur (common)
Orange Sulphur (common)
Great Spangled Fritillary (1)
Aphrodite Fritillary (common)
Meadow Fritillary (17)
Mourning Cloak (1)
Red Admiral (3)
Common Buckeye (2)
Red-spotted Purple (1)
Northern Pearly Eye (24)
Appalachian Brown (2)
Common Wood Nymph (common)
Monarch (7)
European Skipper (abundant)
Peck’s Skipper (common)
Cross Line Skipper (2)
Long Dash (common)
Northern Broken-Dash (4)
Dun Skipper (common)
Total species: 39