Trillium grandiflorum (White Trillium) along the Kendall Trail in Garrett Co MD . West Vriginia Whites flying among these ghostly white flowers are a real treat to watch [2016 March 23, photo by REB]
Saturday did not dawn very auspiciously, but I had already planned to visit Frostburg for a literature reading in the morning and decided to spend the rest of the day exploring areas of Garrett Co. I had not yet visited. The plan was to spend the night in Grantsville and spend Sunday (forecast to be much warmer and sunnier) driving down to Lostland Run along the Potomac to the only reliable colony of West Virginia Whites I knew about. Along the way I had planned to set up an anglewing trap, or Malaise trap, along Big Run in Savage River State Forest to see if I could entice some Gray Commas.
But life sometimes intervenes. As it happens I’d been reading about some other trails along the Youghiogheny River where sandstone outcrops abut the river and offer shelter for Green Salamanders, an endangered species that lives in these sandstone fractures, so I packed along a small headlamp to look back deep into these cracks. The spot I picked to look for these superbly camouflaged salamanders was along a trail upstream of Friendsville, known as the Kendall Trail after the abandoned village of Kendall a couple of miles upriver. Until one reaches that area, it’s a nice, flat old logging road that parallels the Yough, wet and muddy in places but still eminently easy to traverse.
I arrived in Friendsville around 1 pm after a stop at the Garrett Co Visitor Center in McHenry for maps and directions. Within a half hour or so, the clouds began to break up and the afternoon turned out to be spectacularly sunny and not too hot.
Trillium erectum, Red Trillium, was much outnumbered by large white trilliums [2016 April 23, photo by REB]
Wildflowers were abundant: lousewort, several kinds of toothwort, squirrel corn, bluets, red and white trilliiums, hepaticas, and many more. One of the few othere hikers had ramps and morels. And importantly – for reasons we’ll see in a moment – none of the invasive garlic mustard that has become such an invasive nuisance in woods and forests across the state.
There were plenty of duskywings along the trail as I walked, all Juvenal’s when I was able to get a look at the leading edge of the HW for the telltale two pale spots. But the real treat came about a mile up the trail when I noticed a pale white butterfly basking on the side of tree in the floodplain of the river. I crept closer to ascertain it was in fact a West Virginia White, one of 11 I would see along this trail with a multitude of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails on Saturday afternoon. Kendall Trail is a much more accommodating path for those looking for West Virginia White than Lostland Run Trail, that’s for darn sure. I also used the time to collect a number of interesting mosses for later study, and will be working on keying out the 30 or so species I collected for weeks to come.
First West VIrginia White, Pieris virginiensis, basking on a tree along the Yough [2016 Apr 23, photo by REB]
A West Virginia White showing the extensive grayish scales of fresh individuals that give them thier “ghostly” appearance flying in western MD, and help them with thermoregulation [2016 Apr 23, photo by REB]
I waited for dark, listening to Mountain Chorus Frogs and Spring Peppers, to check out some of the sandstone outcrops for wandering Green Salamanders, to no avail. But I stopped for BBQ at Archies in McHenry anyhow to celebrate finding a new location for West Virginia Whites.
I slept in a little on Sunday morning, then headed down to Savage River Forest by way of Big Run Road looking for a likely by hidden spot to hang the Malaise trap. But I didn’t get very far before running into Beth Johnson, fresh from a Maryland Biodiversity Project field trip to Green Ridge State Forest the day before. We looked over some of the duskywings along Big Run (all Juvenal’s at that juncture), commented on the high numbers of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, and discussed how West Virginia Whites had once been rather common along Big Run before garlic mustard had been introduced to the area – garlic mustard, you see, is chemically more attractive to female whites even than the species’ normal toothwort host plants, but it’s toxic to the caterpillars and they die. This phenomenon is know to biologists as an “oviposition sink” and has driven the West Virginia White to extirpation throughout almost all of its historic range from Frederick West. Along Kendall Trail, garlic mustard is practically absent; there is garlic mustard along Big Run but not that much of it.
After kibitzing with Beth for a while, I continued my search for a spot for the trap. But I also stopped in at every unoccupied campsite along Big Run Road to check for Gray Commas that come to imbibe whether liquid refreshments campers might have dribbled behind. And sure enough, Site 135 had what I first took to be a pristine and cooperative Gray Comma in a puddle party of dozens of Juvenal’s Duskywings. Size was right, a decent amount of striation on the underside, and certainly Big Run is the go-to place for Gray Comma in MD.
Shortly after posting the first version of this blog report, though, Rick Cavasin gently suggested this was just an unusually marked Eastern Comma. And sure enough, had I been less carried away by the rich and heady spring in the hemlocks, I would have noticed that this beast, though strangely marked for an Eastern, still has the diagnostic character that I always look for to distinguish them: Eastern Comma “commas” always (or almost always) are hooked , or at least clubbed, on both ends of the silver mark. On Gray, the silver streak is pretty thin, and on the underside — while it can be variable — the striations are typically more apparent and oriented almost horizontally. There are other characteristics, which Rick does a great job of illustrating on his web site
Eastern Comma masquerading as a Gray Comma at campsite 135 along Big Run in Savage River Forest [2016 Apr 26]
Upperside of Eastern Comma along Big Run Road in Garrett Co. [2016 Apr 23, photo by REB]
After photodocumenting the presumed Gray – and thereby eliminating the need to set up the anglewing trap, which might actually have netted me a Gray Comma had I bothered — I stopped at one area just on the inside of Big Run State Park, and while I dismissed the location for a trap I did see a number of azures (several of which I pinched and have waiting for me to ID – I’m guessing Northern Azure since flowering dogwood, necessary for Spring Azure, is absent in the spruce and hemlock forest there. I saw a dark morph female tiger swallowtail, azures and many, many duskywings, all Juvenal’s still as far as I could tell from the ones I looked over. [Azure update: All C. ladon, Spring Azure, which had I paid attention to Harry’s notes I would have remembered also use Wild Cherry as a host in the western mountains]
At this point a pale grayish white butterfly sailed by slowly; I gave chase but it sallied out of reach quickly into the underbrush. Of course after telling Beth it had been more than a decade since confirmed sightings of West Virginia White here, I was predisposed to think it was a Cabbage White, which I didn’t have the energy to chase even though all the signs were great for West Virginia.
Needless to say, in another nearby part of the park, Beth found and photographed a mating pair of West Virginia Whites, so we can confidently say they have returned or persisted along Big Run. It’s always great to be able to write about an expanded opportunity to see an iconic butterfly, and even better to re-add West Virginia Whites to the Big Run butterfly list!
Now I just have to return to Big Run for Gray Comma! Currently that’s planned for the weekend of May 7-8, our next LepTrek.