Highroad Guide to the Virginia Mountains
By Deane and Garvey Winegar
Most of the fertile limestone soil and relatively flat terrain of the Shenandoah Valley has been plowed by farmers or used by industry over the years. However, an occasional isolated pond, sinkhole, wet or dry prairie, or marsh escapes disturbance. Perhaps a patch of private land is too difficult or boggy to farm or a railroad track separates a sinkhole from the industry that owns the property.
[Fig. 31(4)] A plant employee with a side interest in botany takes a lunch break and steps across the railroad track into another world. He or she begins to find plants rare but native to Virginiaqueen-of-the-prairie, rattlesnake master, buckbean, four-flowered loosestrife.
Just such a scenario occurred in Augusta County, resulting in the establishment of The Nature Conservancy's first preserve in the Shenandoah Valley. The wetland, now called the South River Preserve, is a 14-acre natural area bordering the Alcoa Building Products manufacturing plant at Stuarts Draft.
This spring-fed wet prairie was typical Shenandoah Valley habitat before European settlers arrived, but it is now one of the last such wetlands remaining in Virginia. In the Shenandoah Valley before 1800, woods bison and elk roamed grassy prairies in the Shenandoah Valley similar to those of the Midwest.
Settlers and Indians armed with rifles killed off the large grazers, however. With the coming of agriculture and the suppression of both man-made and natural wildfires that renewed the prairies, the former grasslands became largely a topic for evening porch conversation among old people. In fact, a former owner ditched this Stuarts Draft wetland in an attempt to farm it, but a persistent underground spring stymied the effort.
The rich variety of native plants and associated habitat attracts woodcocks, red-winged blackbirds, mallards, Canada geese, goldfinches, meadowlarks, bobwhites, and common snipe. King rails can sometimes be heard calling at dusk. The spotted turtle, rare in the valley, is also a resident of the preserve. Beavers, which are making a comeback in many parts of Virginia, have moved in, creating dams and ponds on the property.
[Fig. 31] This 10-acre spring-fed lake is well known by area bird watchers for its waterfowl. The City of Harrisonburg lake lies just north of Dayton. Overshadowing Silver Lake is Mole Hill, the eroded remains of a volcano.
The volcano was active 50 million years ago, in the Eocene Epoch of the Cenozoic Era. Shallow seas covered large areas of the continent then, and horses, monkeys, and whales were evolving.
Like an oasis among subdivisions and cultivated fields, the shallow lake attracts migrating waterfowl, warblers, terns, and egrets in spring. Among the ducks reported by local bird watchers are blue-winged and green-winged teal, redhead, greater and lesser scaups, American black duck, bufflehead, hooded merganser and others. Caspian, forster's, and black terns; and great and common egrets have been sighted.
Resident birds include several species of swallows, Canada geese, belted kingfishers, and American woodcocks.
[Fig. 31(5)] Another tiny preserve called Kennedy Mountain Meadow protects a rare community related to a complex of sinkhole ponds. Near Sherando, just a few miles southeast of the South River Preserve, is a seasonally flooded, natural meadow with a 1.5-acre pond on the property of a hunt club. Kennedy Mountain Meadow is at the edge of Big Levels in the Pedlar Ranger District of the George Washington National Forest.
The porous bedrock and soil hold water in spring and fall but dry up the rest of the year. In Virginia, this type of sinkhole pond is found only in Augusta and Rockingham counties.
Two native plants that have adapted to the unusual conditions are Virginia sneezeweed (Helenium virginicum) and black-fruited spikerush (Eleocharis melanocarpa).
The Nature Conservancy has a land- management agreement with the owner to protect the preserve. Because of the fragile nature of the environment, it is not open to the public.
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