Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway

Animals

Birds

From the spruce-fir forests at the highest elevations down to the valley bottoms, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides nesting habitat for northern and southern birds alike. Additional dozens of other species pass through the Parkway on their spring and fall migrations. In all, more than 250 bird species have been observed along the Parkway.

As with plants and other animals, the mountaintops provided refuge for many birds as the glaciers retreated back north. Typically nesting in boreal forests rather than in the southern US these species can be found in the Parkway's higher elevations where the plants and habitats are more to their liking. About 20 percent of the Parkway's breeding birds, including veery, red-breasted nuthatch, black-throated green warbler, golden-crowned kinglet and Canada warbler, are more typically found up north. Some of these, such as northern saw-whet owls, are disjunct populations and may be totally different species than their northern relatives.

The 4,000 acres of agricultural lands on the Parkway provide habitat for other bird species. Bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks can occasionally be found singing on fence posts in the meadows and pastures. Taking advantage of the hunting opportunities that these open areas offer are American kestrels, year-round residents along the Parkway.

Streams, lakes and wetlands provide additional habitat. Great blue herons and wood ducks are benefiting from the return of beavers and are often found in beaver ponds, as well as in streams and man-made lakes. The rattle of kingfishers can be heard at many ponds and along larger rivers. During migration sandpipers stop to feed along shorelines while bitterns and great egrets occasionally wade the wetlands.

Amphibians

Preliminary surveys indicate that the Parkway supports a large diversity of Amphibians. To date, more than 42 species of amphibians - including 11 Anurans and 31 salamanders—have been documented within the Parkway’s boundaries. However, this list is by no means complete, and several species which are expected to occur along the Parkway (e.g. the marbled salamander) have yet to be documented.

The Southern Appalachians are considered the center of salamander diversity on earth and the Blue Ridge Parkway, which follows the high crests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains for 469 miles sits in the heart of this zone. The abundance of rain is probably the primary factor allowing for this richness. Whether laying their eggs, living in streams, or foraging under a rotting log, salamanders depend on water to survive.

Water is essential for other amphibians as well. With the first warm rains in March wood frogs and spring peepers head to vernal pools to lay their eggs. Later bullfrogs, pickerel frogs and American toads will follow suit. By summer the Parkway is alive with the call of frogs.

A growing body of evidence suggests that amphibians are highly sensitive to environmental disturbance, and are declining at rates that far exceed those of other vertebrate groups. These declines have been attributed to habitat alteration, gypsy moth defoliation, pollution from pesticides, acid precipitation, increased ultraviolet radiation due to depletion of the ozone layer, and global climate change.

Parkway programs and management may have contributed to local amphibian declines. Early designers and landscape architects incorporated scenic agricultural landscapes as well as forested natural areas into the design of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Research has shown that forest fragmentation resulting from timbering, agricultural activities, development, roads and utility corridors can have adverse impacts on amphibian populations.

Parkway biologists are working with local researchers and other land managers to determine ways to help our amphibian populations. Cattle are being fenced out of wetlands on Parkway agricultural leases. Trees cut under the hazard tree program are left lying in the woods to provide habitat rather than being hauled away. Parkway biologists are looking at disturbed wetland sites to determine if any can be restored and the return of beavers to the Southern Appalachians will provide additional amphibian sites.

Reptiles

Though amphibians, and especially the salamanders, get more attention due to their diversity, there are also many reptiles found along the Blue Ridge Parkway. On-going surveys have found 22 species of snakes, 7 turtles and 6 lizards, including one federally threatened species and two that are rare in North Carolina.

Visitors are usually most interested in our two species of poisonous snakes, Timber Rattlesnakes and Copperheads. Both of these snakes are non-aggressive, avoiding contact with people, and are seldom seen by park visitors. Mainly active at night and in the twilight, these snakes spend the day in sheltered areas where they can avoid the daytime heat. If you are fortunate enough to find one of these two species remember that they are protected by federal law and should not be bothered, for your safety and theirs.

Visits to Parkway ponds and wetlands may reveal one or more of our turtles. Snapping turtles inhabit many lakes and streams, feeding on fish and other aquatic animals. The females are often found on land in the spring as they move away from their watery homes and seek out places to dig a nest to lay their eggs. Unfortunately many observations of park turtles by visitors are of dead turtles that have been run over as they attempt to cross the Parkway in search of nest sites.

Other Life Forms

When European explorers first traveled through the Southern Appalachians, beavers were found to inhabit virtually every stream and river. English explorer John Lawson wrote in the early 1700s that "Beavers are very numerous in Carolina, their being abundance of the Dams in all Parts of the Country, where I have travel'd."

Beavers were keystone engineers in many areas; altering the environment to fit their needs and fulfilling the needs of other species who depended on the beaver ponds for shelter, food and safety. As the fur trappers followed the explorers, millions of beavers were removed and beaver-created ecosystems disappeared, along with animals dependent on them. The last beaver was reported trapped in North Carolina in 1897, thus eliminating a vital component of the natural system along what is now the Blue Ridge Parkway.

From the 1930s through the 1950s, beavers were reintroduced to many areas of North Carolina. Their natural reproduction and dispersal, combined with protection efforts, allowed them to spread to almost every county in the state. Since about 1987 they have begun re-colonizing the rivers and streams of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The success of the relocation program has brought a mix of positive and negative consequences. Beaver-dependent ecosystems are being reestablished in areas where they had not been found for almost 100 years. As this has occurred, associated species have followed the beavers and have re-inhabited their old ranges. The Parkway staff welcomes the return to near-natural conditions, especially on undeveloped lands and in backcountry areas that will benefit from the beaver's presence. In these areas, the return of beavers have increased biological diversity and significantly changed ecological processes.

The bog turtle (Clemmys muhlenbergii) is considered to be the rarest freshwater turtle in North America. Though the bog turtle occupies a range from Massachusetts to northern Georgia, the bog turtle's distribution within this range is spotty and disjunct. A 250-mile gap located between central Maryland and southwestern Virginia separates the species into a northern and southern population. Ironically, much of the bog turtle's range in Virginia and northern North Carolina is scattered along a narrow belt located in and along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Bog turtle populations are believed to be declining throughout their range. This population decline is thought to be the result of illegal collection for the pet trade, and loss of habitat through ditching, draining and filling in of wetlands for development and agriculture. However, other factors including the species' low reproductive rates, isolation of individual populations, predation, flooding of habitat by beaver, mortality due to vehicles, livestock grazing, and pollution may also be contributing to the bog turtle's decline.

Consequently, wetlands along the Blue Ridge Parkway are important for the protection of bog turtles--offering one of the last refuges where both the bog turtle and its habitat are protected. Wetlands along the Blue Ridge Parkway, however, are not pristine and many have been impacted by past agricultural activities and development. Parkway biologists are working with researchers to protect bog turtles on the Parkway. With assistance from other agencies the Parkway has begun inserting tags under the skin of turtles to deter poaching and to help with their recovery. As beavers return to the Parkway the number of wetlands and bog turtle habitat will increase. These activities will help secure the future of bog turtles in the Southern Appalachians.

Typically, throughout the month of October park visitors can expect to find good fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Leaves will begin changing first on the highest peaks and conclude in the lower elevations. Whether classified as "spectacular" or simply "average,” the leaf color display will nonetheless be pleasing to the eye somewhere along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We are very fortunate in that the most varied fall color, as well as the longest lasting, occurs in the southern Appalachians, where a dozen or more species of trees may change color at slightly different times over the longer fall season.

There is no simple formula for predicting fall color. The intensity of fall color and time of peak color vary and are determined by complex environmental factors, as well as the genetic makeup of the plants themselves. These factors vary from plant to plant and from region to region. However, with ideal weather conditions such as bright sunny and cool days in the fall, one can expect slightly above average leaf color.

The "best" fall color for an area occurs during the shortening days of autumn when days are bright, sunny and cool, when nights are cool but not below freezing, and when there has been ideal rainfall. Adequate rainfall also keeps the leaves on the trees longer and enhances the color. Wet, cloudy, warm weather or exceptionally low temperatures in early fall tend to mute the much anticipated autumnal display. We don't yet fully understand all of the complicated actions - and even more complicated interactions - involving pigments, sunlight, moisture, chemicals, hormones, temperatures, length of daylight, site, genetic traits, and so on that make for a perfect autumn color display. As research probes deeper into the basics of plant life, we will understand more about the processes that color the autumn landscape.

On a cold night in late February or early March, with the rain and sleet pounding on the roof, the last thing most people would think of would be venturing out to wade through a big puddle. On these nights, however, a migration is occurring along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The migrants are amphibians – frogs and salamanders – and they are on their way to usher in the coming of spring.

The puddles are vernal pools, bodies of water ranging from as small as a closet up to several acres in size. “Vernal” refers to spring, and the majority of these pools are temporary, being filled with water for only a short time during the spring. For this reason, many people don’t really think of them as true wetlands, or as valuable parts of the ecosystem.

However, they are critical breeding sites for many species of amphibians, including wood frogs and spotted salamanders. These species are terrestrial most of their lives, except for during the breeding season when they congregate in vernal pools. Wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) are generally out first in February and can be identified near the pools as their “quacking” calls are heard. They call, mate, and deposit egg masses. They are soon followed by the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), a member of the mole salamander family, which spends its adult life underground.

Other species may use vernal pools, including American toads and spring peepers, but the wood frog and spotted salamander utilize vernal pools almost exclusively. The temporary nature of the vernal pool means that many species of predators, such as fish, will not survive the dry periods. This is a distinct advantage if you are looking for a nursery and don’t want your young eaten.

However, in years of drought, the pool may not contain water at all, or may not sustain water long enough for the young to hatch and metamorphose into terrestrial forms. It is a gamble, with the payoff being a new generation of young. But even if the water dries up it is likely that the adults will probably live long enough to return next year and try again.

A risk to the frogs and salamanders includes being run over by vehicles while crossing roads to get to vernal pools. Perhaps the greatest risk, however, comes from humans who fill in pools and who dig ditches to drain the pond. Such actions can lead to local “silent springs” without the familiar calls of our native frogs.

Fish

Following the spine of the Southern Appalachian Mountains the Blue Ridge Parkway does not seem like a place that would offer much in the way of fish habitat. Surprisingly the Parkway’s waters are home to over 50 species of fish, including 6 that are rare and another 8 that are not native to the area.

Many visitors are primarily interested in fishing and in game fish and the Parkway is home to several types. For most anglers, at the top of the list are the three species of trout - the native Southern Appalachian brook trout and the introduced rainbow and brown. In some of the man-made lakes and ponds are smallmouth and largemouth bass, sunfish, bluegills and crappies. Stocking occurs on many Parkway waters and state fishing regulations apply.

While brook trout gets most of the attention when people think of fish on the Parkway there are many others to admire and enjoy. With such colorful names as bluehead chub, redlip shiner, silver redhorse and rosyside dace these fish are noticed by few visitors. Generally lumped together as minnows, these 25 fish species are usually just seen as a small flash in the water.