Flora and Fauna that can be found Inhabiting
the Dragon Run Watershed this Month
Swamp Tupelo - Early Sign of Fall By Jack Kauffman
I love autumn on the Dragon and the woodlands of the Dragon Swamp. My favorite sign that the season has arrived is the coloring of swamp tupelo (Nyssa biflora) leaves. Also referred to as the swamp black gum, it is a native to southeastern regions of North America. On the Dragon, our guides describe the swamp as a bald cypress -tupelo swamp. You can often stump them by asking them to point you to a tupelo. In spring, summer, and winter, the tupelo trees are hard to identify along the edges of the Dragon. If you paddle the Dragon or walk near the swamp in late September, the swamp tupelo trees are hard to miss. They are always the first to color and their leaves turn bright red. In early fall, leaves will be many shades of yellow, orange, and red (picture taken September 27th). Later, the leaves will be bright red, purple and scarlet. But there is more to the swamp tupelo than just the autumn color. In spring, the trees flower and produce an abundance of bluish-black berries which ripen early in the fall. The spring flowers attract insects, and birds feed on those insects. The fall fruits are highly prized as a food source to many southward migratory birds.
Help us save this precious bald cypress-tupelo swamp and enjoy the many fall colors!
Winterberry by Kevin Howe
A real treat during our fall kayak trips in Dragon Run is the sunlit colors of this ecosystem. Autumn sun makes the changing colors of the leaves glow against the blue sky of fall - swamp tupelo with burgundy-red leaves, red maple with bright scarlet leaves and bald cypress with their russet-colored needles. Against this amazing backdrop of leaf colors are the fruits-berries of our native shrubs with the brilliant red berries of winterberry getting the persistent award.
Most of the various berries/fruits in Dragon Run get eaten by the mass of migratory birds heading south. Winterberry, Ilex verticillata, is an exception and aptly named because its berries usually persist long into winter. Why, you ask? – well, they are low in fats compared to many other native plants fruits/berries whose high fat content are extremely important food for migratory birds and become available early in the fall. Winterberries may be more palatable after some freezing and thawing, long after the migratory birds have passed through and fed on other high fat fruits. In the dead of winter, when food gets scarce, our resident birds will begin to supplement their diet with winterberries. As humans we benefit too in the delight of seeing this palette of colors while passing on down Dragon Run at this time of year.
The Beech Blight Aphid by Carol Kauffman
Have you ever seen a patch of shadowed spots underneath beech trees? Look up and on the branches you may see something amazing! The beech blight aphid, Grylloprociphilus imbricator, or wooly aphid, gathers in large colonies that can cover the branches with what looks like snow. Their “wool” is actually wax filaments that stick out from the abdomen. The beech blight aphid is found from Maine to Florida, feeding on plant sap of the beech tree. Depending on their location, this aphid species can also be found on bald cypress roots. The aphid produces sticky honeydew which is expelled onto foliage, plants, the ground, and branches. The shadowed spots on the ground are Sooty molds, Scorias spongiosa fungus, which colonize the aphid's honeydew and convert it into a black color. The aphids do not cause much damage to the overall tree health.
What is fantastical is that these creatures appear to be dancing. Aka boogie-woogie aphid! The beech blight aphid will raise its hind end and sway! When disturbed, the whole colony will produce this action which creates a dance-like movement.
Observations by Virginia Master Naturalist Mike Grose
The last days of summer provide enjoyable weather for a walk along the Dragon Run. One of my delights is to find eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, Papilio glaucus, congregating in a behavior called “puddling” along the banks of the swamp. While flower nectar provides a carbohydrate for energy and a little moisture, the wet soil and sand on the swamp banks furnish abundant moisture and nutrients, so essential for the butterfly’s short adult life. The life span of the eastern swallowtail is about two weeks which during this short period the adult must find a suitable and willing partner to mate – and if female, find a suitable host plant such as the black cherry, sweet bay and tulip poplar upon which to lay their eggs. Ahh, the wonder of life continues.
Horsemint (Monarda punctata) or spotted bee balm is a native member of our Virginia flora. I often see it growing along the sunny dry upper banks of Dragon Run where it attracts numerous pollinators such as bees, butterflies, and various other insects. While somewhat common in our Coastal Plain, infrequent or rare elsewhere in Virginia.
This great black digger wasp, Sphex pensylvanicus,is an active pollinator and lives in many areas across North America. The females nest underground and are natural hunters. The wasp brings paralyzed prey to their nest, for the larvae to feed on. When the wasp is feeding on the nectar of a flower, the flower’s pollen-laden anthers discharge pollen onto the back of the insect. The wasp moves to the next flower where the pollen becomes attached to the stigma, completing the transfer of gametes.