Leaving Cape May, we headed west to Front Royal, VA, to repeat the drive we did last fall, down the Skyline Drive (through Shenandoah National Park) and the Blue Ridge Parkway, as far as Asheville, NC. The fall color was very inferior this year, with only a few decent areas, at the very highest elevations. But we still enjoyed the peaceful and scenic drive. From Asheville we headed west again, to the north end of the Natchez Trace Parkway, a bit south of Nashville. Like the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, the Natchez Trace Parkway is a long 2-lane scenic route with limited access and no stop lights or stop signs, and little traffic, leading to a very pleasant driving experience. It is 444 miles long, ending in Natchez, MS, and it passes through a mixture of pastoral lands and southern forests. Unlike the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway, it is a low-elevation road, the highest point being about 1100 feet.
The parkway largely follows, and is named after, the Natchez Trace, a footpath used by Native Americans, and after an agreement with the U.S. government, upgraded to a wagon road. Before the arrival of steamboats, the Trace was used by traders to complete a circuit after floating down the Cumberland or Tennessee Rivers and then the Mississippi River. There are a number of signed points of local historical interest along the Parkway. There are also frequent short trails, a few with interpretive signs, and some longer stretches of trail suitable for hikers and horses. An excellent book reviewing the history of the Trail is “A Way Through the Wilderness” by William C. Davis.
We’d only been on the Parkway for a day when I got worried enough about a headache, which had lasted 48 hours, that we headed for Florence, AL to have it checked out. It apparently was a sinus headache, exacerbated by having lost about 6000 feet of elevation in half a day after visiting Mt. Mitchell State Park, NC, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. But the bloodwork they ran indicated a new problem for me to worry about – it’s great to be retired, but not to be of retirement age!
We got back on the Parkway, having missed a stretch, but soon were finding a nice assortment of new, fall-blooming plants. We have done no fall botanizing in the Southeast, with the result that we found 11 new plants in 3 days, including two new genera, a very good haul. We saw mounds built by Native Americans in two different time periods, which were very interesting. Nice autumnal weather during this time was a real bonus. Last year, with the emphasis on prairies, was the year of wind. This year, with only a few brief respites, was the year of humidity. Next year will likely be the year of biting insects, but one of these years, we are going to optimize the itinerary for comfort instead of natural history!
Leaving the Natchez Trace Parkway, on the way to south Texas, we stopped in Bayou Cocodrie National Wildlife Refuge in Louisiana, to look for one last new vascular plant family, Hydroleaceae. There was a recent record of Hydrolea uniflora with coordinates of unknown precision, but as soon as I looked at satellite imagery of the area I was confident where the occurrence must be. Upon arrival we quickly located the plants, which were fruiting profusely, as well as having a few remaining flowers! We also found four other new plant species in the rich wetland. We made a quick stop in the Big Thicket in east Texas to see if one of our finds from early in the year, Mayaca, might be in flower, but it was not. Still, we found four interesting new plants in the area, again underscoring that it would be good to do more botanizing in the Southeast in fall.
On the drive to our last destination of the year, the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV), we counted exactly 200 Scissor-tailed Flycatchers between Victoria and McAllen! We had never seen them in fall migration before, and were surprised by the concentration of the birds. I’ve written about the LRGV before, and won’t repeat much, except to say that it is the best area for butterflies in North America, and November is typically the best month for variety. We had a great time here in December, 2016, and felt we should visit again given the threats posed by the border wall, which may seriously compromise the LRGV as a natural history destination.
We spent our first day in the LRGV at the Frontera Audubon Society property in Weslaco, where a Golden-crowned Warbler was wintering. This tropical species seems to turn up a couple of times a decade in the U.S. We have seen it in Brazil and Colombia, but hoped to add it to our continental U.S. and Canada list. It can be very difficult to see as it forages quietly in dense undergrowth. We spent six hours in the area it was last seen, and finally it gave a couple of chip notes, and I was able to get a quick look at it, though Eileen did not see it. There were a number of other birders looking for it that day, also, and none of them saw it either.
Butterflies seemed to be running a bit late, with variety and numbers lower than in December, 2016, though things picked up noticeably in the two weeks we were there. We saw a total of 60 species, of which 15 were new to us. In addition to the National Butterfly Center in Mission, good locations when we were there were the butterfly gardens at Falcon State Park and the McAllen Nature Center. We spent our last day at the latter location, where many people were looking for a vagrant Chestnut Crescent. It had not put in an appearance, and everyone else had left by mid-afternoon, but on our last pass through the area, while photographing obscure grass skippers, we were thrilled to find it! So our visit to the LRGV was nicely bookended by two tropical vagrants, one a bird, and one a butterfly.
We spent one day on South Padre Island, which was very interesting. The dunes on this barrier island harbor a nice native plant community where I found three new plant species, as well as Keeled Earless Lizard, a new genus for us. The plantings around the Convention Center were put in place to provide a stop-over for migrating birds, and the project has been quite successful. The best time for songbirds there is spring, but there is some fall activity there as well, and we found several migrants, including a Philadelphia Vireo. This is an uncommon species, with most of the population migrating west of the Appalachians, but we saw it three times this fall, the other sightings being in Quebec and New Jersey. There was also a huge flock of Franklin’s Gulls, some Roseate Spoonbills, and a Yellow-throated Warbler at the Convention Center.
Other places we visited included Estero Llano Grande, where we saw a pair of ground-roosting Pauraques (a nightjar, like a Whip-poor-will) and scads of Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks; Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which had Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Neotropic Cormorant, and an active Verdin nest; and Salineno, with Gray Hawk but few birds at the feeders so early in the season. As a final note, we saw a Varied Thrush on its second day at the National Butterfly Center, about a thousand miles east of its normal wintering range.
I’d like to wrap up this blog post, perhaps the last of 2018, with some summary statistics. This year we traveled for about 10 months and covered about 24,000 miles, roughly 80 miles per day, compared to about 100 miles per day last year. We passed through 27 states and 3 Canadian provinces/territories, nearly identical to last year (26 and 2). The map below shows coordinates of places we camped and/or added natural history records to our database. We stayed an average of slightly over two nights per campsite, but with values ranging widely, from one to sixteen nights.
We made good progress this year towards the goal of 10,000 native species (worldwide), adding about 519 new species during our 10-month “wander”. The breakdown by group is as follows: 408 plants, 31 odonates, 26 butterflies, 18 herps, 16 fish, 6 mammals, and 14 species from other groups. This is an average of 1¾ new species per day, about 10% higher than last year. These additions bring my species total to 9591, with a breakdown of 5,572 plants, 3,177 birds, 395 mammals, 156 butterflies, 147 herps, 54 odonates, 41 fish, and 49 others (mostly marine organisms).
Our next planned adventure is a birding tour to Ecuador in January, and we expect to be on the road again in February.