So much of our time in this soured economy is spent paying homage to the almighty dollar that leisure time – real leisure time, not ferrying the kids to soccer or mowing the yard – is a nostalgic memory. Well, last Sunday I laced my boots, gathered my field guides and binoculars and met my friend Bob Olthoff at 7:30 a.m. for a morning afield. A pass by the Quick Stop for a hot cup ‘o Joe and we were headed for the Parkway.
We had decided we would drive the Parkway from Waynesville to Cherokee and then scoot over to Kituwah in search of fall migrants. The first couple of stops on the Parkway were slow. Juncos were chipping and trilling and blue-headed vireos were around but not much more. We figured it was probably the chill and brisk southwest winds keeping things so subdued.
An hour later it was still fresh up there; the wind had a bit of a bite. We had seen one small, busy flock of migrants that Bob called “express” birds. We know there were Tennessee warblers and blue-headed vireos in the group, but those were the only species we were able to identify.
But that’s the beauty of the Parkway and leisure time. We weren’t seeing many migrants. Heck, we weren’t seeing many birds at all. But we were seeing mountains for 50 miles on one of those rare, clear mornings. And we saw clouds sleeping in the valleys, with dark peaks poking through. And we saw mountain ashes bent over under the burden of pounds of shiny, candy-apple red berries. Oh, and we saw ladies’ tresses — lots and lots of ladies’ tresses. This delicate, slender white orchid was blooming profusely along the shoulder of the Parkway.
There are at least four species of ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes) in the region. The one we found showing off last Sunday was Spiranthes cernua, nodding ladies’ tresses. The flowering stalk of nodding ladies’ tresses, which rises from a rosette of narrow basal leaves, may reach about a foot in height. Numerous small white flowers spiral around the stalk. The moniker, ladies’ tresses, came from the idea that the flowers spiraling around the stalk resembled hair braids. This characteristic may be more pronounced in Spiranthes lacera, slender ladies’ tresses. Nodding ladies’ tresses blooms from August till frost.
Stiff gentian, Gentianella quinquefolia, was also prominent along the roadsides of the Parkway and the entrance to Waterrock Knob was radiant with goldenrod. I’m pretty sure it is mountain goldenrod, Solidago roanensis.
Now we didn’t give up on birds. We moved on down to Kituwah. The prevailing southwesterly winds had begun to push clouds in and the skies were beginning to get a little overcast. Kituwah was almost as quiet as the Parkway except for numerous eastern phoebes and a flock of palm warblers.
We didn’t tick off a hundred species. We didn’t find anything rare or unusual. But we had hot coffee, good conversation and a leisurely morning in a beautiful setting. How cool is that?