The Nature of Price Lake

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a marvelous linear necklace of natural attractions. One of the gems in this necklace is Price Lake, near Mile Marker 297. We enjoy walking the 2.3 mile loop around the lake and watching for seasonal changes in natural wonders. At the time of this writing it is early August, which you would assume is full summer. But there are various signs that fall is just around the corner. Most birds have finished breeding, the air is cool most mornings, and some red leaves are starting to appear on the ground. Check out this red maple leaf which enters senescence in a blaze of glory.

In the shallow edge of the lake I came across an unusual aquatic invertebrate not often seen or recognized by visitors. This odd aquatic football is a freshwater bryozoan (ectoproct), Pectinatella. It is a colonial animal (you can see the individual zooids with their filter feeding tentacles) and you might wonder how it came to be in a lake high in the Blue Ridge mountains. One plausible theory is that the dormant stage of the colony (statoblast) might be transported on the muddy feet or even in the gut of birds. For example there has been a common loon in the lake for some time which must have migrated in from northerly freshwater lakes where it might have encountered bryozoans. This particular loon is unusually light in coloration and is either in the process of migrating to the coast for the winter or is just confused about its itinerary.

Odonate insects (dragonflies and damselflies) clearly have the ability to fly and colonize lakes and streams in distant areas. A particularly beautiful male stream bluet damselfly was seen along the lake shore. These tiny predators on flying insects have a complex family life where the colors and behavior of the male entice the female to choose her mate. As is the case with dragonflies, the young are fierce aquatic predators, The separation of the life stages into two different habitats minimizes competition within the species. A larger pair of slaty skimmer dragonflies was observed mating in the wheel position. In a somewhat bizarre process the bluish male grasps the brownish female by the neck while she extends her abdomen forward to receive sperm from his accessory genitalia.

A butterfly with reddish orange spots on the outside of the wing and iridescent blue on the inside rear of the wings, perched on the path holding its wings in a basking position, is a spectacular red spotted purple butterfly. This is a confusing species on several levels in the brushfoot family. First it interbreeds with the white admiral further north. Second it bears a strong resemblance to other members of the “black and blue club.” These include the toxic model, the pipevine swallowtail, the female black tiger swallowtail, the black and spicebush swallowtails, and the female Diana fritillary. Considering how confused humans can be in separating members of this mimicry complex, it is not surprising that avian predators would also avoid eating them.

Almost any body of water will have water snakes and I saw two northern water snakes slithering around the edge looking for a warm place to bask and possibly for a frog snack. These harmless snakes are often mistaken for the poisonous water moccasin, which does not occur in the mountains. The alternating pattern of blotches on the top and sides and top of the body is distinctive; they also lack the elliptical pupil and facial pit of the moccasin. They are a generalist predator, in contrast with the local queen snake which feeds only on soft-shelled crayfish.

Traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway can be a bit intense in summer time with streams of tourists, campers, bikers, hikers, and motorcyclists. However if you take some time to carefully observe nature you will find a true wonderland.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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