Our groups (bird and native plant clubs) recently had the opportunity to visit one of the least known state parks in NC, which is virtually in VA up near the tiny crossroads of Mouth of Wilson. This park, Alleghany Access (named for the county) is primarily used as a stopover for kayakers and does not encourage land access. As a result if you get special permission to drive through the gate or simply park and walk down to the river, you have a treat in store. We visited on a Saturday and there was no one else in the park. This is a remarkable experience- to enjoy such a place of natural beauty without the crowds normally encountered in parks.
The south and north forks of the New River have just upstream become joined and begin to show the wide majesty which increases as it flows through VA. There is a tall cliff face on the far side of the river which has hosted nesting ravens and perhaps a peregrine falcon pair. The near side of the river bank is low with early successional vegetation; the adjacent land rises steeply to a plateau above. It is clear that this land and many adjacent parcels were previously farmed but have for the most part been abandoned to return to forests. If you apply your knowledge of “forest forensics” you can conclude this fact by the prevalence of shade intolerant trees in the forest (white pines, black locust, tulip poplar, etc). You may decide that this is a good thing- for farms to be returned to wild lands. But two things are happening here which are not helpful for the preservation of biodiversity. First the gradual loss of early successional habitats results in the loss of animals which require such communities. One example is the golden winged warbler which previously bred here but is now gone due to habitat change. The second issue is that due to the rule of no hunting in state parks, deer have multiplied to unhealthy proportions and are causing serious damage to forest regeneration by eating most tree seedlings. As a result the future forest will consist only of deer resistant plants.
Our group of botanists, bird watchers and butterfly enthusiasts walked down the well mowed trails and enjoyed studying the changing panorama of plants and animals that presented themselves. At this time (Aug. 28) in late summer the tall wingstems were in full bloom and attracted many bumblebees. Tall clumps of eastern gamma grass (Fakahatchee grass) were in fruit, and an interesting vine (a legume, American hog peanut) was twining around the stems and had some very attractive flowers. These flowers were open for cross pollination by insects but there are also self fertilizing flowers at the base of the plant which we did not see. A very interesting evolutionary strategy that you would not suspect by a cursory look at the plant.
We encountered some very interesting insects. An unusual and spectacular dragonfly seen briefly along the trail was a swift river cruiser; the New River is a major center of biodiversity for odonates (dragonflies and damselflies). We also saw a number of pearly eye butterflies which I have not seen on our other hikes. The eye spots on butterflies are believed to reduce the attacks of predatory birds and the pearly eye certainly has plenty of them. A scary insect we found on the flowers of wingstem was the wheel (note the cogs on its back) or assassin bug. Neither the structure nor the color of this hemipteran bug (sucking mouthparts only) reveals that it has a powerful toxin in its saliva which can cause intense pain but no lasting effects. This insect predator could be considered beneficial in your garden since it eats many caterpillars. If you were growing butterfly caterpillars it would not be so welcome. There were groups of a remarkable beetle skating around on the edges of the river- these whirligigs are an amazing adaptation to a life on the surface of the water supported by the surface tension.
Finally we noticed an intricate web of an orb weaver spider shining in the morning light. We take these webs for granted since they are commonly seen but the ability of spiders to use a proteinaceous strand to construct a trap for insects is quite amazing. The properties of these strands are remarkable and goats have now been programed to produce spider silk in their milk so that the protein (BioSteel) might be harvested for human uses- another example of DNA technology ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioSteel#:~:text=BioSteel%20was%20a%20trademark%20name,Wyoming%20and%20Utah%20State%20University. ).
You may never have the chance to go to Alleghany Access but it is wonderful to know that parks like that are out there preserving riverine lands and protecting natural habitats. You may debate how such areas should be managed, but the main thing is that they remain natural and not developed. That general area of NC and VA is destined to remain outside the typical zones of economic development for some time and I say thanks for that !
Thanks to Jean Wilson for taking 7 of the photos while I was busy talking.