Bass Lake (and adjacent Heart Pond and an extensive network of trails) are part of Moses Cone Memorial Park within the Blue Ridge Parkway. As such it receives numerous visitors who walk, often with their dogs, ride horses in places, fish, picnic, and generally do what people do at a popular park near Blowing Rock, NC. It is hardly the place one would expect to have a quality natural experience. But surprisingly the generally beautiful setting and the minimal development of surrounding habitats provide a very pleasant introduction to the plants and animals of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After intensive development as a private estate, including many apple orchards 120 years ago, the 3500 acre property became part of the National Park Service in 1949. Thus one continually needs to keep in mind that very few areas were not previously impacted by human activities. Indeed it is quite interesting to consider the vegetation of various sites and how their successional stage and sometimes unexpected natural communities might have been produced.
To maximize the natural experience I have chosen a route that starts at the parking lot near US 221, continues along the western side of Bass Lake, goes through a gate into an area that was previously grazed by cattle, and follows a small stream up to and around Heart Pond, and returns through some old fields of very different community composition. The photos show a panorama looking from Heart Pond down towards Bass Lake across the old cattle pastures. Bass Lake is shallow with considerable areas of water lilies. It attracts migrating waterfowl in addition to the usual non-migratory and thus exotic Canada geese. In late May a rarely seen female redhead duck had been in residence for an extended period. Wood ducks also breed there. Heart Pond itself has little aquatic vegetation possibly due to fewer nutrients. It is surrounded by extensive rhododendron thickets in places and large white pines, shade intolerant remnants of the land clearing in past decades.
The clearings/meadows around Heart Pond are interesting and instructive in understanding the sequence of plant successional changes that occur after land is cleared and then allowed to regrow naturally with or without grazing. Some openings are primarily mossy with creeping strawberries and cinquefoils dominating. Some are dominated by blackberries and goldenrods. Others are predominantly lyre-leafed sage and golden ragwort. Trail-side clearings with reasonable sunlight are often mainly covered by tall buttercups and speedwell. Some pastures consist of dense growths of ironweed and sneezeweed- these species are not eaten by cattle and thus are almost certainly abundant due to a lack of competition with grasses and rushes that are palatable to cattle. Exotic barberry and multiflora rose shrubs are similarly favored by grazing cattle and deer and can become considerable pests.
The forests here can be second growth (white pines, tulip poplar, yellow birch, yellow buckeye, etc) or remnants of primary hardwood forest (oaks, hemlock, sugar maple, beech, etc). These successional changes in forests are primarily driven by shade tolerance but of course soil nutrients and moisture are important. The most significant effect on forest regeneration now is the extensive herbivory of young trees by the over-population of deer. We will look for the widespread evidence of this major impact by comparing the species growing at and near the ground level with the canopy species.
We will also look for specific trees that are important as nectar sources for birds- Fraser magnolia, tulip poplar, and yellow buckeye. Lichens are abundant here due to the moisture and one of the most impressive is lungwort which is considered a bioindicator of old growth forests and low amounts of air pollution, especially sulfur dioxide.
Dead trees or snags are important for many birds as food sources (insects boring in wood) and as nest sites for hole nesting species. We will look at an active yellow bellied sapsucker nest in one such dead snag.
The lakes are habitat for many aquatic insects, including some spectacular dragonflies. I show one example, the calico pennant, which is common here. Careful observation will also reveal terrestrial species with unusual life histories. This bee fly mimics a bee to decrease predation by birds, feeds on flower nectar (such as the flame azaleas which will be coming into bloom), and parasitizes ground nesting bumblebees.
A stroll around Bass Lake can be a blissful outing to release the stress of modern life, and/or an exercise in the study of natural history that will challenge and expand your knowledge. Thanks to the Cone family for their marvelous gift to us all !