Sunday, November 21, 2010

Crowders Mountain State Park (Kings Mountain, NC)

The forest floor was littered with fallen leaves; some were big and brown like the finely-lobed leaves of chestnut oaks, others were bright red like the cheery leaves of red maples. We hiked up and up, past car-sized boulders encrusted with bright green lichens. Soon, the forest was only densely populated with trees, the Virginia pines became short and scraggly, the chestnut oaks were half their normal size. Finally, a view of the Piedmont in all its autumn splendor greeted us. The shadows of Charlotte teased the edge of the horizon. Other mountains, King's and Spencer's, welcomed us stoically. We had arrived at the summit Crowders Mountain.

Hiking to the Summit of Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)

View from the Summit of Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)

Near the North Carolina-South Carolina border in Gaston County, Crowders Mountain State Park preserves two stunning examples of Piedmont monadnocks: Crowders Mountain (elevation 1,625 feet) and The Pinnacle (1,705 feet). At one time these peaks, which stand 800 feet above the surrounding Piedmont plateau, demarcated the boundary between the hunting lands of the Catawba and Cherokee. Today, they stand as the main attraction of a State Park established by the efforts of the Gaston County Conservation Society, eager to protect the mineral-rich peaks from strip mining, in 1973.

Roughly 450 million years ago two supercontinents collided, Laurentia (now North America) and a broken off piece of Gondwana (an amalgamation of parts of Africa and South America). The intense heat and pressure resulting from the collision transformed the African silica and aluminum into the distinctive metamorphic rocks that define Crowders Mountain today. Over time, the surrounding areas of softer mica-rich schist rock eroded, leaving the pronounced kyanite-quartzite peaks. Kyanite, an elongated blue-gray crystal given the descriptive moniker “blue daggers” by miners, infuses the rough quartzite rocks of the monadnock. This tough mineral was mined from nearby mountains in South Carolina for use in ceramics and electronics.

Kyanite crystals at Crowders Mountain (Photo by N. Cagle; 21 Nov 2010)

The unusual geologic history of Crowders Mountain translates into unusual ecology. In 1901, botanist and taxonomist John K. Small (1869 – 1938) recorded stunted trees at the summit, including three to six foot tall chestnuts (Castanea dentata) laden with fruit (only a few examples of which remain today), Virginia pines (Pinus virginiana) and persimmon (Diospyros virginiana). Small noted that other plants appeared in their normal form, such as Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) with its big, round purple blooms and dangleberry (Gaylussacia frondosa) a blue berry bearing shrub with green leaves dotted with tiny golden resin glands on the underside. The dwarfed trees provide cover for Fowler’s toads, slimy salamanders and a number of snake species, including scarlet kingsnakes, ringnecked snakes and copperheads, while the rocky outcrops house roosting black and turkey vultures.

NC Division of Parks and Recreation. “Crowder’s Mountain State Park - History”

Stewart, K. G. and Roberson, M. 2007. Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

Small, J. K. 1901. The Summit Flora of King’s Mountain and Crowder’s Mountain, North Carolina. Torreya 1: 7-8.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: November in the Piedmont

Birds.− By November, the fall migration has usually ended. The wood thrushes have disappeared, replaced by the melodic hermit thrush until springtime. November also marks the return of juncos and a number of sparrows, including tree, fox, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows. You can also expect to see more duck species, especially common goldeneyes and hooded mergansers. If you are very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of short-eared or northern saw-whet owls, which are sometimes spied in the Triangle during the winter months.

Woodpeckers make their home in the Piedmont year-round, with one exception, the yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). These active birds can be recognized by their black and white back and wings, red forehead and yellow breast; males also have a red throat. Found throughout the eastern United States, this woodpecker in well-known for drilling a series of small wells in trees, from which it laps up sap and feeds on the cambium of the tree. These wells also attract insects and are used by other birds species.

Butterflies.− Butterfly watchers can expect a decline in butterfly sightings this month, but you might still see some of the sulphurs and whites (family: Pieridae).

Remember: The Carolinas are home to five families of butterflies: the skippers (Hesperiidae), gossamer wings (Lycaenidae), brush-foots (Nymphalidae), swallowtails (Papilionidae) and the sulphurs and whites (Pieridae). Each of these families can be divided into a number of sub-families, each having distinct identifying characteristics.

This month, we will consider a sub-family of the brush-foots, the milkweed butterflies (Danainae). Members of the Danainae are boldly colored with black and orange wings. Males have distinct black spots or patches called andoconium on each hindwing that release pheromones. Caterpillars are finely striped with black, white and yellow. Three species of milkweed butterflies are found in North Carolina: monarch, queen and soldier. Queen and soldier sightings are mainly limited to the coast, although queens have been recorded in Durham County. The food plants for the caterpillars are strictly those in milkweed family, including the genera Asclepias (e.g., butterfly weed, common milkweed), Matelea (e.g., common anglepod, maroon Carolina milkvine) and Cynanchum (e.g., sand-vine on the coast). Plants in this family are poisonous, making the caterpillars and adults mildly toxic and extremely distasteful to potential predators. Adult Danaids take nectar from a variety of flowers.

Reptiles & Amphibians.− Expect to find a few copperheads warming themselves on the roads at night this month. Also, look out for redbacked salamanders and box turtles.

Copperhead, Orange County, N.C., November 2007 (by N. Cagle)

Other Insects.− This month, the crickets and cicadas will quiet down for the winter, and the orb weavers will certainly disappear. Watch out for wasps and yellow jackets while hiking and exploring this month.

In Bloom this Month.− Be on the lookout for these November fruits and flowers:

In Bloom:
BLUE MISTFLOWER - Conoclinium coelestinum
WHITE WOOD-ASTER – Eurybia divaricata
WITCH HAZEL - Hamamelis virginiana
SCARLET ROSE-MALLOW – Hibiscus coccineus
BLACK-EYED SUSAN – Rudbeckia fulgida
GOLDENROD(S) – Solidago spp.
FROST ASTER(S) - Symphyotrichum spp.

In Fruit:
PERSIMMON – Diospyros virginiana
BEAUTY BERRY – Callicarpa americana
HEARTS-A-BUSTIN’ – Euonymus americanus

CORAL HONEYSUCKLE - Lonicera sempervirens

PASSION FLOWER – Passiflora spp.
FOX GRAPES – Vitis labrusca
MUSCADINES – Vitis rotundifolia


Cook, Dave. 2001. The Piedmont Almanac. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Mystic Crow Publishing.

Daniels, J. C. 2003. Butterflies of the Carolinas. Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Inc.

LeGrand, H. E. Jr. 2009. Notes on the Butterflies of North Carolina. Available at: