On a day when the temperature in Winston-Salem would reach 93 degrees, the car’s digital thermometer read 68, and a cool breeze welcomed us at mile post 244 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The park is a part of the parkway and encompasses 6,000 acres of deciduous forest on the southeastern escarpment. It’s bordered on either side by Thurmond Chatham Game Lands totaling another 6529 acres of land managed by North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, primarily for deer and turkey hunting.
Doughton Park is about six miles west of Stone Mountain State Park and, combined with the game lands, totals nearly 20 square miles of woodland.
Several trails connect the parkway with Longbottom Road at the bottom of the escarpment, and one way to enjoy them is to hike up to the parkway on one trail and back down on another. But that entails a hike of ten miles or more with an elevation change of 2000 feet each way. So, a few friends and I left one car at Longbottom Road and drove up to the Grassy Gap trailhead to embark on a hike of six miles, mostly downhill.
Grassy Gap is a rough road wide enough for trucks to access the forest interior should a fire occur. The width makes for easier hiking since you don’t have to constantly watch your feet as you do on a narrower trail.
A scattering of fire pink wildflowers adds a splash of color to the trailside. Dwarf crested violets bloomed weeks ago, but the galax are just beginning to flower, beds of shiny evergreen leaves sending up spikes of tiny white flowers.
There are several stream crossings along this trail. Most of them can be managed by carefully picking your way across from rock to rock without getting your feet wet. However, a couple of crossings lower down the trail are deep enough that they require wading knee deep, shoes in hand.
At this lower elevation, the songs of Louisiana waterthrushes begin to ring out — three clear notes, then a series that seems to tumble down the mountainside the way the water tumbles down the stream.
Rivulets that splash through mature forests are prime habitat for this warbler where it tucks its nest under the roots of a tree along the bank. If a hiker unwittingly approaches the nest, the parent bird will dash from cover and attempt to lure the intruder away by feigning injury. It limps along so pitifully to the eye of the human passer-by, but enticingly to any prospective predator such as a raccoon or bobcat. It always stays just out of reach, drawing the prowler ever farther away from the nest whose contents, be they eggs or nestlings, are so vulnerable. Once the parent waterthrush has drawn the interloper far enough away, it abandons its ruse and returns to the nest now that the threat has passed.
Acadian flycatchers favor the same habitat but prefer to suspend their nests hammock-like from a fork near the end of a branch, often over water. This location is sufficiently secure from terrestrial predators that deceptive behavior is unnecessary. As the trail parallels Cove Creek, it seems that another flycatcher proclaims its territory every hundred yards or so.
Unfortunately, the Acadian flycatcher is losing one of its favorite trees. The hemlock wooly adelgid is closely related to the balsam wooly adelgid, which has caused so much loss of Balsam fir and Fraser fir in the mountains of North Carolina and adjacent states.
Both adelgids are native to east Asia and were accidently introduced to the US. They’re tiny insects, but very prolific, each one producing 100 to 300 eggs that hatch in June. Adelgids feed on the sap of hemlocks, effectively starving the trees.
The Acadian flycatcher isn’t the only animal that will suffer from loss of the hemlocks. This tree is an essential part of Southern Appalachian forests where its broad canopies help shade land and streams. Brook trout, the only native trout species in the Eastern US, require pure streams with cold water.
Salamanders require cool, moist environments, often near water, and Basin Creek, Cove Creek and their tributaries provide just the right habitat for several species. Higher soil and water temperatures and drier soil resulting from the loss of shade deprives these animals of the conditions essential to their survival.
The National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and others are employing several methods of controlling adelgids including release of insects that prey on adelgids, and application of pesticides, tree by tree, a very labor-intensive process.
Let’s hope these efforts are successful in meeting this immense challenge.
In the meantime, go for a hike in Doughton Park and enjoy these stately trees and the wildlife they harbor.