Three years ago I became a Fern Frondler. I joined a group of volunteers who survey ferns along trails in the park two or three times a year. Led by Dr. Pat Cox, Botanical Specialist for TVA and Discover Life in America board member, the Fern Forays began in 2002. Working with park officials, Pat developed the survey protocol and gathered friends, former botany students (she was a professor at the University of Tennessee), and interested volunteers to assist. By now coverage through the park, generally speaking, is fairly uniform with most key areas getting at least one Foray. Last year, we returned to two of the first trails surveyed to see if any changes could be detected.
The surveys go like this. A team of 5 to 8 people maps out a 15-meter plot every 200 meters using the trail as a transect. Each fern species in that plot is noted, counted, and given a numerical code based on quantity. Between plots, noted species are given a more qualitative rating of high, medium or low. At each plot, canopy trees are identified and recorded to provide a more detailed ecological picture. GPS data are recorded for each plot too. Typically, we get about 15 to 25 plots done depending on the trail, the number of ferns, the weather, etc.
Fern Forays are a great way to learn ferns…and trees…and orchids…and wildlife! There is always some cool find along the trail. For me this time, it is also a great way to get another trail checked off. Pat identifies the Rich Mountain area as a good place to survey and chooses Ace Gap and Rich Mountain Trails. Since Rich Mountain is only 2.3 miles long, the chances of completing the trail are excellent, and it will nicely round out my Rich Mountain Loop, Indian Grave Gap, and Crooked Arm hike from May.
It’s a lovely Saturday morning, and 19 Frondlers meet at the cabin several of us rented just outside the park boundary on Old Cades Cove Rd. We drive to the trail heads and gather for our traditional group photo before heading in opposite directions. I’m thrilled that our group leader is Paul Durr, an excellent botanist who loves to discuss identifying characteristics for trees and any other plant. We work our way up the trail counting ferns, photographing lizards and toads, knocking beetles senseless, and learning trees. Paul gives us a full rundown of the hickories in the park. We even find a 30’ tall Chestnut with no indication of blight.
Rich Mountain Trail features a small area of limestone where plants that are not often seen in the park may be found. Redbud, Shagbark Hickory, Purple Cliffbrake Fern, and Yellow Pimpernel attest to a higher soil pH. Paul believes we may also have found Appalachian Bugbane (Cimicifuga rubifolia), a state-listed rare plant not currently included in park plant listings. Further down the trail, we find a lovely Upland Spreading Pogonia (Cleistes bifaria) in perfect flower and the showy Purple-flowering Raspberry. We document many of the common ferns in the park, and near the trail’s end discover a lush patch of Cinnamon Fern.
Along the way we stop to admire and photograph two Eastern American Toads and one Eastern Fence Lizard. During our lunch break, a metallic wood-boring Jewel Beetle (likely Dicera sp.) flies into my forehead and drops lifeless in my lap. We photograph his beautiful coppery iridescence while in his stunned state and after his recovery. A borrowed micro lens gives me a truly fantastic shot of this little guy.
After lunch, a thunderstorm rumbles behind us and keeps us on a steady pace. The storm is closer to Pat’s survey team on Ace Gap Trail prompting them to end early. We make it all the way to Indian Grave Gap, with our last plot just a few yards from the trail junction. We have had a great day, and I’m one trail closer to my goal.