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Albemarle-Pamlico National Estuary Partnership - Soundings 2012-05-22

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Soundings

Treading softly on the banks of the mighty Roanoke

By Jim Hawhee, APNEP Staff
May 22, 2012

A small creek feeding into the Roanoke River.

Jackson, N.C.- In 2012, APNEP is supporting a team of the state’s best biologists as they conduct ecological surveys on the banks of the Tar and Roanoke Rivers.

The floodplains of these brownwater rivers are home to a rich collection of the state’s rare plant and animal species. The N.C. Natural Heritage Program is leading the survey effort, with support also provided by the N.C. Natural Heritage Trust Fund.

A team of biologists assigned to the project recently headed to Jackson, N.C. for a day in the field. Their destination was the Camassia Slopes Preserve, a tract of land owned by The Nature Conservancy on the banks of the Roanoke River.

Camassia Slopes was first discovered by the Natural Heritage Program in 1979, and the land was donated to The Nature Conservancy in 1982. On the north side of the Roanoke River, the property is named for the wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) found along its banks. As a nature preserve, the area is only accessible to the public through guided tours by Nature Conservancy staff.

Camassia scilloides

Wild hyacinth, Camassia scilloides

On the trip from Raleigh to Jackson, the anticipation was palpable from these self-described “plant geeks.”

“It’s a treasure hunt!” exclaimed Misty Buchanan, inventory manager for the Natural Heritage Program.

The wild hyacinth was the subject of much discussion. While the plant is a bit more common in the Midwest, it is found in only three locations in North Carolina, and Camassia Slopes is the premier location to view them in the state.

Misty Buchanan uses a taxonomic key to identiy a specimen

Misty Buchanan uses a taxonomic key to identify a specimen.

Once on site, the team made its way up the floodplain slopes. As if tracking an escaped inmate from nearby Odum Prison, the team quickly split up to cover more ground. Armed with notepads and a GPS, they relayed their findings to one another in raised voices. While their shorthand language is difficult to understand for the uninitiated (a combination of acronyms, Latin, and the occasional English), it served the seasoned team well as they collected field data.

A number of rare and threatened species were identified and catalogued during the survey, including sessile trillium, eastern isopyrum, James’ sedge, and the veined skullcap. The team of scientists had to be particularly careful as they traversed the slopes. Some areas were quite dense with rare plants and one careless step could mean squashing a state treasure.

Ecologist Harry LeGrand has been with the state’s Natural Heritage Program since the 1980s and visited this site last in 1990. While he was pleased that viable populations of many rare species continue to thrive, he noted some differences. Chickweed, an invasive species which can also be found in unkempt front yards, seemed to be denser since his last visit. He also noted more downed trees, many of which were likely uprooted by Hurricane Irene. When these trees fall and the canopy is opened, it can pave the way for invasive or exotic plants to move into the area, potentially jeopardizing the site’s rare plant communities.

Ecologist Harry Legrand examines a specimen

Harry LeGrand examines a specimen using a hand lens, an indispensible tool for field surveys.

Information collected through surveys like these helps to prioritize land for protection along the Roanoke and Tar-Pamlico rivers. Preserving areas of biological value protects not only the species and natural communities at the site, but also provides water quality benefits for the sounds to the east.

A recently published paper in Nature, one of the world’s most respected scientific journals, showed that the loss of biodiversity can impact ecosystems as much as climate change or pollution. The first step to stemming biodiversity losses in the Albemarle-Pamlico region is to ensure that natural communities are well studied and high priority sites are protected. The Natural Heritage Program has been undertaking this valuable work for more than 35 years, and their redoubled efforts in the region will provide valuable information to guide future conservation efforts.

Laura Gadd takes a break to enjoy the field of Camassia

Laura Gadd takes a moment to enjoy the field of Camassia.

Botanist Laura Gadd said the trip was “one for the history books” after enjoying lunch sitting among more than 500 rare hyacinths. Despite more than five years working in North Carolina as a botanist, it was the first time she’d seen this species. The team’s enthusiasm for its work was evident, but no expertise was necessary to enjoy the warm spring day in one of eastern North Carolina’s most ecologically pristine places.

 

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