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New discoveries

We’ve kept a biological inventory of our end of Brush Mountain since we moved here in August 1971, and I can’t remember the last time we added three new species in a single day — probably not since the early 70s. Today’s haul shows the value of having additional pairs of eyes to help out; it may or may not be indicative of increasing biodiversity overall.

brown snake 2

We owe two of the finds to our neighbors, Troy and Paula Scott. While moving some old boards around the wreckage of the former McHugh house, they uncovered a brown snake, Soreria dekayi. It’s not an especially uncommon snake, but we’ve never found one on the mountain before. Given especially my older brother Steve’s sharp eyes and tendency to find anything and everything of interest when he was a kid, especially when it came to birds, insects and reptiles, I feel reasonably certain that this species hasn’t been present for too many decades.

painted turtle 1

Later in the day, driving up the road, the Scotts found this turtle in one of the tire tracks. Again, Paula’s cellphone camera helped to clinch the identification: painted turtle (Chrysemys picta). This is a very common species indeed, but not one you’d expect to find marching up the Plummer’s Hollow Boulevard, a half-mile from the nearest pond. It was only a couple hundred yards from the entrance to the hollow, so perhaps it was dispersing from a population in the Little Juniata River. The river doesn’t seem like very good painted turtle habitat, though.

painted turtle 2

One thing’s for certain: it isn’t going to find any habitat at all if it continues up the hollow. The vernal pools at the very top of the watershed, some two miles from the bottom of the hollow, persist in a wet spring just long enough to graduate a few wood frogs before they dry up.

wild coffee 1

I’m perhaps most excited by the third find of the day: wild coffee or feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum. We’d invited an amateur botanist friend to come take a look at our three-acre deer exclosure, which is ten years old now and beginning to get really lush. We figured she might spot something we’d overlooked, and sure enough, she did. Even better luck: it was in bloom.

wild coffee 2

This was not only a new species for the mountain, but one neither Mom nor I had ever run across anywhere else. Our friend remarked that she’d associated it with a limestone substrate, and was surprised to encounter it on our acidic soil.

wild coffee 3

As the common names suggest, it has a variety of interesting cultural uses: the fruit can be dried, roasted, and ground as a coffee substitute, and the roots can deployed against fever, irregular or profuse menses, and stomach trouble caused by witchcraft, among other things. More than that, though, it’s just a very unique-looking plant, and at over four feet in height, has a real presence. I’m happy to have made its acquaintance.