Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Great Dismal Swamp

On Saturday, August 11, 2007 my friend Buddy & I went to the Great Dismal Swamp, near Suffolk, Virginia. It was beautiful, but not quite what I expected a swamp to look like. That is probably because we were there during the dry season. We saw lots of butterflies, lots of poison ivy, a few birds, and quite a bit of recent storm damage.
The birds we sighted were a large hawk or golden eagle, a hairy woodpecker and a downy woodpecker. I was surprised by how few birds we encountered. The butterflies were plentiful, especially the red-spotted purple and red admiral. We also saw a few angle-wings, checkerspots, skippers, blues & hairstreaks. The most interesting sight was of two purples, an angle-wing, & big black beetle & some flies on the leg of a dead frog. I had never thought that butterflies were carrion eaters, but in retrospect I think they were after the moisture. We also saw about half a dozen red & black velvet ants, which were solitary, an unusual habit for ants. It turns out that the creature just looked like an ant; it is actually a female wasp. We did some research on the Internet to find out what it was, and learned that if the "ant" is walking, it is female; the males fly. As with all wasps they do sting, so it's best to refrain from picking them up or letting them crawl on you.
We also researched poison ivy because a lot of what we saw did not match what Buddy knows to be poison ivy. We learned that the leaves have many looks: they are all 3-part, but they can be large and dull in late summer, with smooth edges. Only the new leaves are the tradtional shiny. Poison ivy can be an herbacious vine, a woody vine or a bush, and sometimes the woody vines can be so attached to the tree that it is difficult to realize it is not part of the tree. We encountered that situation very closely on a fallen tree that was blocking the path, but fortunately neither of us ended up with an outbreak even though at least one of us touched it before realizing what it was. Poison ivy is deciduous; the leaves turn a beautiful shade of red in the fall, but the bare vines are not specifically recognizable, so it's best to stay away from any bare vines. Poison ivy grows in areas that have been disturbed, and at the edge of forested areas.
The flowers we saw included wild orange impatiens (touch-me-not), red cardinal flower, milkweed and wandering jew. There were many ferns growing also.
All the paths are we saw are clearly marked: we entered the park at the Washington Ditch, where there is a rutted road that apparently leads to Lake Drummond. There is also elevated wooden Dismal Town Boardwalk Trial, next to the Washington Ditch parking area. There are restrooms at that entrance, which are primitive, but clean (they didn't smell bad when we were there).
It is also possible to take a Narrated Bus Tour that leaves from the Suffolk Visitor Center on Main Street at 9:30am & returns at 1:30pm. The tour runs on Saturdays from July through September. The cost is very reasonable at $10 for adults and $8 for Seniors over 60 and children ages 3-12. We enjoyed the walking we did, especially since we were looking at flowers, birds & insects, but we would definitely consider doing the bus tour in the future.

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