A Medley of the Trail’s Flora & Fauna

On cool, fall days the W&OD Trail asphalt is used by creatures other than those jogging or riding bicycles. Snakes of all kinds slither onto the dark, warm surface to absorb the heat. The snake that is most often seen on the trail is the black rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta).

black rat snakeThe adult snake is shiny black with white specks on the edges of some scales. The juvenile rat snake can have dark gray or brown blotches on a light gray background.

About twelve inches long when hatched, the adult rat snake can reach a length of eight feet.

This nonpoisonous snake eats any warm-blooded prey, killing by constriction. Its primary victims are rats, mice, birds and the eggs of birds. Because of its value in rodent control, the rat snake is a bit more immune to man’s prejudices than most snakes. Natural predators include foxes, bobcats, opossums, raccoons, weasels, skunks and hawks.

The black rat snake is to be found mostly in forests, small wood lots, and around large buildings such as barns. It is also an excellent climber and spends much of the time in trees and vegetation above the ground. When frightened on the ground, the rat snake will shake its tail, which, in dry leaves, produces a credible imitation of a rattlesnake.

Although the black rat snake is non-poisonous and lacks the fangs that most poisonous snakes have, it does possess teeth. When disturbed, it will coil up and strike at intruders, and can inflict a painful bite. Thus, this snake — as well as all of the rest of the wildlife on the W&OD Trail — should be observed from a discreet distance and be left to go about its business.

Mouse bear, weatherman, woodchuck or groundhog? While walking or riding along the W&OD Trail you may have seen a thick, squat, ten-to-fourteen pound animal with thick brown fur and a bushy six-inch tail. This is the groundhog (Marmota monax), popularly celebrated for its ability to predict the propinquity of spring.

The embankments that were created when the railroad bed was laid down make the W&OD Trail an ideal habitat for this mammal; the mounds of excavated soil piled around the entrance easily mark the location of a groundhog’s burrow. Also, since the power company trims all of the vegetation in the vicinity of the power lines every two years, the low grasses that the groundhog loves grow in abundance and thus provide an abundance of food.

A true hibernator, the groundhog retires in the fall and seldom emerges from its den before March. During the winter its body temperature drops from 99 to 37 degrees Fahrenheit and its heart rate falls from 80 to 5 beats per minute. The animal survives by drawing upon the great store of fat which it has laid up during the preceding summer and fall, when it will often eat as much as a pound of grass — nearly 10 percent of its body weight — at a single sitting.

You may have already noticed how, when it senses danger or an intruder, the groundhog lumbers off at top speed — six to eight miles per hour.

wood duckIntroducing … one of the most colorful animals on Earth! The Wood duck (Aix sponsa)! You don’t have to go to Costa Rica or even the zoo to find it. A walk along the W&OD Trail in the Vienna area will afford a view of this gorgeous duck, sometimes called the “squealer” (because of its voice). The male Wood duck, with its crest, fiery red eyes, and dazzling greens, blacks, reds, brown-yellows, and whites, is truly a sight to see; in fact, the splendor of its plummage, suggestive of (certainly garish) formal wear, is reflected in its taxonomic name, for sponsa means “betrothed” in Latin. The female Wood duck is more drab, but attractive nonetheless.

The “woodie” is rather common in Virginia during all seasons except winter. Normally the duck is found in pairs or small groups, but may congregate in the fall before migration. “Woodies” live near still or slow-moving bodies of water that have suitable large trees — or man-made boxes — for nesting. Nesting season starts in late winter or early spring, and the female lays ten to fifteen eggs that hatch in about thirty days. Once out of the nest, the ducklings require another two months before they learn to fly.

Predators prevent slightly more than half of the ducklings from surviving to adulthood. Snapping turtles eat the eggs; minks, raccoons, etc. feed on unwary or unguarded nestlings and fledglings.

During the first months of life, “woodies” eat insects and soft vegetation such as duckweed (which, incidentally, is the world’s smallest flowering plant). Adults, however, eat mostly nuts and seeds — acorns, beechnuts, etc.

The wood duck was one of the many varieties of waterfowl which was nearly driven to extinction in the early 1900’s. Because its flesh was particularly popular among consumers of that era, the bird was hunted ferociously; and, its nesting areas were ravaged by careless logging practices. Although the “woodie” is doing well today, it still faces many pressures, the most serious of which is the continued destruction of its habitat.




Clustered blooms of one variety (Asclepias tuberosa) of the butterfly milkweed glow in the westering sun of early summer. The leaves of the plant are the sole source of nourishment for the Monarch caterpillar, and that diet preserves the distinctively marked creature against predation by rendering its flesh extremely unpalatable, even toxic. When it emerges metamorphosed from the chrysalis, the butterfly, also distinctively marked and unpalatable, possesses a proboscis instead of jaws so that it is able to feed only on fluids.

Because of the loss of much of the milkweed along the path of this butterfly’s lengthy annual migration through the United States from its hibernating grounds in the forests of Central Mexico to Canada, the World Wildlife Fund has instituted a volunteer program, the Monarch Squad, through participation in which citizens are encouraged to prevent a significant collapse of the population (sometimes termed a “quasi-extinction”) by planting milkweed along the migratory path of this species.




With its stamens curling like long sticks of sugar-dusted blue taffy, the center of the chicory (Cichorium intybus) blossom forms the natural allure of one of the most generously distributed weeds to be found along the Trail. Ancient Roman gardeners actively cultivated the plant for its leaves (used in salads); some moderns continue the practice. Practitioners of herbal medicine prepare a tea from the root, and maintain that the beverage helps to soothe the “sour stomach.”




Crown vetch/crownvetch (Coronilla varia), which is native to Europe, southeast Asia, and northern Africa, is considered to be an invasive species, and yet it is commonly planted along roads and waterways in order to provide quickly and easily ground cover for the control of erosion. Although the nitroglycosides that it contains are toxic to horses and non-ruminants, animals that chew the cud are able to ingest this plant to no ill effect.

N.B.: Both chicory and crown vetch — but not butterfly milkweed — are considered to be invasive, non-native species and, as such, the Friends advocate the cultivation or encouragement of neither along the Trail.
The FCPA publishes a pamphlet that treats of all of the invasive species in our area. That document may be obtained by sending a check for $10.45 (payable to the FCPA) along with a note stating that the money is for the non-native invasive plant ID book to:

    Resource Management Division
    12055 Government Center, Suite 936
    Fairfax, VA 22035


EPSON DSC picture

Often spotted on the Trail as it plods along (stopping now and again to crane its neck), the eastern box turtle — Carolina terapene terapene — has been firmly established in our area for many millions of years. Although this fascinating reptile has not yet become an officially endangered species, it is most certainly at real, ever-increasing risk due to the ongoing (and accelerating) destruction of native habitat, climatological change, AND the well-meaning hikers and children who, when they take the turtle home, inevitably bring about its premature death. This final risk, of course, is one that is within everyone’s direct power to eliminate easily: if you should happen upon one of these grapefruit-sized, brown and yellow tanks, simply enjoy its company in the wild, but please DO NOT take it home.

An entertainingly reflective appreciation of the virtues of our regional testudinate was framed for the North Carolina Legislature when that body decided to adopt the turtle as the official state reptile in 1979:

H. B. 384 CHAPTER 154
WHEREAS, the turtle is a most useful creature who serves to control harmful and pestiferous insects, and acts as one of nature’s clean-up crew, helping to preserve the purity and beauty of our waters; and
WHEREAS, the turtle is derided by some who have missed the finer things of life, but in some species has provided food that is a gourmet’s delight; and
WHEREAS, the turtle, which at a superficial glance appears to be a mundane and uninteresting creature, is actually a most fascinating creature, ranging from species well adapted to modern conditions to species which have existed virtually unchanged since prehistoric times; and
WHEREAS, the turtle watches undisturbed as countless generations of faster hares run by to quick oblivion, and is thus a model of patience for mankind, and a symbol of this State’s unrelenting pursuit of great and lofty goals; and
WHEREAS, the woodlands, marshes, and inland and coastal waters of North Carolina are the abode of many species of turtles; Now, therefore,
The General Assembly of North Carolina enacts:
Section 1. G.S. Chapter 145 is amended by adding a new section as follows:
“§ 145-9. State reptile.— The turtle is adopted as the official State reptile of the State of North Carolina, and the eastern box turtle is designated as the emblem representing the turtles inhabiting North Carolina.”