Things That Go Slither in the Night

Kids at last year’s Pink Beds BioBlitz make close observations before recording their wilderness findings in journals. Photos by TJ Smith.

In the 1770s, settlers edging east from Tennessee found, in a cove of Pisgah National Forest, a bowl-shaped valley full of azalea, laurel, rhododendron, and helonias (swamp flowers) thriving in rare mountain bogs. They called the glen Pink Beds, and the name stuck — although, in modern times, shifting biodynamics makes the “pink” part more commemorative than descriptive.

And today’s pioneers look more like curious fourth graders than intrepid homesteaders. Last fall, Courtney Long, interpretive specialist at the area’s Cradle of Forestry — the heritage site where scientific forest management was born — and Cindy Carpenter, who manages the facility’s education programs, organized the Pink Beds BioBlitz to celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial. It went over well with 10-year-olds and couch naturalists alike, so the Cradle is hosting another go-round for spring.

The concept behind a bio-blitz isn’t new. Arguably, citizen-science projects date back to Galileo. In Renaissance Italy, the polymath held public lectures to try to convince doubters that Earth didn’t resemble a coffee table. Bio-blitzes also call for public inclusion, but the focus is less controversial: participants are trained to document flora and fauna in a specific zone.

Around 60 attendees — elementary schoolers to PhD biologists — break into groups and photograph everything they see. Close inspection (via magnifying glasses) and real-time journaling is also encouraged. The pictures and descriptions are later uploaded to iNaturalist.org, where a virtual science community helps identify the plants and animals. Finding a rare species is exciting — but Long says the Pink Beds BioBlitz is about connecting people with nature, not so much unearthing Sasquatch or some other unicorn species.

“Pisgah belongs to us; it’s our inheritance,” she says. “We deserve to stop for a second and take a closer look.”

It’s 5pm on a Friday, and Long is waiting for sunset to begin hiking. Under cover of night’s anonymity, elusive salamanders squirm from woodland hideouts — decaying logs, moist organic material, mossy river rocks — to hunt moths, while bats on wing sip stream water, not even pausing their flight.

When darkness takes Pisgah, the Pink Beds transforms. The forest becomes more fanciful and alive. Mountain Doghobble (a leathery evergreen) cloaks river beds, rat snakes part fern fronds with a rustle, and brown-headed nuthatches squeak like rubber ducks. Long isn’t fazed by things that go bump in the night. The warm-weather cacophony of cicadas can be a little unnerving, though, so she brings a flashlight and listens hard for the guttural “ribbit” of bog frogs, and keeps a watch out for glowing eyes that could be, well, almost anything.

At last year’s bio-blitz, says Long, a mother-daughter team spotted eight to 10 salamanders of three different species — Red, Blue Ridge Grey-Cheeked, and Northern Slimy — right as it got dark. The terrestrial amphibians poked their heads out from a log about the same time that snails began their nocturnal creep.

Seeing what lurks in a protected forest can be an awakening experience, but in nurturing a naturalist mindset, the Cradle has even loftier goals. “It’s about protecting public lands for future use,” says Long.

The Cradle of Forestry will host the Pink Beds BioBlitz on Saturday, May 20, 6:30am-10pm. Free. Visit cradleofforestry.com for directions and more information, or e-mail Courtney Long at courtney@cfaia.org.

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