By Cory Chase
After a couple years of hibernation, the Conservancy’s outings program has been emerging back into the hills and hollers of the Highlands. Our outings program had an exciting re-launch this year with a Candy Darter/Hellbender Snorkeling Outing on the Greenbrier River. (See our recap video on Facebook) Upcoming outings—including our annual Fall Review—are listed in other parts of the Voice (with signup links for our online readers).
On July 16, about 20 people met at the US Forest Service’s Greenbrier Ranger District Office in Bartow, WV. Honestly, even just driving down to Bartow was a real treat. Wildflowers, greenery, the beautiful interplay of sunshine, mountains, and clouds…snorkeling in clean water and learning about aquatic habitat was the cherry on top. WV is a summer delight.
Our outing leader was Chad Landress, US Forest Service Forest Fisheries Biologist. Chad secured a grant back in 2017 to purchase snorkeling equipment and wetsuits for outings like this one. He gave us an intro to the equipment and how to fit yourself for a wetsuit.
While this summer has been hot, we were all grateful for the wetsuits…although putting on and taking off a wetsuit is a small feat and quite the workout in and of itself. It was worth the struggle; the Greenbrier River was still plenty cold! Chad led us to a spot a few miles from the Ranger Station. About 100 feet from the parking area was a small stone beach that set the scene for our underwater exploration. Easy-peasy! The group managed to avoid any stormy weather and everyone got to see some of the aquatic species in a short section of the Greenbrier River near Island Campground.
Chad mentioned that farmers upstream had a conservation mindset and have been protecting the waterways coming from their farm by keeping livestock away from small streams and the Greenbrier River. Every river should be so lucky.
When we arrived, the group noticed that someone had built up a small rock dam of sorts where we were planning to snorkel. Naturally, there was a large black snake basking on the warm rocks. Unfortunately for that snake, we had to give them the boot (or the water shoe, in this case….but really, it left before anyone had to make contact with it so no snakes were harmed in the enjoyment of this outing).
Folks from the group made short work of disassembling the unnatural rock wall. But before anyone stepped into the water, Chad pointed out a colorful (and less muddy) pebble pile near the rock wall. It was a bigmouth chub mound. Bigmouth chub (Nocomis platyrhynchus) build these mounds with small rocks, moving them one by one to make a round mound about two feet in diameter where they lay their eggs. We saw many of these mounds in the short 100 feet or so of river that we snorkeled in. And the chubs that lived there didn’t seem too bothered by us much at all. They seemed as curious about us as we were about them.
We also saw a Hellbender (Cryptobranchus alleganiensis)! Chad seems to know some of the Hellbenders by name because it was not long after getting into the water that he found one and people milled through to see a Hellbender up close…in its natural habitat, to boot. I must say, it was hard to see it at first. If you didn’t have an underwater flashlight, you’d be hard pressed to see it at all. They blend in very well with the rocks and this one was fairly covered in the same brown muck that covers the rocks. But a few movements of the head and especially its little white fingertips set it apart from the rock it so closely resembled. All around this Hellbender den we saw many of the crayfish and fish that make up the backbone of the Hellbender diet.
Chad explained a theory of his that they live under rocks and have a sort of den that they can retreat back into in case some predator like an otter or racoon attacks it. But they tend to wait at their front door in case a different predator shows up: snakes. Chad’s theory is that they do not want to be caught in their cozy den with a snake who can easily get in. So, the theory goes that Hellbenders will leave their den to face off with snakes since they presumably have a better chance of fighting or fleeing if they are not battling in their small den.
Some attendees saw an endangered candy darter (Etheostoma osburni) but not everyone was so fortunate. The candy darter is a flamboyantly colored fish that is native to the Gauley, Greenbrier and New River watersheds, mostly in WV with some in VA, and nowhere else. Candy darter is typically an indicator species for cold, clean water. They are extremely sensitive to sedimentation, which affects their ability to lay their eggs and find shelter from bigger fish that would like to eat them. They are also becoming more threatened from being hybridized by other darter species like the variegated darter. Other more common species that were spotted include crayfish (not sure which species), rosyside dace (Clinostomus funduloides), and other darter species.
WVHC would like to thank everyone who made the trip. We would also like to thank Chad Landress and the Monongahela National Forest for collaborating with us to do this outing. We hope to repeat this outing next year and continue to do them into the future.