RareQuest, a partnership between the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Natural Heritage Program and the Virginia Master Naturalists, is an adventure in the making.  The Natural Heritage Program maintains a database of over 9,000 species rare in Virginia. By using the volunteers of the Master Naturalist program, the status of these species can be assessed more efficiently.The Headwaters Chapter has two teams of volunteers working with the RareQuest project who have been using their mobile devices to collect and track observations in the field.

The species that the two Headwaters Master Naturalist teams are searching for include:

Headwaters Team 1: Kathy Byers, Eric Jones, Andy Sale, Frances Sale, Chris Bowlen
Lanius ludovicianus – Loggerhead shrike
Arabis patens – Spreading rock cress
Eleocharis compressa – Flat stem spike rush
Solidago rupestris – Rock golden rod

Headwaters Team 2: Elaine Smith, Ginny Hoffman, Chip Brown
Clematis viticaulis – Millboro leatherflower, grape clematis
Filipendula rubra – Queen of the prairie
Quercus macrocarpa – Bur oak

Biologists at the Natural Heritage Program provide historical records of the locations of rare plant and animal species to each group who then go into the field to verify that the target species is present.

While some of the sites are on public lands, other locations are found on private property and permission to access the land is required. Some land owners give permission freely while others have been reluctant to allow volunteers on their property. Property owners are not required to allow access and if these plants or animals are found on their property, there are no obligations to protect or conserve the population or habitat.

The Headwaters Team 2 made their first site visit on private property in early June looking for the Millboro leatherflower (Clematis viticaulis).  According to the Flora of Virginia, this rare plant is endemic to Virginia and only found on shale barrens of Rockbridge and Bath Counties. The terrain was extremely challenging at the site where the clematis was last observed. After scrambling along the steep hillside, the team observed the maturing fruit (achenes) of the plant, but realized that they may have been too late in the season to see the plant in full flower. They continued their search along the hillside and as they were circling back, nearing a point where they started, Ginny spotted a single plant with a flower on it! Though the flower was still present, it was very mature and delicate, the petals barely hanging on to the base. It was an exciting find and one that made the wet feet and scramble on the hillside worth it.

With the success of their first outing, the team was eager to explore the second site. Based on an observation from 1989 on private property in Augusta County, the team planned their second outing, hopeful that they would find the rare plant, queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra). Upon arrival at the site and to the surprise of the team, the land owner, who acquired the property after the original observation, called and wanted to meet the team.  He was curious of the exact location and species of the search. He was appreciative of our work and interested in our findings.

The site included a swampy forest and open wetland that was soaked from the significant rain of May and June. Alder, cedar, green brier, roses, and sedges with extremely rough edges, poked and scraped the searchers. Despite their efforts and to the disappointment of the team, no specimen of the plant was observed. The reason the plant is no longer found at this site at this time is difficult to tell. Perhaps changes to habitat in the last 25 years, perhaps it is lurking in the background only to emerge when the conditions are right.

Headwaters Team 2 will continue their work with RareQuest later in the summer when they search for the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa). No matter what they find at their final site for the season, the team has been able to explore some unique and inaccessible habitats and in the process learned more about a few of the rare species of Virginia.


Ginny and Chip navigating rough terrain. © Elaine Smith

More information about the RareQuest project in general can be found at http://www.virginiamasternaturalist.org/rarequest.html.

– Chip Brown, Cohort II, July 2016

Top photo: Ginny Hoffman finds the Millboro leatherflower plant with maturing seeds. Photo credit Chip Brown


See Elaine Smith’s Flickr album HERE for more photos of Team 2’s first trip.