Thursday, February 23, 2017

Pure Joy


For a quarter-century, I have been censusing the birds that nest and breed in a 40-acre woods in my preserve.  On eight mornings at the end of May and beginning of June, I have awoken at the crack of dawn, wolfed down a quick snack, power-walked 20 minutes to the tract, and then begun censusing.  For the next three hours and ten minutes, I have scanned the trees with my binoculars and pricked up my ears to catch the slightest hint of birdsong.
The forest is not the most dramatic or beautiful woods in my preserve.  Most of it was farmland until about 1920, but a new owner abandoned agriculture and allowed the woods to return.  The canopy is still young and not very diverse--mostly quick colonizing and rapidly growing tuliptrees and ashes (which, alas, are now under attack by the devastating emerald ash borer beetle, imported from China).  Nevertheless, it is the woodland I've come to know the best in my preserve.
And I've come to know its birds, too, especially the Ovenbirds.  Ovenbirds are aberrant warblers that look more like small thrushes.  They skulk around furtively in the duff and the low understory, defending their territory with their distinctive and increasingly strident tripartite teacher-TEACHER-TEACHER call.  The birds are much more often heard than seen, but since I spend so much time in the woods with them, I'm bound to observe one or two each spring.

The Ovenbirds and their offspring are remarkably faithful to territories.  I could probably outline the birds' territories each spring without even venturing into the woods - which is what distressed me when I learned that a part of the woods I've come to know so intimately was for sale.  I originally included this five-acre woods in my census area because it was owned by an individual who I thought would never sell it for development.  I was proved wrong in 2016, though, when the owner announced plans to sell the land for housing.  The land included the territory of an Ovenbird (or its offspring) that I had documented from my very first census in 1991.
I could clearly imagine an Ovenbird returning to its breeding grounds from the tropics, anticipating re-asserting its territory, only to find that its woodland had been leveled.

Fortunately, the landowner was willing to work with my organization to try to protect the land permanently.  The landowner delayed a sale until my organization could work with the state to secure open space funding.

When the landowner finally sold the land to my organization on Tuesday afternoon, February 21, I practically leapt for joy knowing that one Ovenbird pair evermore would have a place to raise its brood.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Winter Solstice Walk


Kali on the rail-trail through my preserve approaching a rock cut
After a really cold week, temperatures moderated yesterday.  So, I took an hour's comp time in mid-afternoon to walk in my preserve with Kali (who retired in October and is, thus, available for a walk on a moment's notice).

I wanted to get outside to enjoy the blue skies, the stark woodlands, and the low-angled sunlight.
American beech-dominated woodland slope
At the base of the the slope pictured above, a small spring-fed brook wanders through mucky bottomlands (below).
Years ago, someone planted two cypress trees on the edge of the brook.  Though they're outside their natural range (closest natural occurrence is in southern Delaware, about 50 miles south), the trees have survived and grown well.  They even sport their characteristic knees.
Cypress knees
The rock cut from the first image; I like this abstract play of angles, sunlight and shadows
Large boulder in the shady woods

Monday, November 28, 2016

Flight 93 National Menorial


Entrance to the Flight 93 National Memorial. Grey stone walkway is the flight path.
On our way back from Pittsburgh to our home in southeastern Pennsylvania earlier this month, Kali and I detoured to visit the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, between Somerset and Bedford.

The memorial, which consists of a museum/visitor center situated directly on the path of the doomed flight, is embraced by a long, semicircular walk that leads to the site of the crash.  The walk eventually will be shaded by 40 groves of trees to commemorate each of the passengers and crew members killed on September 11, 2001.  To date, some of the groves have been planted, but the memorial is still a work in progress.

Nonetheless, visiting the site is extraordinarily moving and emotional.  There were lots of tears among everyone there--including Kali's and mine. 
View back toward the museum along the flight path
Crash site overlook at the end of the flight path walkway
The actual crash site is marked by a large sandstone boulder, which is barely visible in the image below, just short of the line of hemlocks.  The plane hit the ground at over 500 miles per hour, so the passengers' remains are in place and protected in the grassy field beyond the white gate.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Visit with JP (Pittsburgh is SO Hilly)


Kali and JP sharing home-made apple pie
Kali and I visited Pittsburgh two weeks ago so that I could deliver a talk about invasive plants to a garden club (see previous post).  Kali and I both earned doctoral degrees from the University of Pittsburgh (Kali: English; Scott: Biological Sciences) while we lived in Pittsburgh from 1976 until 1981, so we "know" the city and still have friends there.  On the way back home, we stopped to visit a friend from graduate school days  Jan-Paul (JP) was teaching English as an adjunct at Pitt when we lived in Pittsburgh and we became close friends.  JP has eclectic interests in classical music, literature, European languages, natural history (he's a much better naturalist than I), and especially gardening.  He even served as the gardener for Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer at their estate north of New York City for a few years.  Alas, JP was eccentric, peripatetic and couldn't settle down, so he never earned a really "good" living.  He loved Pittsburgh, and when it came time to retire he looked for a place he could afford there, finally buying a fixer-upper in the city's working-class Greenfield neighborhood for $120,000.
View of the back of the house
Of course, he immediately set about transforming the derelict yard into his own eclectic garden.
View toward the street of the garden between the house and garage
He spends much more time in the garden than in the house.

View from the back of the house through the late-October garden
The reason JP bought this house was for the expansive view from the back.  The house is perched 100 feet from the edge of a very steep slope tumbling down to the Monongahela River, affording wonderful views to the south.
Backyard garden looking southwest
The area immediately below JP's house was the site of the Homestead coke works when Pittsburgh was "Steel City."  His neighbor, who has lived next door her entire life, said that her mother couldn't hang laundry outside to dry or it would get dirtier than it was before it was washed when the coke works were operating.  Today, the coke works are gone and the area is being redeveloped for apartments and retail.

In the image below, a tributary valley is visible across the river at the left of the image.  The next valley upstream (just to the left but outside the range of the image) is the drainage of Hay's Run.  There have been a pair of Bald Eagles nesting in the Hay's Run valley for the last few years, and JP says he sees them cruising on the thermals occasionally.
View southward across the Monongahela River
Kali and I had forgotten how hilly Pittsburgh is.  If Pittsburgh were wealthier and had better housing stock, it would be celebrated as the San Francisco of the East.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Pittsburgh Botanic Garden


A decade ago, a colleague invited me to collaborate on a project at the site of what was destined to become the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden.  The site was within Settlers Cabin Park, one of Allegheny County's parks in the southwestern Pittsburgh suburbs near the airport.  The land had largely been strip mined for coal and then abandoned until it was purchased by the county for a future park.  Since mining ended, the scarred hillsides had naturally reforested, although the streams draining the area were still poisoned by acid mine drainage.  Our collaborative project was to evaluate the site for invasive, non-native plants, and to develop a management plan.  After we completed our report, I didn't hear anything else about the garden.

Two weeks ago, I delivered a talk about invasive plants to a joint meeting of the Village Garden Club/Garden Club of Allegheny County.  In speaking with the garden clubs' members, I asked about the status of the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden - who better to know about progress on "my" project?  Few of the people with whom I spoke knew much, and I don't think any of the garden club members had ever visited the garden.  So, after my talk, I dragged Kali and our friend/host/former employee Rhonda out to the garden to look it over.  What follows are images I made there.
The attractive Visitor Center, used mostly for revenue-generating functions (e.g., weddings, etc.)
The garden is just getting off the ground.  The concept is in place and trails have been blazed, but the garden is in its earliest stages of development.  Most of the land is still covered in young woodlands and meadows, with trails cut through to provide access.  And, invasive plants are ubiquitous!  
Friend Rhonda under a pergola
Birdhouse in the goldenrod meadow
Kali and Rhonda in the goldenrod meadow
I liked this image because it looked very impressionistic
Backlit goldenrod
Backlit tuliptree leaf
A "folly" in the forest
Woodland trail
The garden administrators have decided to install environmental artwork throughout the trail network as an added attraction.  Most of the work is not of the highest caliber, and some is downright unappealing and shoddy (in my opinion).  However, the evocative wooden installation below was stunning.  (Ignore the bizarre thatched "tiki houses" in the background.)
We visited the garden during late afternoon, which illuminated the tops of the trees perfectly to capture autumn's glory.
The most highly developed section of the facility is the Oriental Garden.  Its central focus is a huge lily pond surrounded by a paved walkway.

Kali (left) and Rhonda on a boardwalk near the lily pond
Rhonda (left) and Kali on steppingstones crossing the upper end of the lily pond

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The lily pond serves a dual purpose:  it is the aesthetic centerpiece of the Oriental Garden, and it is also an ingenious system to treat acid mine drainage in the stream that feeds the pond.  The garden received a significant environmental grant to create this treatment system.
At the end of our walk, we arrived at the eponymous "settlers' cabin," which has been lovingly and carefully restored.

We enjoyed a very pleasant late afternoon autumn stroll through the woods and fields, but the garden fells "raw" and has a long way to go before it becomes a real horticultural asset for the Pittsburgh area.  Maybe, by the next time that I'm invited to speak ten years hence, I can share more progress.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Wissahickon Part 2: Forbidden Drive

Bell's Mill Road Bridge, viewed upstream
After Kali and I finished exploring Houston Meadows (previous post), which is located on a high, flat bluff above Wissahickon Creek, we descended the steep valley slope to the stream.  An old carriage road parallels the western bank of the creek for seven miles.  Because vehicles are prohibited from using the old road, it is called Forbidden Drive.  Forbidden Drive is one of the most heavily used recreational amenities in the city, with walkers, runners, equestrians, and bicyclists all mixed together in a generally congenial stew. 
Wissahickon Creek downstream of Bell's Mill Bridge
The land that is now Wissahickon Valley Park was a colonial industrial valley with mills and roads throughout.  The city bought the land in the late 19th century because Wissahickon Creek empties into the Schuylkill River just upstream of the city's drinking water intake, so the city wanted to try to preserve water quality in the Wissahickon and the receiving stream.  Nearly all vestiges of the industrial heritage are gone, but many of the stone ruins and the bridges that bore roads over the creek remain.
Blue wood aster (Aster cordifolius) and Wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia) on the wooded streambank
Forested slope with denuded understory
White-tailed deer have been very abundant in the park.  As a result, nearly all of the forest understory is gone, and few sapling tress are growing to replace the old trees when they die.  For the last decade, the city has hired sharpshooters from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cull the herd.  The sharpshooters hunt at night over bait, and the venison is donated to local food banks.  Nevertheless, animal rights group protests are a constant thorn in the city's side over this issue.  The culling has significantly reduced the number of deer, and the forest has begun to recover in places.
Parasitic beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana) in a patch of sunlight
One of the reasons that the Wissahickon is so popular is because it is very scenic.  The creek has cut a deep gorge though very hard rock, so the valley slopes are steep with lots of scenic boulders and bedrock exposed.  Because of the steepness, only one old road crosses the valley directly (Bell's Mill Road, the picture at the head of this post), and few roads penetrate down to Forbidden Drive.  Rex Avenue (image below) is one of those roads that descends from the eastern side of the valley and terminates at Forbidden Drive.
Rex Avenue Bridge
Old park guardhouse along Forbidden Drive
Covered bridge, the only one in Philadelphia
Invasive Japanese angelica-tree (Aralia elata), left, and Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
Wissahickon Creek rapid
Forbidden Drive
Forbidden Drive is not one of Kali's favorite walks because it is dark and claustrophobic; she much prefers the sun and openness of Houston Meadows.  However, I like the views of the creek and the general sense of community among the users.