Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Unabashed Anthropomorphizing

Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) (Audubon image)
I have begun my annual census of the birds breeding in the heart of the largest, oldest and densest forest in my preserve.  I always begin the census on or around May 20.  This date is a compromise.  For early-breeding resident species like Carolina Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, and the woodpeckers (i.e., Northern Flickers and the Red-bellied, Hairy, and Downy Woodpeckers), they've already fledged their young, which accompany their parents begging to be fed and learning how to take care of themselves.  On the other hand, later breeding migratory species like Wood Thrushes, Veerys and Scarlet Tanagers are still establishing their territories on May 20, making counts this early in the season unreliable.  In fact, most ornithologists caution that migrants in southeastern Pennsylvania should not be tallied until they've settled down into territories beginning in June.

Each year, there are always a few late and errant migrants in my earliest counts.  This year, for example, I heard a Black-throated Blue Warbler on my first foray into the woods on May 19.  Black-throated Blues breed in the Appalachian highlands, New England, and southeastern Canada - they won't stay the summer in our humid lowland woods.  Sure enough, the bird was nowhere to be heard two days later; it had moved on north.

However, on my first counting day, I also heard a Hooded Warbler singing in the forest.  This bird is a furtive wraith rarely observed but much more often heard.  Its call is distinctive and unmistakable: wheeta-wheeta-WHEET-see'o, repeated loudly and incessantly from the dense forest understory where the bird is lurking.  Unlike most other warblers that breed further north and at higher elevations, the Hooded Warbler does breed in southeastern Pennsylvania, though it is rare.  I have only documented breeding pairs in two other years during the 24 years I have been censusing birds in the forest.

This spring's Hooded Warbler stood its ground, singing for 30 minutes while I conducted the census where it had staked out its territory.

Then, when I returned to the woods two days later, the warbler was still present, but it had moved its singing perch over the crest of a ridge and about a half-kilometer deeper into the forest.

All of which got me thinking.  (I have plenty of time to ruminate when I'm conducting the census.)

This poor Hooded Warbler, undoubtedly a male singing its heart out seeking a female, probably is out of luck this year unless it moves somewhere else.  This forest in the preserve, while good habitat, is small and surrounded by suburbia.  If there are no female Hooded Warblers in the forest, the chances of this male finding a mate are nil.  It's not as if he could just fly a few hundred feet further along in the forest to another spot in hopes of luring a mate; if he were to fly a few hundred feet, he'd be in the middle of someone's back yard or in a business campus.

I couldn't help but feel sorry for this seemingly desperate bird - so clearly ready to find a mate, searching throughout the forest but unable to locate a female.  If he does find a female, he'll sing most of the summer defending his territory.  More likely, though, he'll go quiet.  If that happens, I'll never know if he flew elsewhere where his prospects might be better, or if he simply sat out the summer to try again next year, here in the preserve or in another woodland.

If he stays, I'll keep you posted.  For my census, the year is young; for a bird trying to find a mate, the clock is ticking.   

Monday, April 11, 2016

Snowy Cleanup


Yours truly with one of my board members, Kathleen
Every year since 1970 when my conservancy was founded, we have sponsored a volunteer cleanup of the banks of the creek flowing through my preserve.  In fact, the cleanup is our organization's largest annual event, usually drawing upwards of 100 volunteers who spend two hours hunting for trash and who then return to the headquarters for lunch.

This year's cleanup was last Saturday, April 9.  As the date approached, the weather forecast quickly began to deteriorate, with calls for a wintry mix of wet snow turning to rain.  Yuck!

When I awoke on Saturday morning, the skies were overcast but there was no precipitation falling.  Would we be spared?  However, 45 minutes before the start of the event, I heard on the radio that snow was falling to our west and, sure enough, when I went out to help prepare, snow had moved into the area.

Nevertheless, we did not call off or postpone the event, and about 60 volunteers reported for duty.  I led my group down to the creek (a 10-minute walk), where we forded the stream to get to an island that is always a hotbed of trash.  This year was no exception.  The creek splits at the head of the island and floodwaters push all sorts of debris up onto the point where the stream divides.  Most of the flotsam is woody, but it also contains all the detritus of modern life - especially plastic bottles and polystyrene.
A "before" picture of trash embedded in woody debris (volunteer at right)
My group's most impressive finds included one natural item (a large, partially decomposed snapping turtle) and one unnatural (a mannequin's arm).

Over the 28 years I've helped with the creek cleanup, it's interesting to note that we hardly ever find aluminum cans any longer (formerly a significant part of the trash collected).  Are more people recycling, or are the cans valuable now?
We decided to call ourselves the Drowned Rats
In any case, though we were wet, all of us had a good, rewarding time despite the weather.  Cleaning up trash is really satisfying.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Turf War


Like so many lawns in the Mid-Atlantic, my back yard has become a war zone - albeit an aesthetically pleasing one.  Some previous occupant of my house planted spring bulbs years ago, and Kali and I continue to enjoy the vernal exuberance of grape hyacinths, daffodils, crocuses, and the delicate blue flowers picture above, chionodoxa or glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa siehei).
More recently, the extremely aggressive non-native buttercup lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) managed to get a foothold in the lawn.  Lesser celandine prefers moist riparian areas, but once it gets established, it will grow in just about any situation.  (Naive visitors used to ask me if they could dig up a few plants to add to their garden; I assented, but always warned the folks that the plant would take over anywhere it was planted.  I suspect that most people now recognize the plant's aggressiveness because I almost never get such requests any more.)

It will be interesting to see if one or the other of these plants will win this slow-motion combat.  I once asked Pennsylvania's premier botanist if celandine really does exclude other plants because it is only a obvious player on the ecological stage for about a month, after which it disappears until next spring.  The botanist assured me that celandine definitely excludes other plants.  Perhaps there's an unseen, subsurface front in this war as well. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Falconry at My Preserve

My preserve partners on programs with a nature center three miles away that focuses on children's environment education.  The nature center only has 10 wooded acres in the middle of suburbia, whereas I have 812 acres and a lot of diverse habitat.
A captivated crowd
Last Sunday afternoon, the nature center sponsored a falconry program in my grasslands.  The falconer brought his Northern Goshawk/Harris' Hawk hybrid (Accipiter gentilis x Parabuteo unicinctus) to my preserve for a flight demonstration and question period.  About thirty of the nature center's members enjoyed the show on the most springlike day of the year so far.  The sky was a cloudless blue and temperatures were in the upper 50s.
Preparing to take flight
Caught in mid-flight
The falconer routinely trains and flies his two raptors in my grassland, so his hawk was familiar with the surroundings.  The bird made two 10-minute flights and put on a good show.
Replacing the bird's hood after the first flight

Thursday, February 25, 2016

There's Got to be a Morning After


Here in the northern Piedmont, we had a tremendous storm last night - part of the same system that ravaged the Deep South and East Coast.  Though we were spared a tornado, we had incredible winds that toppled and snapped full-grown trees.  The storm was accompanied by thunder, lightning and torrential rain. 
This morning, when I went out to open the gate of my preserve at sunrise, orange light bathed the tops of the trees in a deep, rich glow  - like they had been dipped in luminous honey.  Then clouds moved back in and ended the show.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Monochrome Sky with Winter Trees

When I stepped out of my office last evening on the way home, the sky was really dramatic - overcast, but with a lot of texture in the clouds.  The fading evening light shone through a translucent gauze in places, while other parts of the sky were obscured behind thick clouds. I exclaimed to Kali, "Isn't the sky wonderful right now?  I've got to take some pictures!" to which she replied, "It just looks cold."  (It wasn't cold; we had a record high of near 70 degrees F yesterday.)
I ran to the house and managed to get some shots.  I think the effect was better a minute earlier, but I didn't have my camera with me then, so these will have to do.
I took the last image, below, up into the canopy of the huge, 250-year-old sycamore tree growing directly behind our house.  I think that the camera rendered the sky almost indigo, but it simply was very dim just before all the light went out of the day.

Monday, November 30, 2015

What Was I Thinking?

On the brink
The Friday after Thanksgiving (November 27) was sunny and exceptionally warm (mid-60s F), so I persuaded Kali to put on her hiking boots and get in the car.  We drove 1.25 hours north to Lehigh Gorge State Park, a long, linear preserve paralleling the Lehigh River as it cuts it way through the Ridge and Valley section of the Pennsylvania Appalachians.  My destination was a 1-mile (each way) hike/scramble up Glen Onoko, a steep, scenic ravine that boasts four waterfalls along its length.

Glen Onoko was a famous Victorian summer resort with a huge, rambling guest house perched on the bank of the Lehigh River at the mouth of little Glen Onoko Run.  Radiating from the guest house were trails through the woods that allowed visitors from Philadelphia and New York (who arrived by train) to enjoy the magnificent scenery, including the cascades and rapids along the ravine.  An elaborate stone stairway allowed guests to ascend 860 feet from the river to the top of the highest falls with relative ease.

The resort burned down (as did many wooden Victorian resorts) in the early 1900s and was never rebuilt.

I first came upon Glen Onoko in the early 1990s and have hiked there several times.  When I "found" the ravine, it was pretty inaccessible.  I had to drive up to the top of Broad Mountain, and then make my way on rough dirt fire trails to the top of the falls.  From there, I could descend down the ravine and enjoy the serenity.  During those early years, I don't think I ever encountered anyone else on my hikes.

Today, the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks has created a huge parking area at the mouth of the ravine (which also serves whitewater rafters on the Lehigh River in the summer).  But the serenity of the hike is gone.  Hordes of people ascend the trail every day, prominent rocks have been defaced by spraypainted graffiti, and discarded plastic water bottles are common in the undergrowth.  Nevertheless, the hike is still scenic, and the waterfalls impressive.

The biggest problem for Kali was that the trail is extremely steep, rough, and difficult.  Most of the original stone stairway has eroded away, so the "hike" is much more of a scramble up steep, sometimes slippery, rocks.  I didn't have any problems, but Kali is probably the least sure-footed person I know, and the outing was torture for her.  Ascending the ravine was tough enough, but descending was even harder.  At one point, she broke into tears, and several other times fellow hikers helped me to get Kali through particularly difficult sections of trail.
Kali scrambling uphill
I shouldn't have brought her on the hike, but I didn't want to leave her home on a really nice late autumn day.  Once we had returned to the car and shed our hiking boots, we concurred that we had made one another's day miserable.  Kali's got two huge black-and-blue marks on her right buttock and upper right arm to prove it.

One positive feature:  Kali's very slow ascent and descent gave me plenty of time to take pictures. 
Pennsylvania's tilted sedimentary rocks
First falls
Second (and highest) falls - about 60 feet

Cairn cavern just uphill of second falls
Visitors have created a wonderland of cairns in the rock overhang

Third falls
Approach to the fourth falls.  The stone steps are a Victorian-era remnant
Fourth falls through the rhododendron thicket
Fourth (uppermost) falls
Tree roots with moss and lichen garden
Fern and moss rock garden
Most intense color of the day
Next time, I'll do this hike alone.  In fact, the next drainage to the west is a stream called Jean's Run.  I've explored its valley before; it harbors a virgin old-growth forest.  The last time I was there, it was only penetrated by a fisherman's path, and there's one really wonderful and nearly impassible falls near the top of the mountain.  I hope it's still like that.