Monday, October 25, 2010

October Afternoon

Hazy sun and (perhaps?) the peak of fall colors in my natural area yesterday.  The first three images were captured at the wetland at the heart of the preserve, and the last two struck me as typical of the trails, the first of which is an abandoned road that has been incorporated into the preserve's trail system.  Enjoy.

Grasslands Field Trip/Snowbirds

Dr. Roger Latham with a sprig of Three-awn grass (Aristida pupurascens)
The Natural Lands Trust, a regional conservancy with headquarters in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, sponsored a day-long tour of grasslands at three of its preserves on Wednesday, October 20.  Two of my colleagues and I joined in the tour, which attracted about 25 participants.
Recently established warm-season grassland at the Hildacy Preserve
We began the tour at the Hildacy Preserve where the organization has established new native warm-season grasslands in former weedy meadows.  The day ended at the Stroud Preserve, one of the organization's largest, where Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) reliably nest year after year in cool-season grassland pasture.  It was the middle part of the day, though, that made the trip so worthwhile; we visited the organization's first preserve, the Willisbrook Preserve, which protects a serpentine barren.
NLT's Drew Gilchrist pointing out features of the cool-season pastures that attract Bobolinks
Roger Latham with a sample of serpentinite at the Willisbrook Preserve
Serpentinite is a metamorphosed igneous rock formed only at the tectonic spreading centers at the bottom of the ocean.  Here in the Piedmont, which has been subject to repeated collisions with Africa over the last half-billion years, some of the tortured bedrock contains sections of the oceanic crust that have been welded onto the continent.  Serpentinite, a greenish rock, produces soils that are very low in calcium and very high in magnesium, nickle, and chromium.
Serpentine aster

The heavy metals are present in concentrations that are toxic for most plants, but which support a limited palette of highly-adapted species found nowhere else.  Three species are particularly showy:  Round-leaved fameflower (Talinum teretifolium), Moss-pink (Phlox subulata) [both of which bloom in the spring and summer], and Serpentine aster (Aster depauperatus) [which was blooming when we visited].

We were fortunate to be escorted on the tour by members of the Natural Lands Trust's knowledgeable stewardship staff, including Darrin Groff, the professional most experienced with using prescribed fire as a management tool in Pennsylvania, and by Dr. Roger Latham, the preeminent grassland expert in Pennsylvania.

Snowbirds have arrived at my feeder.  Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis) and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicolis) appeared on October 15, 2010, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) showed up for the first time yesterday, Sunday, October 24, and has already made the feeder its own.  Even though the birds are here, we have yet to have our first frost.   

Phantasmagoria and More by Paul Taylor

One of our favorite contemporary dance ensembles, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, performed on Saturday evening.  The evening featured two revivals and a new work, Phantasmagoria, which proved to be a disappointment.

Phantasmagoria, first performed at Wolf Trap this summer, was the second of the three pieces.  The music, by "anonymous Renaissance composers," was spiked with modern percussive sounds.  Taylor based the fragmented, satirical work on Pieter Bruegel the Elder's earthy peasant painting The Wedding Dance.  Then, as if to take us through the history and geography of dance, he introduced an Indian "Adam and Eve" garbed in stereotypical gaudy costuming wielding a cheesy bright green plush snake.  An Irish step dancer came clogging out to bagpipes.  A nun confiscated the plush snake and found a lewd use for it.  And, finally, a leper-like creature infected the other dancers with the plague.  This could have been a rollicking piece had the preliminaries been strong enough to support a real send-up with a clear through line but, alas, none of those fell into place.

The last piece, Cloven Kingdom, was the program's most coherent.  Although created in 1976, it was not as dated-looking as the as the opener, 1981's Arden Court, a bare-footed contemporary ballet.  The women in Cloven Kingdom danced in long, stretchy, elegant gowns which seemed to hearken back to Martha Graham's oeuvre.  By this third piece, the troupe had found its footing as the dancing--especially by the men in tuxedos--was superb.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Pretty Poison (Ivy)

I took a walk before dinner two evenings ago. I've got to go out before dinner now that dusk is coming on so early.  The light was already fading by the time I got to an old field near my house, but there was still enough light to photograph a beautiful poison ivy vine scrambling up a white pine trunk.
In the opposite direction, the setting sun illuminated a meadow of goldenrod and big bluestem growing hard by a woodlot showing some autumn hues.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Early Autumn Hawk Walk and Hot-Air Balloon Ride

Busy weekend, this last.  Nevertheless, we found time to enjoy a four-mile walk in the county park downstream of my natural area on Saturday and, on Sunday, we attended the natural area preserve's biannual President's Circle Gala event on an absolutely perfect afternoon on the highest hill in the natural area.

We often take long walks on the weekend--rambles of four to six miles--but Kali's Lyme disease has re-surged and the accompanying aches, pains, and weakness have limited our strolls to four miles or less for the last few weeks.  During this Saturday's walk, a Red-tailed Hawk swooped low over the trail and then perched in a tree fifty feet away.  There, despite being pestered by a Blue Jay, it sat calmly preening and allowing me to take multiple photographs with my point-and-shoot Nikon S10.

Further down the trail, we got a tantalizing glimpse of the creek, still low from the summer's long drought despite several sizable recent rain events.
Sunday's affair, the President's Circle Gala, is held every other year to thank my natural area's most generous supporters.  The event is traditionally held at the crest of a knoll at the highest point in the natural area--an area that had been a private farm but which the natural area purchased 13 years ago and whose managers have converted mostly to native, warm-season grasses to attract meadow-nesting birds like Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Meadowlarks.  With breeding season over, erecting a tent and hosting 150 folks who provide the lion's share of the preserve's support seems like a pretty good alternate use of a small portion of the fields.  (The majority of the fields are left undisturbed to provide shelter and habitat for overwintering birds.)
In the past, Gala attendees were treated to aerial views of the 800-acre preserve from a helicopter, but this year, the preserve's managers opted for tethered hot-air balloon rides.  Even though the day was absolutely perfect for a tented picnic (cloudless skies, low humidity, and temperatures in the low 70s), the knoll was too breezy for the balloon to ascend to more than 20 feet, limiting the views.  Nevertheless, it provided a festive backdrop to an afternoon of smooth jazz, catered food, and lots of mingling and reconnecting with old friends.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Drought, Interrupted

Floodwaters surging under a bridge built in 1817, the second oldest bridge in the county
View downstream from the bridge
The remnants of Tropical Storm Nicole surged up the East Coast lat week and brought a deluge to the Mid-Atlantic Thursday evening into very early Friday morning.  As I lay awake in the early morning hours of Friday, listening to the rain pounding ceaselessly on the roof, I imagined the trees, shrubs, and animals along the creek washing away into the Delaware River.

By dawn, the rain had all but stopped, but the water continued to rise until about noon, fed  from sources upstream.  Remarkably, while the creek rose well out of its banks and many of the roads crossing it on low bridges were impassible, there was very little apparent damage in the natural area.

The images I've included with this post are from the previous big storm along the creek last winter.  I didn't have my camera with me when I went to inspect the damage from this storm but, except for the fact that the trees in these images don't have any leaves, the scene was the same.

The news media indicated that the damage and flooding would have been a lot worse if we weren't in the midst of an officially-declared drought.  The creek was extremely low before the storm and the soil was extremely dry, both of which helped to minimize the damage. 
Flooded riparian forest