Wednesday, December 26, 2012

One Trail Twelves Times - December: A Study in Reds and Greens

December's One Trail Twelve Times walk was scheduled for December 16, but several days in advance the forecasters said that there was a good likelihood that we'd have rain that Sunday afternoon.  So, to ensure that I'd have a visual record of the Beech Springs Trail in December, I walked the trail to take photographs on Thursday afternoon, December 13.  Sunday afternoon wasn't rainy, but it was misty and foggy, and the small group of walkers decided to tackle the trail anyway despite the dampness - a good decision, because we all enjoyed this final episode of the series spanning twelve months.  When I returned from the trail,though, I downloaded the images I had taken with the group and realized that the setting on the camera had slipped and many of the images I had taken, especially early into the walk, were too dark.  So, the following Tuesday morning, December 18, I returned to the trail and recaptured some of the ruined images.  All this is to say that the images below are a compilation of the best images captured during three walks on the Beech Springs Trail this month.

The beginning of the trail in mature woods
The first year rosettes of invasive, non-native garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata); in the spring they'll bolt and produce thousands of seeds in sickle-shaped pods.

Soon after we entered the mature woodland at the beginning of the trail, I noticed Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) growing alongside the trail.  This handsome native ground cover is probably present year round, but simply lost amidst the Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) growing more vigorously on the forest floor.  We've undoubtedly walked by this plant 11 time before and never noticed it.  

In keeping with the theme, notice Spotted Wintergreen's red stem
Hips on multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) at the wood's edge
Sunday's walkers emerging from the woods into the foggy meadows
Blackberry leaves (Rubus spp.)
Another blackberry variation

Non-native and highly invasive porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is my biggest invasive plant headache.  This Asian member of the grape family (Vitaceae) becomes established in a field when birds eat its fruit and defecate the seeds.  Then, the perennial vines clamber up anything that will support them (usually a tree), and the roots run underground and send up periodic sprouts, spreading the infection ever wider.  The roots become very, very thick and full of stored nutrients, so repeated cutting barely fazes the plant.  One it gains a foothold in a field like this, it is very difficult to control because broad-leaf herbicides that kill porcelain-berry kill all the desirable broad-leaf plants, too.

Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) samaras awaiting a strong, dispersing wind
View across the winter old-field

This is a porcelain-berry "knot" in the middle of the grassy trail.  I don't know what the technical botanical term of this feature is, but my staff and I call it a knot.  As I mentioned above, well-established porcelain-berry roots send up sprouts periodically, allowing this pernicious plant to colonize new areas.  The knots can have a half-dozen vine sprouts, each one trying to ascend into the forest canopy.  When we established the trail, we cut several of these root-sprout knots; repeated trail mowing has caused the sprouts to die back, but I'd bet that the roots below are still alive.

Lenticels on a bird cherry sapling (Prunus avium)

With nearly all the vegetation died back, I devoted quite a bit of time during the walk to searching for mantis egg cases attached to the stems of plants, but the only cases I found were attached to sweetgum saplings (Liquidambar styraciflua).  Though it was probably intuitive, such placement was good planning on the part of the the mantids because the herbaceous old-field vegetation will get mowed in early spring, while the saplings - and their attached egg cases - will be spared.

Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) in the wet meadow

Dried fern fronds and a single sprig of Deer-tongue Grass (Panicum clandestinum) in the wet meadow
Silvery-white leaf in the wet meadow
Entering the woods on the opposite side of the old-field meadow
The toppled tree over the lower end of one of the spring runs; I've featured this tree during each month's post
The head of one of the springs, buried under fallen leaves
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) poking through the leaf litter

The trail's eponymous springs only run a few hundred feet through the forest before they discharge into a small, perennial tributary  of our main creek.  Though I've posted images of the springs before, I had yet to venture off trail to get images of the stream itself.

Most of the stream's watershed is developed, either with houses on large lots, or as part of a huge (40-acre) grassy field used annually for a fundraising carnival and horse show by our local hospital.  So, the stream is very "flashy" - bearing modest flows most of the time, but turning into a raging torrent during storms.  Water quality is not particularly bad, but the floods scour the stream bed, carry lots of suspended sediment, and erode the banks, so the stream is not really much of an aesthetic amenity.

Ferns amidst the flood-washed roots on the stream bank

The stream itself; note the extraordinarily wide channel in relation to the watercourse, all a result of the severe flooding the watercourse endures
Shades of gray on a white oak (Quercus alba)
Green-gray lichen on a fallen limb
The group decided that the striking red color on this limb was produced by a fungus

Shadows on an American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
One of the trees (in this case, a red oak [Quercus rubra]) brought down by Hurricane Sandy

Back out into the meadow
A luminous goldenrod (Solidago spp.) seedhead
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed capsule
Wending through the meadow
A riot of reds (on blackberry canes)
Goldenrod galls, produced as a defensive mechanism by goldenrod plants when a goldenrod rod gall fly (or peacock fly) (Eurosta solidaginis) injects an egg into the plant's stem, are common throughout the meadow.  Once the egg hatches, the gall provides a cozy retreat in which the fly larva can overwinter.  However, not all the larvae make it through the winter; some fall victim to Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubscens), which cling to the dried stem and peck a hole into the gall to extract a juicy winter snack.  Most of the galls we inspected had been raided by a woodpecker, like this one had.

Another type of goldenrod gall
Prostrate dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) blooming in the trail

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Early Winter Sunset

I haven't been able to post in quite a while--in part, because I haven't been out in the field much.  Last week, our organization bought a parcel of land for conservation, which took some of my time to complete.  And, I have been teaching a graduate class this term (in addition to my "real" job), and I've spent a lot of the last month grading.  Plus, throw Christmas into the mix...  Yesterday, though, we had temperatures in the mid-40s with high winds and clouds scudding across the sky all day.  At sunset, the heavens fairly exploded in pastels, and the grassland turned tawny gold.



I completed the final One Trail Twelve Times walk last Sunday, but I'm still in the midst of assembling the images from the walk.  Stay tuned; I'll post those images soon.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Embrace Open Space

 A good friend and colleague of mine, the director of a regional land conservancy, is always looking for ways to broaden public support for her organization and for open space conservation in general.  She's so creative and energetic that I get jealous of her.

Her latest outreach extravaganza was organizing an invitational multimedia, nature-themed art exhibit in cooperation with our community college.  Kali and I received an invitation to attend the opening, held on Monday evening, December 3, in the Fine Arts Center Gallery at the community college.

The event was very well-attended, with many of the artists present, as well as some of my colleagues from other land trusts in the area.  The Fine Arts Center Gallery is a very attractive, two-level space reminiscent of a renovated barn with a contemporary interior.  The college had set out a beautiful spread of hors d'oeuvres and wine on a second floor mezzanine overlooking the art displayed on the first floor.

A not so great image of the gallery space during the opening
Kali and I made a meal of the crudites and libations while we perused the artwork.  The work, in general, was of good quality, but it was also largely very conservative representational painting:  frozen streams in winter, barns with cows, woodland glades, and forest clearings.  The most interesting piece was the one pictured above, "Whirl and Twirl," a watercolor by Susannah Hart Thomer.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

High School Park Misstep

Last year, I was invited to serve on an ad hoc advisory committee for a small park in a neighboring municipality.  I've posted about this park and my role on the committee before.  The park was created when the municipality's old high school was demolished and the grounds dedicated for open space.  The high school building was located on a flat plateau at the top of a steep, wooded slope above a creek.  The school site, the wooded hillside, and the riparian zone along the creek were all incorporated into the parkland.  The mostly-volunteer Friends of High School Park have been working to control invasive non-native plants on the property, which encompasses about 15 acres, and to introduce native species.  Until recently, their restoration work was unchallenged by white-tailed deer, but now deer have moved up the stream corridor and "buck rubbing" damage is evident throughout the park.
A cluster of trees at the edge of the slope in late afternoon light
The park is surrounded on all sides by dense upper middle class and professional class suburban development.  This inner-ring community was one of the first suburban neighborhoods developed when the interurban trolley and light rail lines were extended into the countryside outside Philadelphia.
There be dragons in these woods!
Late in the afternoon of November 14, the advisory committee met in the park to review progress on improvements funded with a state-funded open space stewardship grant.  When the school was first demolished, the Friends had tried to establish a native, warm-season grassland on the site, but the alkaline soils (from the residual mortar between the bricks) made short work of those efforts, and the grassland quickly transmogrified into an unsightly weedy mess.  So, the Friends applied for a state grant to try to do the job right.  They hired a grassland establishment expert for suggestions for appropriate plant material and soil amendments.  And, because the park is heavily used by the neighbors, they incorporated cultural amenities such as landscaped gardens (using exclusively native plants), paths, and interpretive signage.

Another view of one of the landscaped sitting areas
Native little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) used ornamentally
 In general, I think they got it mostly right.  The grassy path around the newly re-established grassland wends in and out of newly-planted edge habitat, and the landscaped garden areas are sensitively and attractively planted.  However, because of grant timing constraints, I believe that the municipality and the Friends took a shortcut which is going to--once again--doom the grassland.  The plan originally had called for the grassland to be seeded in the first year exclusively with native grasses.  Then, during the second year, wildflowers would be introduced by "plugs" and seeds.  The thinking was that, while the grasses were becoming established during the first year, the grassland could be sprayed with a broadleaf-killing herbicide that would keep weeds under control.  Then, with the grasses in place and the exotic weeds controlled or eliminated, the wildflowers could be introduced.  Instead, the grassland was seeded with a mixture of grasses and wildflower seeds because time was running out on the grant.  Now, the grassland cannot be sprayed with herbicide to control weeds because the herbicide will kill the wildflowers, too.  And, sure enough, there are already large patches of pernicious weeds present in the grassland.  The Friends intend to try to control these patches by hand or limited herbicide application, but I personally don't hold out much hope for overall success.
The grasslands delineated with attractive, low fencing.  The yellow trees in the background are all invasive non-native Norway maples (Acer platanoides)
Plantings of shrubs and small trees to expand the "edge" out into the grassland
During the field trip, one of the members of the Friends group approached me about serving on the Friends' board of directors.  I'm still giving it some consideration, but I don't have much spare time in my life.