Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Teaching the Next - and the Current - Generation

Colleague, friend and Cub Scout Pack leader Dr. Robin E. demonstrating how tuliptree seeds disperse
On Sunday afternoon (January 27), I co-led a walk with a friend and colleague, Dr. Robin E., for a pack of Cub Scouts.  Robin is the Cub Scout Pack leader.  She wanted to familiarize the Scouts with forest ecology, and to introduce the kids to an old-growth forest.

A nest in a spicebush.  The Scouts weren't impressed.
The Scouts were accompanied by their mothers and, in a few cases, by their young siblings.  There was a lot of roughhousing and youthful exuberance, but Robin managed to get the kids to focus when she really wanted them to.  Being personally childless and not having the experience of corralling a bunch of 6- and 7-year-olds, I was better at interacting with the mothers.

Trekking through the semi-snowy woods
When we got to the old-growth woods (a 7-acre plot about 250 years old), the mothers were suitably impressed by the soaring tuliptrees (Liriodendron tulipifera) and the largest and oldest tree in the woods, a massive black oak (Quercus velutina).  The Scouts were more impressed with the humble clone of bladdernuts (Staphylea trifolia) growing on the streambank below the forest; the bladdernuts produce a papery tripartite pod with seeds that rattle around inside when shaken.

At the base of the largest tuliptree in the woods
On the way back to the parking lot, one of the mothers turned to me and said, "The best part of the walk was learning about the structure of the forest - the canopy, the understory, the shrubs, and the ground plants.  See; I was listening to you!" 

Everyone got something out of our foray.

Heading back across the grasslands
Finally, two miscellaneous, unrelated images:

The well behind my residence.  I'm sure it's the house's original well, but the stonework's been replaced.
Our version of The Spiral Jetty (the original sculpture is in the Great Salt Lake)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Machine in the Garden

On Saturday morning (January 26), following a 2-inch snowfall overnight, a local land clearing company arrived to clean-up five fully-grown Norway spruces uprooted by Hurricane Sandy three months ago.  During the week after the storm, my staff had removed the smaller branches from the trees that had blocked the trail in the vicinity of the blow-down, but the massive trunks and the sheer volume of the branches and needles had overwhelmed the staff - who had plenty of other trees to deal with in the aftermath, anyway.
The huge root masses on two of the uprooted Norway spruces
"My" residence (owned by my employer but occupied by Kali and me) is visible in the background
The land clearing expert and his son worked all day, finally finishing up late in the afternoon.  They used a skid loader with a huge grappling claw to grab pieces of the trees...

...which they then moved out into an adjoining meadow...

...where they proceeded to reduce the woody material to small pieces by sending them through a chipper.

This project cost us $1,500, but the best the staff would have been able to do would have been to "whittle away" at the pick-up-stick mess over a protracted period, and the spruce logs would still have remained.  This way, the whole job was done at once, and we can replant with native trees this time.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Day of Service

We sponsored our annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service today, Monday, January 21, to take advantage of people's day off work and school, and their interest in volunteering.  We had about 10 volunteers from their early teens to retirement age who came out to help us prepare an area for reforestation.
The volunteers spent most of their time removing branches and logs from a woodland that had been heavily invaded by non-native plants.  This is a young woodland, and the incomplete forest canopy allowed sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor, encouraging non-native plants to thrive.
In many situations, downed wood (coarse woody debris) is an ecological asset.  It provides habitat for salamanders and all sorts of invertebrates at the lower end of the food web, plus the wood decomposes and enriches the soil with organic matter and nutrients.  But in heavily invaded woods like this one, logs and branches prevent the stewardship staff and volunteers from keeping the vines and non-native shrubs under control until the forest canopy closes, so in this case we made the decision to remove the downed wood.
We'll plant new trees in the woodland gaps in the spring.  Over time, I hope that we'll have to come back to this reforestation spot less and less frequently as the leafy canopy closes and and casts the demon invasives into eternal shade.

Sunshine, Powerline and Terpsichorean Time

The Powerline Trail
Saturday was the first really nice, sunny day we had in about a week.  We had a few errands to run, but didn't want to miss the chance to enjoy the great weather, so Kali and I ran our errands and then decided to walk the Powerline Trail, a paved pathway created by a neighboring municipality on a high-tension powerline right of way.  The trail winds for 2-1/2 miles through an old tree nursery, municipal parkland, playgrounds, and a bit of woods, but mostly it runs through residential subdivisions, so (as Kali put it) it's pretty sterile along most of its length.  However, the trail is paved (important during the middle of soggy winter) and it was convenient to where we were running our errands.  We also discovered a new parallel trail recently created by the municipality on a closed section of roadway, and this parallel trail runs through a hedgerow alongside actively farmed fields and near a pond, so it provided more appealing scenery than that available by looking into neighbor's mowed backyards.

The trail does offer one other nice feature.  About one mile from its southern terminus, the trail descends into a valley and, at the bottom of the hill, crosses the headwaters of "my" creek - here much narrower and less voluminous than it is when it flows through "my" preserve a few miles downstream.  Nevertheless, the stream has decent, perennial current and kids like to look for crayfish under the rocks.  Also, heading northward from the stream crossing, the trail ascends a hill and a few hundred feet further along reaches a watershed divide: south of the divide, precipitation enters "my" stream, while north of the divide precipitation drains into the much larger watershed to the north and east (although both "my" and the adjacent northern watershed both eventually drain into the Delaware River). 

In the evening, Kali and attended a performance of the Pilobolus Dance Theater in Philadelphia.  Pilobolus is one of the most highly regarded contemporary dance companies in the world, and the house was sold old.  Pilobolus (which we've seen several times) never fails to to impress and delight.  (Pilobolus, incidentally, is the name of a genus of fungus, so there is a "natural" connection.)
A still from Azimuth (2012)
A still from Gnomen (1997)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fogged In and Faked Out

Fog and trees (an image by Rocco Dinato from the Internet)
Yesterday (Sunday, January 13) the forecast called for the morning fog to burn off, the skies to turn partly sunny, and the temperature to rise into the mid-60s (about 18 degrees Celsius)--not bad for mid-January.  Well, the forecasters got it all wrong; the temperature never got above 49 (9.5 C) and the fog never burned off; it was densely foggy all day and into the night.  By 3 p.m., when it was becoming clear (so to speak) that the weather was not going to change, Kali and I decided to got for a walk at a local state park with paved paths.  (The dirt trails at "my" preserve are hopelessly muddy.)

We walk at this state park very frequently - at least twice a month - and often much more frequently.  The park is sizable (1,500 acres), but it was created from a large working farm.  The state wants to demonstrate the history of agricultural use of the property to us suburban rubes, so much of the property is leased to farmers who continue to grow corn or soybeans (often employing poor management practices that lead to soil erosion).  Agriculture in other parts of the park had been abandoned, and the fields had begun to regrow - until invasive plants moved in and cloaked the vegetation with ugly, smothering blankets of vines.  The historic woodlots on the property remain in fairly decent shape, except that there are no understory plants because the white-tailed deer have eaten everything they can get their mouths around.  (To its credit, the state has initiated a deer management program in the park, with annual culls.)  In short, the place is not very scenic, but the extensive trail system is paved, which is what's important to us during inclement weather.
Trees in fog (an image by David Wagner from the Internet)
Since I got my new camera about a year ago, I've brought it with me nearly every time we've gone to the park, and only once have I ever photographed anything there (and I didn't post those images because they weren't worth posting).  Since we were getting a late start yesterday, and because of my history of being underwhelmed with photographic opportunities in the past, I decided to leave my camera home yesterday.  Naturally, a big mistake.  Because of the wonderful atmosphere created by the fog, I passed up at least four (potentially) great photo ops.  One day I'll learn... (How many times have I said that in this blog?)

Monday, January 7, 2013

Warm Winter Light...and a Proposal

Late on Sunday afternoon, January 6, Kali and I finally got our act together to take a walk.  The day was sunny and clear, and temperatures had warmed to the mid-40s.  Because the hour was relatively late, we decided to walk nearby rather than drive a long way, but the trails in "my" preserve were too wet and muddy. So, we drove about 10 minutes downstream to walk the paved trails in the municipal park along the creek.

The sun was low, and shadows were long...

...but the light bathed everything in warm hues despite the month.

A fallen red oak branch, probably a casualty of of Hurricane Sandy two months ago
At one point, I briefly left the paved trail to check the status of a native grass meadow a few hundred feet off the pavement that I had hadn't seen for several years.  (The grassland - almost a pure stand of native little bluestem [Andropogon gerardii] - is spared the invasion of woody plants because kids (i.e., vandals) periodically set fire to the meadow, which is exactly the management regime that favors the continued existence of the grasses and excludes fire-intolerant woody plants.)  En route to the meadow, along a muddy, rutted equestrian and mountain bike trail, I came across this stand of wineberry canes (Rubus phoenocolasius) set aglow by the afternoon sun.

Our organization hosts an annual Owl Prowl each January; this year's was on Saturday evening, January 5.  It's usually a really popular program with families, but the group rarely hears or sees any owls. (I wonder why...?)  This year, we only had 15 registrants, and none of the participants were children A naturalist led the walk so that I could set up a fire pit, get sticks upon which to spear (and roast) marshmallows, and plug in a coffee urn with hot water for hot chocolate for the "prowlers" to enjoy when they returned from the walk.

I went to the supermarket about 4 p.m. to buy the marshmallows, and when I returned and was walking from the parking lot to the Visitor Center, a Great Horned Owl flew right over my head.  Not only is seeing an owl a special treat because of its rarity, it might have signaled a good omen that the prowlers would finally hear or see an owl later that evening.

Well, the prowlers did not end up hearing or seeing an owl during the walk, but they came back ready for warm refreshments.  As we stood around the fire, warming ourselves, roasting marshmallows, and drinking hot chocolate, a 20-something male member of the group turned to his girlfriend and said,

"Do you know what goes good with roasted marshmallows?

"No," his girlfriend replied, "What?"

"Knock-knock jokes," the fellow answered.  "Knock-knock..."

His girlfriend played along:  "Who's there?"


"Would who?"  And, with that, the young man dropped to his knee, pulled a small box out of his coat pocket, and asked, "Would you marry me?"

(She assented.)

After a while the group began to break up and gradually headed back to the parking.  Those of us who remained heard an owl hoot - one time - off in the distance.
The newly betrothed, John and Angela
Part of the group congratulating the newly engaged

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Year Ends on a Gray Note

A mid-afternoon New Year's Eve walk through the preserve revealed about two inches of snow remaining from Saturday's brief but intense storm.  For the most part, the sky was leaden and fellow walkers few.

Split Indian-hemp seed pods (Apocynum cannabinum) amid Little Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
The creek in a somber mood
An outcrop of gneiss boulders
Along the Beech Springs Trail (route of One Trail Twelve Times).  I was the first person to leave footprints on the trail since the snow fell.
Happy New Year from the northern Mid-Atlantic Piedmont!