Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Awash in Blue

Trail bridge and bluebells
On Sunday afternoon, Kali suggested that we walk the Schuylkill River Trail in Valley Forge National Historical Park.  The trail parallels the Schuylkill River for three miles, with plenty of river and riparian woodland views.  The absolute best time of year to walk the trail is mid-spring when the Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are in bloom, as they were last weekend.  The floodplain is covered in a carpet of blue in all directions. 
Virginia Bluebell
Other wildflowers were still blooming; Spring-beauties (Claytonia virginica) were nearly as abundant as the bluebells, but much smaller and more demure, casting a pink haze over parts of the floodplain.
De-silting basin wall
The headwaters of the Schuylkill River drain the anthracite coal region of eastern Pennsylvania.  When coal mining was at its peak, the river ran black with suspended coal sediment.  At the same time, long stretches of the river were used to transport coal.  The river was dammed in many places to create deep, slack water and mules pulled canal boats along the banks of the river between the dams.  Locks allowed the barges to get around the dams.  Because the river was so fouled with coal sediment it had to be de-silted frequently to maintain navigation depths, so the navigation company built de-silting basins along the shore where the black muck could be dredged from the river and allowed to dewater.  One of the de-silting basins - built, but never used - is located in the park along the trail.  This de-silting basin traps water between the uphill side of the basin and the constructed basin wall leading to the development of valuable forested wetland habitat inside the basin.  Even de-silting basins along the river that were used for sediment removal have subsided over time and offer wetland habitat. 
Bluebells amid Ostrich Ferns (Metteuccia  struthiopteris)
At the far (upstream) end of the trail, the pathway is bordered by huge colonies of pawpaw shrubs (Asimina triloba).  I've never seen a fruit on the bushes; I suspect squirrels or raccoons harvest the mushy, banana-flavored fruit when it's ripe in the autumn.
Pawpaw flowers
A young family cruising the Schuylkill River
Who needs a yellow brick road?

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Season of Depression

Most people welcome spring with joy, hope and the promise of renewal.  For Kali and me spring (in part) signals something else altogether.  It's the time when vulnerable baby animals appear.  At one time, more than 25 years ago, our organization provided wildlife rehabilitation services.  Though we haven't accepted orphaned or injured animals in a quarter century, many people still remember us a place where they brought broken wildlife.  Other people simply don't have a clue about where to go with an animal in distress, so they come to "the nature center."  There are two rehabilitation clinics within an hour's drive of our location, but many people are unwilling to make the drive.  So, guess who gets to make a late evening drive when someone drops off an animal after work?

This year's season started out more personally.  On Tuesday evening, the pair of Canada geese that had been brooding eggs on the tiny island in the pond below our house showed up at our bird feeder with six adorable goslings in tow.  We had been feeding the parents earlier in the year (before the female committed to sitting on the nest, day and night, for three weeks), so the geese knew where to get a quick handout - and we were happy to oblige.  Though the world does not need more Canada geese, the goslings are irresistibly adorable, and we were happy to shell out some millet.

On Wednesday, the family failed to appear, and I suspected something had happened.  This pair of geese has (regrettably) used the pond for nesting for the last three years.  (We can tell; the female has a distinctive limp.)  The first year, the water in the pond rose above the level of the nest for several days and the eggs drowned.  Last year, something (likely a snapping turtle) picked off the goslings one by one until there were none.

Last evening, Kali and I went down to the pond and found the adults cruising the surface alone, with no goslings in sight.  Something picked off six goslings in a period of less than a day.  Kali was heartsick; she literally couldn't sleep last night for thinking about the waste of life.  The season of depression has officially begun.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Earth Day Tree Planting

Stewardship Assistant Chris planting a tree aided by local 6th-graders
One of the school districts in our catchment area has committed to bringing all students from 6th- through 9th-grades to my preserve each year for an environmental education outing.  On Earth Day this year (Monday, April 22), about 125 6th-graders (half of the 6th-graders in the district) descended en mass for the morning.  The students broke into four groups, and each group headed for a different activity station.  Throughout the morning, at 45 minute intervals, the students switched stations so that all students got a chance to rotate through all four activities: tree planting, invasive plant control, stream ecology, and pond water testing. 

Smaller trees require smaller holes - always a consideration with 6th-graders
The tree planting occurred near our office.  Last winter, the staff and volunteers spent many hours clearing invasive plants from a hopelessly weedy and vine-infested thicket in preparation for planting this spring with the students. 

Chris positioning a deer-proofing cage while a student readies a stake
The students love getting out of the classroom - especially in the spring when the weather starts to improve.  I'm sure the teachers like the change, too.

At any one time, there were a dozen students planting trees
The second half of the 6th-graders came to the preserve on Tuesday and repeated the activities of the previous day.  Between the two groups, my Stewardship Assistant Chris reported that the students, teachers, and chaperones had planted over 100 trees.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sunny Spring Sunday

A view upstream along "my" creek
Sunday, April 21 started off with frost on the grass, temperatures hovering just above freezing, and a brisk wind, but the sky was clear.  By the afternoon, temperatures had rebounded into the upper 50s, so Kali and I took a 3-mile walk in "my" preserve.  Spring ephemerals were in full bloom everywhere and walkers were in a good mood.

Sometimes we don't like to walk in "my" preserve because I can see everything that needs to be done and I get discouraged.  Also, I hate to challenge people who are flaunting the rules and walking their dogs off-lead; if the dog owners do put their dog on a lead, they take it off as soon as I have turned the corner.

A mossy rock garden with violets (Viola spp.) spring-beauties (Claytonia virginica)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Feather for Packrat

On April 1, fellow blogger Desert Packrat (desertpackrat.blogspot.com) posted an image of a feather he had run across in his peregrinations in the Chihuahan Desert outside Las Cruces, New Mexico.  I suggested that the feather had come from the tail of a Northern (Red-shafted) Flicker (Colaptes auratus).  Packrat replied that he had observed flickers at his home high in the Sacramento Mountains east of Las Cruces, but never in the low desert.

During a walk last evening, Kali and I came across the shed tail feather of a Northern (Yellow-shafted) Flicker, the eastern counterpart to the western red-shafted form.  Packrat's and my feathers are identical except for coloration.  Though he may never have seen one in the low desert, I'm reasonably certain that a flicker had shed a tail feather in Packrat's desert.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Creek Cleanup

Trash collected by Viridian Energy volunteers
We held our annual creek cleanup along "my" creek and several tributary streams last Saturday.  Despite showers on Friday, the streams were not particularly high on Saturday, and the day was sunny and temperatures were perfect - in the low 60s.

With over 100 individuals from Scouts, church groups, and companies volunteering at this event, we needed to spread the workforce over the landscape.  I took a group to a nearby municipal park where a tributary draining the main commercial hub for the region originates.  Because of the commercial activity in this stream's headwaters, we can always count on collecting plenty of trash on the floodplain.

Round Meadow Run, the tributary where I worked,  near its mouth
I had volunteers from Viridian Energy, an electric utility supplier in the region, and from Planet Aid, a non-profit organization that re-purposes and distributes donated clothing and housewares.

Viridian Energy volunteers
Because we have not had a major flood since August 2011 when Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee roared through the valley (2012's Hurricane Sandy caused tremendous wind damage, but did not produce much rain), there was not an inordinate amount of trash to collect.  Floods wash debris out of the watershed and deposit it on the floodplain, but this year we mostly collected routine stuff, especially plastic bottles and Styrofoam.

Round Meadow Run (foreground) joining "my" creek (right)
"My" creek is too large to ford easily, so volunteers from Planet Aid used a downed tree
The volunteers from Planet Aid discovered a dead beaver in the creek just upstream of the downed tree they used to gain access to the opposite shore.

Heading back for lunch
The three Planet Aid volunteers; it's not apparent in the image, but Dave (center) had fallen in the creek
Very pregnant Lavonne (left), our marketing guru, and Kali distributed t-shirts
Back at the Visitor Center, we treated the volunteers to lunch provided by Whole Foods, and we gave each volunteer a commemorative t-shirt.

Lunch in the picnic area
The creek cleanup, our biggest event of the year, is hectic and chaotic, but it's also our biggest "friend raiser."  We don't get that much trash out of the creek, but the event gets people familiar with us, and it makes the participants feel good about being able to do something to help the environment.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Back to High School...Park

Amy, a board member of Friends of High School Park showing off a new informational sign
I took my undergraduate Landscape Restoration class on a field trip to High School Park on Thursday (April 11).  I've profiled High School Park several times before in this blog; it was the site of a stone and brick high school that was abandoned when the community built a new high school.  The building was vandalized and burned, then finally demolished by bulldozing all of the debris into the basement.   The municipality purchased the 9-acre parcel from the school district and turned it into a municipal park.  The Friends of High School Park were formed soon thereafter to look after the parkland, and to try to restore native plant communities on the site: native grass meadows on the plateau where the school had stood, mesic woodlands on the steep slopes below the meadows, and riparian forest along a "flashy," flood-prone suburban stream called Tookany Creek.

We began our tour in the meadows, escorted by one of the Friends' board members, Amy, a good friend of mine.

This actually was the second meadow installed on the site.  The rubble from the building was covered with only a few inches of soil, so the calcareous debris sweetened the soil so much that the acid-loving native grasses and perennials that were planted on the site languished and were quickly overwhelmed by weeds and invasive plants.  This time around, the Friends got a grant from the state to restore the meadow, and planned to do it "right," with soil amendments to make the soil more acidic, followed by a planting of native grasses, and then a planting, one year later, of native wildflowers.  However, time constraints imposed by the state grant required the group to plant all of the plants together, which will not allow the grasses to get established before the wildflowers are added as the group  had hoped.  Unfortunately, I do not predict good things for this meadow.

This meadow is not going to "cut the mustard"
Non-native plants and grasses are evident everywhere in the meadow, and controlling them is going to be a yeoman's task.  At one point, we stopped at the edge of the meadow in an area sporting a huge patch of a non-native mustard - a typical challenge facing the Friends.  The Friends are not allowed to use herbicides (this would be a private group applying herbicides on public land - a real no-no, even if the Friends had someone certified to apply herbicides, which they don't).  The municipality's public works department has a certified applicator, but that individual has little or no time to devote to High School Park.  So, it's all hand-pulling, mowing, and cutting by volunteers.  Yikes!

When we came to the mustard patch, I invited the student to pick a few leaves from the plants to see how they tasted (very sweet and a bit spicy).  This completely freaked-out my students, who were sure that this was the last they would see of their instructor.  I can almost always freak-out group when I'm giving a tour if I nibble a plant.  Urbanized people are so divorced from the natural world that the thought of eating anything that doesn't come from the supermarket upsets them.

Stopping to discuss the value of meadows as a source of bird food:  insects and caterpillars
Some of the same meadow species, now up close and personal
After circling the meadow, we came to a garden with benches and paved walkways.  The Friends plan to use this spot as a demonstration garden to highlight many of the species planted in the meadow but in a format that is accessible to the public in attractive, designed beds.

Reviewing the plans for the demonstration garden
Amy had another commitment, so the students and I finished the tour by walking along the riparian trail paralleling Tookany Creek.

The Tookany Creek Trail bordered by highly invasive lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria)
The creek trail is short, and ends at a arbor and a sitting area overlooking the creek.   The wooden seats are shaded by huge specimens of a nasty, invasive shrub, Siebold viburnum (Viburnum sieboldii), a horticultural landscape plant.  Unchecked, this Japanese viburnum can overwhelm the understory of a disturbed woodland in short order.  However, the plant does have one interesting characteristic of which I take full advantage when I lead a group through the woods - when crushed, the leaves of Siebold viburnum are extremely odoriferous.  I love to crush the leaves and watch school children wrinkle up their noses when they whiff the rank odor!

Siebold viburnum about to bloom

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sunny Spring Saturday

A father and his two sons fishing in the county park downstream of "my" preserve
Saturday (April 6) was the warmest, sunniest day of the year so far, and Kali and I (and hordes of others) took to the trails of the county park downstream of "my" preserve.  Parking was at a premium in the lot - something that doesn't usually happen until summer, but it's easy to understand why everyone would want to be outside following the winter that wouldn't end.

The entrance station and picnickers at the county park
Most of the hilly park is wooded and laced with well maintained graveled trails (so that the rangers can patrol easily), but there's also a large, developed picnicking area adjacent to the creek.  In addition, the park shares a border with a teaching farm maintained jointly by the municipal school district and the municipal park district.  Cattle can be seen in the pastures on sunny days. 

Cattle at the teaching farm
After we photographed the cattle, our trail veered into the woods where I photographed the woodland understory dominated by invasive, non-native lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria) - and not much else.  This slope is high above the floodplain (the typical haunt of R. ficaria, demonstrating that once the plant gets established, nothing stands in its way).  Note also that there are no young understory trees in the woods thanks to the abundant deer that roam the park.  The county has a management hunt each year, but the park is largely surrounded by suburban housing that provides plenty of refugia for the deer during the hunts.

Lesser celandine carpeting a dry, upland wooded slope
Our walk then took us onto the old railbed running parallel (and above) the creek.  The county has converted the rail right-of-way into a popular trail.

Lots of folks enjoying the stream
Lesser celandine in its "rightful" place along the creek
When we returned home, we were greeted by a large flock of Wild Turkeys (Meleagris  gallopavo).  Over the winter, the flock consisted only of older toms, but now that spring has arrived, the older toms have been joined by last year's males (called "jakes") and by a flock of hens.  Kali and I spread sunflower seeds for the turkeys because we enjoy seeing them, and it keeps them around the house.  The hens will begin selectinbg nesting sites any day now, and will disappear for about two months until they show up again accompanied by their passel of chicks.

Wild Turkeys and Siberian squill (Scilla siberica)
One of the things I'll miss when we move to Colorado (but which might be replaced by elk!)

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

April Fool's Day Field Trip

Exploring a stand of old-growth American beech before spring bud break
Every other year, my colleague and renowned restoration ecologist Steven Handel brings a group of upper-level undergraduates from Rutgers University in New Jersey to visit "my" preserve for a field trip to review ecological restoration strategies in a suburban context.  This year, he scheduled the trip for April Fool's Day, which was sunny and reasonably warm.  Chris, one of my land stewards, and I accompanied Dr. Handel and 20 students on a 2-hour walk through the preserve.

Chris (second from right) and Handel (third from right) discoursing on planting trees
Steven Handel lending his support to a large, old beech
On the floodplain
There are certainly no shortage of non-native, invasive plants growing in the preserve, but for some reason Dr. Handel has a special hatred for lesser celandine (Ranunculus ficaria), an introduced buttercup that carpets any land where it gets established.  Since the plant favors (though is in no way restricted to) moist soils along floodplains, Handel really got revved up when we finally got to the stream bank.

Examining celandine up close and personal
Lesser celandine can reproduce three ways: by seed (not commonly), by tiny bulbs, and by aerial tubers that form on the stems.  The plant is especially successful on floodplains because flood waters can disturb or even uproot the plant and distribute the bulbs and tubers further downstream.  It's a lovely plant and I've seen people digging it up, presumably to plant in their gardens, though I warn people when I see them.  They have no idea about the monster they're inviting into their midst. 

I wish I could fish on a Monday afternoon
Before we completed our walk in the riparian area along the creek and headed back uphill, we came across several fishers trying their hand at landing a trout.  The state's Fish and Boat Commission won't stock trout in stream reaches that flow through private land like "my" preserve, but the local Trout Unlimited chapter meets monthly in our visitor center and stocks the creek themselves each year with about 200 brown trout.  Though any- and everyone is invited to fish, the club asks anglers to catch-and release.  Our creek is decidedly not a cold-water fishery, but some of the trout seem to overwinter.  Brown trout are pretty hardy; they're a European import that will take to most any water.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Animal Farm

Kali with Goatie (rear) and Clarisse
Now that winter's nearly over (despite temperatures a bit below freezing this morning), our goats' new "digs" - created ostensibly so that the animals would have larger, warmer, more comfortable accommodations during the harshest months - are finally complete and the goats have moved.  They've taken to their new quarters fairly well.

When my staff had badgered me long enough that I finally relented and allowed them to get four goats for invasive plant management last April, I asked where they planned to house the animals.  They had it all worked out, with plans to retrofit a wooden utility shed and to surround it with woven-wire fencing.  All went (reasonably) well until cold weather set in, and we worried about keeping the goats' water tank open (there's no electricity at the shed) and keeping the animals reasonably comfortable on the coldest days.

The staff approached neighbors who had an unused barn on their property.  The neighbors had grown up with animals in the barn, but the last horse had departed decades ago.  So, the neighbors were amendable to hosting the goats.  However, over the decades since the last horse left, the barn had deteriorated and filled with junk.  Before the goats  could move, the barn needed major cleaning and renovations, which ended up requiring several months because of very slow and casual workers.  Now the work is completed, the goats have moved, and invasive plant removal will get underway again as soon as the multiflora rose and the Japanese honeysuckle green-up over the next few weeks.

Are the goats worth it?  That goats will eat any- and everything is an exaggeration.  They certainly will eat anything green, succulent and tender.  Furthermore, they will damage and strip the bark from woody vegetation, but they won't eat it down to the ground as I had hoped.  The goats clear a heavily invaded patch, but the staff has to "mop up" with chainsaws, weed-wrenches, and herbicide to kill the woody invasives.  In addition, the goats have to walked to the area to be cleared, and then walked back in the evening, requiring staff time.  The staff has to erect - and frequently reposition - the electric enclosure that keeps the goats corralled in the field, a task that often requires the staff to clear vegetation in advance of repositioning the electric wires.  Could we achieve the same results at lower cost just using just the staff?  Probably.  But, the goats are friendly, they're endearing, the public likes them, and they've become a bit of a tourist attraction.