Thursday, August 29, 2013

Of Birds and Men

Yours truly (left) with Pennsylvania Game Commission grassland bird expert Dan Mummert
For the last thirteen years, my land stewardship staff and I have been working to convert a 160-acre hay farm into native "warm season" grasslands.  Our goal has been to create habitat that will support breeding populations of "grassland obligate" birds - birds that nest in grasslands and in no other habitat.  Good examples in our area include Bobolinks; Eastern Meadowlarks; Savannah, Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrows; and Upland Sandpipers (admittedly a real long shot).

When we bought the property in 1997, the land was used to grow non-native "cool season" grasses that were harvested for hay.  We started small with our conversion; each year, we would herbicide a 10- or 25-acre patch of the pasture grasses, and then reseed the area with native grass seed.  In 2008 we finally finished the conversion by reseeding the final 50-acre patch.
The grasses have performed well, and our farm now looks much like a tallgrass prairie in the Midwest.  Though the grassland conversion has been very successful, none of the target birds have chosen to nest in the fields yet (with the notable exception of one very rare species that occurs in only a few very scattered locations in Pennsylvania - our resounding success to date).  We routinely observe Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks stopping for a few days in the fields during spring and autumn migration, and each year we hope they'll linger to raise a brood, but inevitably they move on.
We have our suspicions about why they don't nest here.  The largest contributor to their decision may be that the fields are just too dense with grasses, and they can't find suitable small open patches in which to build their nests.  We know this is an issue, but there's a good reason why there aren't many openings in the fields:  we have an absolutely horrendous problem with non-native invasive plants. Any openings in the dense grass cover are quickly colonized by invasive plants, which then begin to spread and take over the grasslands.  So, we use herbicides to control the broad-leaved invasive weeds, which reduces competition for the grasses, and the grasses grow in to fill the openings.  Result: no nesting sites.
Grasslands with desirably diversity
Furthermore, the grasslands are not diverse and don't contain many meadow plants that would attract insects and pollinators on which the birds could feed.  Again, most of the good native wildflowers that we could seed into the grasslands would be killed by the broad-leaf herbicides we use to control the pernicious invasive plants, so we can't create a diverse meadow with a mixture of grasses and broad-leaved native wildflowers.  A 60:40 grass:wildflower mix is ideal; we probably have 90:10.      

Oh, and another thing.  Our natural area is in the middle of the suburbs.  We're largely surrounded by houses, roads, and businesses.  So our grassland is an island in a suburban sea, and it simply may not appeal to these grassland obligates that are used to wide open expanses of grassland in an agricultural matrix.
So, long and short, we may never be successful in getting grassland obligate birds to nest in our grasslands, but it doesn't stop us from trying.  One of our premier birders, Harris, called the Pennsylvania Game Commission when he learned that the commission employs a consulting grassland expert who would be willing to visit and share his knowledge and recommendations with us.  The expert, Dan Mummert, visited the natural area on Tuesday, August 27 and Harris and the staff escorted Dan on a tour through the fields.
From left:  Staff members Brad, Christopher, and yours truly; volunteer Harris; and Dan Mummert
Dan commended us for our success in establishing our grasslands in light of the nearly overwhelming pressure of invasive plants, and considering that we cannot use the two tools best suited to managing grasslands: prescribed burning and disking.  (We can't burn because of air pollution regulations and because the local fire marshals are terrified that we'll burn down million-dollar mansions on our periphery.  We can't disk the fields because we'd open up bare ground that would be colonized by invasives.)  
He did note that some of the grasslands contained wildflowers and that not all of the fields were grass monocultures; he encouraged us to try to create similar diversity in fields that were dominated solely by grasses.  He also recommended that we remove trees that had become established in fence-rows; the trees serve as perches from which raptors can survey the fields for prey, and the trees interrupt the "flow" of the broad grassy expanses the birds are seeking.  And last, but not least, he recommended that we consider closing some of our trails through the center of the grasslands during the birds' breeding season (May to mid-July) to limit disturbance by human activity.
None of these recommendations was new.  We'd had other wildlife biologists make similar suggestions in the past, but it's good to hear that everyone is "singing from the same hymnal."  We'll have to give all of these suggestions some thought since we have to weigh aesthetics, land management, and public use in our preserve.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Share Duty

Weather-vane atop Pennypack Farm Harvest House
Kali and I are shareholders at an organic Community Supported Agriculture farm called Pennypack Farm.  One of shareholders' obligations is to contribute volunteer labor to the farm each year; the farm calls it share duty.

With temperatures in the mid-70s, low humidity, and clear skies, we decided that Saturday (August 24) would be a perfect opportunity to fulfill our obligation for the year.

When we arrived, the farmer asked us to join a group weeding the completely (hopelessly?) overgrown strawberry beds.  Weeds and grasses had grown up so intimately with the strawberry plants that uprooting the weeds often uprooted the strawberries as well, but we did the best we could.
Weeding strawberries; Kali seated on bucket
Kids helped out, mostly by filling the wheelbarrow with uprooted weeds
Then, suddenly, mid-row, Farmer Devin announced, "Let's weed the brassica beds!"  I don't know if he was bored or just realized that the cabbages and broccoli would be coming on sooner than the strawberries, but we dutifully migrated en mass to the rows of cole vegetables - which were much easier to weed.

Weeding cabbages and broccoli
A ladder set aside struck Kali's fancy
When we'd finished helping out, Kali and I treated ourselves to cups of sea salt caramel pretzel flavored frozen yogurt topped with crushed Heath bars and chocolate chips.  It was a good day.

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Good Excuse for a Walk

Center Bridge over the Delaware River (New Jersey on left)
Normally, this time of year, Kali and I would use the very short window of opportunity to buy ripe, freshly picked peaches as an excuse to make a 25-mile trip to an orchard in Bucks County, and to ride our bikes along the Delaware River.  But, with Kali's July injury in Fort Collins, Colorado, healing only very gradually, we still can't get on our bikes. 

Instead, on Saturday afternoon we decided to make the trek to the orchard, and to walk (not ride) along the Delaware Canal towpath that parallels the Delaware River on the Pennsylvania side of the river.  (A similar towpath follows the Delaware and Raritan Canal on the New Jersey side of the river, and it's in much better condition than the flood-ravaged path on the Pennsylvania side, but it's also much more heavily used and less enjoyable for walking - though much preferable for biking.)

We walked about three miles (1.5 miles out and back) and stopped for an (unsatisfying) soft serve ice cream cone at a locally popular drive-in at the turnaround point.  The conditions were great for a nice walk: relatively low humidity, partly cloudy skies to keep the temperature reasonable, lots of shade along the path, and nice scenery with the river on one side and the canal lined with elegant properties on the other.
Delaware Canal towpath trail
A restored lock along the Delaware Canal
Canal towpath, Delaware River, and bridge to New Jersey
Riding inner tubes on the relatively gentle current is a summertime tradition along this stretch of the Delaware River, but a tuber from Washington DC drowned last week about six miles north of this bridge when he and his friends went tubing when the river was high from rain in its headwaters.  Normally, the wide river is nearly shallow enough to wade.
Elegant (and pricey) digs along the Delaware Canal
Many people have built (or renovated existing historical) houses along the canal and, in places where it's wide enough, even on the strip of land between the river and the canal.  I can certainly appreciate the appeal of the location, but given the river's propensity to flood, I doubt that I'd locate here even if I could afford it (which I can't).
Purple loosestrife on the canal bank
Attractive purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria), an invasive plant, grows abundantly along the canal's banks.  While it may be alien, it certainly provides pollen and nectar for countless native insects - probably one of the reasons why it's so successful. 
Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) and duckweed (Lemna spp.)
After we returned to the car, we drove a few miles uphill out of the valley to the peach orchard where we bought a half-peck of yellow peaches, some crispy early-season Stanza apples, and a jar of home-made peach-raspberry jam. 
Kali approaching Manoff Market Gardens' peach shed
Decisions, decisions...
Kali selecting some Stanza apples

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Forest Ablaze

For three perfect evenings just before the summer solstice, Kali and I walked the same route through "my" preserve.  As we neared home, I noticed that beams from the low-setting sun were penetrating deeply into the forest and setting it aglow. Naturally, I didn't have my camera with me the first evening, and I forgot to carry it along on the second as well.  But, I didn't make the same mistake a third time.  On June 19, 2013, I captured these dramatic images, which are even more impressive when they're enlarged (if I do say so myself).

I'm most satisfied with the first image, but the second, taken just before the beams disappeared, is more atmospheric.  I've been meaning to share them with my followers, but keep forgetting that I have the images in my archive.  I hope you enjoy them.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

High Summer

Exuberant Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Black-eyed-Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), and Queen Anne's-lace (Daucus carota) on a crystal clear morning
Cicadas are shrieking during the day.  Katydids are sawing away in the trees during the early hours of darkness.  New York ironweed's flat-topped, regal purple flowers and Joe-Pye-weed's dusky magenta globes are heavily laden with swallowtails and bumblebees.  And the first of the early-flowering goldenrods have burst like sparks onto the otherwise emerald meadow blanket.  It's high summer in the northern Piedmont!

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Now, how could you ignore a post with a title like that, huh?

On the last day of Kali's and my July sojourn in the interior West (versus San Diego on the West Coast, which is where we flew the next day), we completed a 3-mile circuit hike on the Turtle Rock Trail at Vedauwoo (pronounced VEE-da-voo), 20 miles east of Laramie, Wyoming.

This 10 square mile area of imposing rock formation is an eastern outlier of the Wind River-Proutt National Forest surrounding Pole Mountain on the Wyoming plains.  Vedauwoo is an Arapaho word meaning "earth born;" ancient Indians believed that these magnificent rock formations were created by playful spirits.   The area was considered a sacred place where young Native American men went on vision quests - perfect for such purposes (especially if hallucinogenic concoctions were involved) because the oddly jumbled rocks resemble myriad shapes.

Vedauwoo is well-known as one of the premier rock climbing and bouldering sites in the West.  As I waited while Kali used the restroom, I spoke with a climber from Moab, Utah who said she comes to Vedauwoo (a long day's drive) because "it's not crowded, it's cool, and it's beautiful."  But there are also camping sites, picnic areas, and trails through and around the rocks, which is why we visited.

Most of the Turtle Rock Trail is out in full sun, but portions are in shady aspen groves.
Turtle Rock Trail
A composite with a moth (I don't know my western wildflowers -yet)
Kali, who rarely uses the camera, snatched it out of my hand to make this image
The rocks at Vedauwoo are approximately 1.4 billion years old.  Magma welled up in a dome from the earth's mantle but never broke through to the surface to create a volcano.  Erosion eventually removed the overlying rock and exposed the cooled, solidified Sherman granite.  Endlessly repeated freezing-thawing cycles and the wind carved the stone mass into fanciful boulders and spires.
Between a rock and a hard place
I'm glad there was no earthquake while I was standing here!
A view eastward

A wooden bison skull
Even though the trail is mostly exposed to the sun, the rocks are at an elevation of 8,200 feet, which moderated the temperature quite a bit and allowed us to complete the hike in mid-afternoon in mid-summer.

Kali on the sunny trail

More rocks, viewed across a beaver meadow

A study in orange

Mayan sphinx
Nearing the end of the trail circuit
My followers may remember that four days earlier, Kali had badly sprained her left ankle and wrenched her right knee when she stepped off a high curb in Fort Collins; in a way, it's remarkable that we could complete this hike at all.  But, wouldn't you know it, along the final portion of the trail, Kali caught her toe on a rock embedded and went down again!  This time, she skidded on her right hand and scraped open the heel of her palm.  Gentle cleaning, sympathy, and an adhesive bandage were in order back at the restroom.
Some of the most imposing pylons, near trail's end
Hiking the Turtle Rock Trail was the highlight of our 10 days in the west this summer.

Bidding us adieu just short of the parking lot