Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Forest Restoration Setback

In 2003, our organization expanded a forest restoration project originally begun in 1990.  In the expanded planting of 200 trees, we included a dozen pure American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) that we obtained from a nursery in Oregon.  The Oregon nursery said it believed its seedlings were resistant to the chestnut blight fungus (Cryphonectria parasitica), a pathogen introduced into the United States in the 1920s via imported Chinese chestnut trees.

For those who don't know the story of chestnut blight, the fungus quickly spread from the point of introduction (New York City) throughout the eastern United States.  By the time the pandemic had subsided, one quarter of all trees in the eastern deciduous forest had died, and what had been a major component of the forest became, for all intents and purposes, ecologically extinct in only a few decades.  (Not all chestnut trees died outright; the roots of some of the trees remain alive and continue to produce sprouts.  Once the sprouts reach about 20 feet in height, they are attacked by the fungus again [the fungus remains in the environment] and die back to the ground.  Some saplings even survive long enough to flower and set seed.)

With regard to our planting, the chestnuts have grown tall and beautiful over the last decade; perhaps, I hoped, they really were resistant to the fungus as the nursery suggested.  Then, two weeks ago while on a walk, I noticed that one of the trees had a wound located right a the top of the tree shelter we use to protect all trees from deer damage.  Maybe the tree shelter had rubbed the bark and caused the wound...  But, you probably already know where this is going.  On closer inspection and upon comparison with references, the wound turned out to be a canker caused by the blight fungus.  In fact, there are tiny tell-tale red fungal fruiting bodies on the bark surrounding the canker as well, visible above the canker if you look closely at the image accompanying this post.

I contacted the American Chestnut Foundation (which is trying to develop a resistant chestnut strain) to determine if I should destroy the tree to prevent or delay the fungus from spreading to the other chestnuts.  The Foundation's representative told me that my story was all too familiar and that destroying the tree would only delay spreading the fungus by a very short time.  Better, the person said, would be to let nature takes it course and, hopefully, the roots will re-sprout once the above-ground portion of the tree dies back.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Annual Autumn Fest

Because of rain two weekends ago, we postponed our organization's annual autumn festival until Sunday afternoon, October 27.  Though it didn't end up raining on the date the event was originally scheduled, the sky that day was still mostly overcast and chilly; in contrast, last Sunday offered a perfect fall weekend, so I'm glad we waited.
The hayrides are popular with children, their parents, and their grandparents.  Our wagon will accommodate about 25 people for a 45-minute ride.  The first two rides weren't full, but we were stuffed into the wagon on the third ride; I much prefer the more spacious rides.

You can see from the images that the native grasses are at their peak right now - tawny and beautiful - but the trees in the background remain dull green or muted shades of tan and brown.  Our forests are never as vibrant as the New England forests on October calendars because we don't have many maples in our woods, but this year's colors will not be among the best regardless.
There's a 10-acre private in-holding in our grasslands: a gentleman's horse farm.  While the in-holding breaks up the sweep of the grasslands, it nonetheless adds an aesthetic accent to the landscape.
Following the hayrides, children had an opportunity to decorate pumpkins and have their faces painted with Halloween themes.  A few kids took advantage of early leaf-fall to dive into a pile and have a great time.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Joy and Misery at Valley Forge

Washington's Headquarters during the Valley Forge encampment
With the end of the recent federal government shutdown, Kali and I were able to visit Valley Forge National Historical Park again - seemingly along with half the population of Philadelphia - on the second beautiful autumn Sunday in a row.  Although Valley Forge is criss-crossed by public roads, the park's own trails and internal roads were closed during the shutdown; a "trespassing" runner made the local news when he was slapped with a $100 citation for running through the park when it was closed.

Kali and I have come to enjoy the fairly strenuous 4-mile Mount Misery-Mount Joy loop hike.  We usually climb and descend Mount Misery first, cross Valley Creek (which separates the two hills), and then return by climbing and descending Mount Joy.  However, last Sunday, I suggested that we complete the hike in reverse.  At the end, Kali said that she didn't have much of a preference for direction.
Barren understory with stiltgrass
Valley Forge is notorious for its dense white-tailed deer population.  The animals, desperate for food, spread out into the suburbs surrounding the park and are frequently killed on the roads.  In addition, the deer have eaten everything they can reach within the park, so the understory is barren with no shrubs and no saplings to replace the aging trees.  The only plants growing within the deer's reach are non-native, invasive species like stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum).
Autumn colors - though most trees remain green
Kali passing a large rock slab on Mount Joy
Once we had descended Mount Joy, we crossed Valley Creek on a wooden footbridge (though there's an historic covered bridge a few hundred feet downstream).  Valley Creek, mostly spring fed, is cold enough to support trout - the only trout stream in the Philadelphia area.  However, the creek's headwaters were polluted by PCBs dumped in a railroad switching yard, so the trout can't be eaten.
Valley Creek downstream of the footbridge
Valley Creek upstream of the footbridge
Scott captured on the footbridge
On the west side of the footbridge the park service maintains a large grassy area.  During a flood, Valley Creek washed recently mowed grass off the floodplain and the clippings got caught up in the roots of streamside trees - natural artwork of sorts.
Wrapped Roots
Downed trees in the woods along the Mount Misery Trail
Autumn leaves at the base of a maple tree
Near the north end of the Mount Misery Trail, there's an industrial ruin in the woods.  Though the stone wall looks ancient, it is accompanied by decidedly more modern-looking concrete walls nearby, so I don't think the complex is extraordinarily old.  Water gushing from a spring in the hillside runs through a portion of the ruin, suggesting that whatever purpose the building served, it relied on large supply of fresh water.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Perfect October Sunday Urban Hike

View southeast along Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward Philadelphia's city hall
We've visited most of our typical natural area haunts pretty frequently lately, so I wasn't particularly motivated to go to one of our "usual" places last Sunday to enjoy a perfect October weekend.  Plus, Kali awoke really late, so it was getting a bit too late to drive further afield.  Instead, I suggested to Kali that we drive toward downtown Philadelphia, park about two miles from the center, walk into town to peruse a Pennsylvania Guild of Craftsmen's show, and then walk back to the car.  We completed a four-mile circuit hike, got to enjoy the energy of the city, and spent a perfect autumn day outdoors.  
Kali at the craft show at Rittenhouse Square
After enjoying the craft show, we decided to walk back to the car along the Schuylkill River, which forms the western boundary of central Philadelphia (the Delaware River, of which the Schuylkill is a tributary, forms the central city's eastern boundary).  The city is gradually developing a new riverfront park called Schuylkill Banks; it has become immensely popular with Center City's burgeoning residential community.
Fitler Square Dog Park at Schuylkill Banks
The Cira Center on the west side of the Schuylkill River is the city's newest (and most unusual) skyscraper
Schuylkill Banks park; the Philadelphia Museum of Art is in the left background
The huge (and hugely popular) new skatepark near the Art Museum

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Funky Feces

On Friday evening, I went out to harvest basil leaves from planters on my patio.  Friday had been rainy all day, and the early evening was still drizzly.  As I approached one of the planters, I noticed a long scat on the flagstones.  Even in the relatively dim light, I could see that there was a long pale projection from one end.  "Poor animal," I thought, "loaded with intestinal worms."  But, on closer inspection, the "worm" turned out to be the tail of a vole that the animal (probably a fox or coyote) had eaten and then very hastily passed out of its alimentary track, completely undigested.

Perhaps even more strangely, when I went out to inspect the scat in better light the next morning, half of the scat was still present, but the half with the vole had disappeared.  Some coprophagous animal had taken advantage of an easy (though, to my human mind somewhat disgusting) meal.
Add caption