Thursday, November 13, 2014

Schuylkill Banks (Urban Hike)

Pierce Park skateboard daredevils  with Philadelphia Art Museum in background
Kali and I have walked the "natural areas" within easy striking distance of our house so many times we decided we needed a change of scenery.  So, last Sunday (November 9), I proposed an urban walk though central Philadelphia.  When I reminded Kali we could stop for a gelato midway through the walk, she was hooked.  (I got a double with grapefruit and dark chocolate, and Kali got chocolate and pistachio, by the way).

While I like our urban walks in general (I love to go downtown), I had an ulterior motive for this trek (other than gelato).  The city of Philadelphia is gradually constructing a recreational pathway alongside the Schuylkill River (the city's "western" river, as opposed to the much larger Delaware that flows along the city's east side).  The recreational path and associated green space is called the Schuylkill Banks and it is immensely popular with walkers, runners, bicyclists,  skaters, and skateboarders.

The easy parts of the trail have been built, but the city ran into a dilemma where a set of freight railroad tracks was located very close to the edge of the river.  The city's solution for continuing the trail in this location was to build the trail out into the river on concrete pylons anchored into the bedrock below the silt.  Because the Schuylkill is subject to flooding and bears lots of flood-borne debris, the structure had to be very sturdy but also aesthetically pleasing.  I think that the city and its design team succeeded masterfully.  The trail surface is poured concrete etched to look like wooden planks. 
Kali about to enter the over-water section of the trail
Detail of one of the handsome granite entrance posts to the over-water section
Another entrance post detail
The over-water trail at river level
The trail currently/temporarily ends at the South Street Bridge (yes, that South Street made famous in the pop song).  There were literally hordes of people on the bridge taking pictures very similar to the one below.  I had to jostle to the railing to get a shot.  The over-water section of the trail has only been open for about a month, so it's still drawing plenty of touristas - including Kali and me.  The view below filled me with civic pride and gratitude that we're living near a vibrant, exciting city.
View of the over-water trail and Philadelphia from the South Street Bridge
After we walked the Schuylkill Banks, we headed into the city for our gelato fix.  Our route back to our car took us past the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has added a considerable number of contemporary sculptures to its grounds.  The piece on the left in the image below is called Symbiosis, and depicts (in gleaming stainless steel) a broken tree that has crashed into and is partially supported by a smaller neighboring tree.
Symbiosis (left) and another structure whose title I didn't notice

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Autumn Trail Ramble

Last Saturday afternoon (November 8), Kali and I decided to walk the rail corridor that our county is converting to a trail.  I have mentioned this rail-to-trail conversion in earlier posts; it will bisect my preserve and will undoubtedly introduce all sorts of undesirable behavior into the midst of my natural area.  On the other hand, it will allow me to gain access to a trail less than 0.5-mile from my house and ride my bicycle for 15 miles (one way) without even getting on a road.  So, I have conflicting reactions to the conversion.

The steel tracks and the wooden ties have been removed, so the corridor is already being heavily used even though the final trail surface (crushed limestone grit) is not yet installed and the old railroad ballast is rough and uneven.
A fallen limb festooned with bracket fungi alongside the corridor

View from one of the three railroad bridges spanning the creek within my preserve
A rock cut
The railroad builders in 1876 took full advantage of the creek's erosive action and placed the rail-bed as close to the creek as they could to avoid cutting and filling.  But, in some places, steep rocks sloped sharply down to the creek and the builders couldn't avoid making cuts.  There are at least four such rock cuts in my preserve, including one where a horrendous head-on collision occurred in 1921 that killed 27 people.  That rock cut is known as "Death Gulch."

There are also several stone quarries alongside the railroad line, including one very impressive quarry with a sheer wall at least 60 feet high with plenty of huge boulders at the foot.  Rock climbers have long begged us for permission to climb there (we've always turned them down, reasoning that rock climbing is incompatible with our mission as a natural area).  Now that the trail conversion has begun, I'm getting reports that climbers are drilling holes in the rocks in order to set climbing screws, and people are using the large rocks at the bottom of the face for bouldering.  This is only the beginning of the types of intrusions that are sure to increase.
A slow stretch of the creek from the vantage of another railroad bridge
As Kali and I neared the end of our return walk, I looked over to the east and noticed the buck in the image above.  He was about 200 feet from the rail line and wasn't perturbed at all by our presence (though deer are hunted in our preserve).  As we watched him for a minute, I noticed why he wasn't running off - a doe was slightly upslope and 50 feet away.  I think he had amorous intent.  As she moved away, browsing all the while, he never let her get very far ahead of him.
Late afternoon sun glinting on the creek
The trail is set to open officially late next summer (2015).  Since I intend to retire in May 2018, I'll have 2-1/2 years to deal with the repercussions of/enjoy the trail.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Class Field Trip

High School Park Restoration Manager Kevin (bearded, far left) with students
On Friday, November 7, I accompanied my Ecological Restoration students from the University of Pennsylvania on a field trip to High School Park in one of Philadelphia's "inner ring" suburbs.  I've written about High School Park in several earlier posts.  The park is the site of the municipality's original high school, which was abandoned when a new school was built in another location, fell into decrepitude, and was finally razed.  Since then, the 11-acre park has been adopted by a "Friends" group, which has been working to restore the riparian woodlands, up-slope forests, and hilltop plateau with native plants.
Stairs leading from former athletic fields to the hilltop location of the old school
Our guide for the trip was the Friends' Restoration Manager, Kevin.  Although the site is small, it is overrun with invasive plants.  Because the park is public property, Kevin is not authorized to use herbicides.  In addition, he has no help other than volunteers that he can cajole into working.  In my opinion (and experience), he's fighting a losing battle, but he is supremely dedicated to the work and to the Friends.
Along a mid-slope forest trail
Because the park is located in an "inner ring" suburb, its infrastructure is old.  The sewer line following the creek that runs along the north edge of the park is leaking, and the municipality must replace it.  Next spring, the municipality's contractor is going to excavate a massive trench alongside the creek and through a major portion of the park to install a new 5-foot concrete sewer pipe.  Any work that Kevin has accomplished to date there will be destroyed.  I'd find such a setback really disheartening, but Kevin sees the silver lining in these storm clouds because the construction will require streambank restoration and he thinks the park could actually end up better than it is now.

I'll withhold judgement until I get a chance to see the work.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Regrouping on Meadow-nesting Bird Habitat

Between a pasture and a crop circle
Since 1997, our organization has been working diligently to create habitat for meadow-nesting birds which, as a group, are the most endangered suite of birds on the East Coast because of habitat loss.  Our strategy has been to establish native, warm-season grasses on a 160-acre farm we purchased that year.  Now nearly two decades into the project, we have a fairly respectable stand of native "prairie" grasses cloaking the land.  The grasses are beautiful (especially this time of year), resilient, and very popular with our visitors - but not with the birds we are trying to attract.  Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, and several species of sparrows stop in the grasslands during migration, but they never stay to breed.  What's wrong?  Didn't we do everything right?

Well, it turns out we didn't do everything right.  Grassland managers all along the East Coast have come to realize that the birds are seeking diversity - diversity in height and diversity in plant composition.  To the birds, our grasslands are too dense, too tall, and too monotonous, and they don't provide food (i.e., insects) in sufficient quantities for nestlings.

So, you might recommend that we diversify the grasslands, and you'd be right.  However, we also have a terrible problem with invasive plants.  The grasses can be treated with special herbicides that kill all invasive plants except the grasses, but there's no such "magic bullet" for diverse combinations of plants.  Once invasive plants colonize a mixed-vegetation meadow, control becomes much more time consuming and costly because the invasive plants have to be removed "surgically" without disturbing the desirable plants.  We've resisted trying to diversify our grasslands for that reason.

But, we've finally come to the realization that (1) we're not going to attract meadow-nesting birds if we don't do something different, and (2) if we can't attract meadow-nesting birds, why have the grasses at all because our landscape really wants to be a forest and we have to fight Mother Nature (i.e., natural succession) to keep it in grassland.

Fortuitously, I invited a respected field ecologist to speak to my restoration ecology class a few weeks ago about native grasslands.  This ecologist and I are good friends, and he has visited my preserve to consult on several occasions.  He also serves on the board of directors of another land trust in the region.  He told me that "his" land trust had had Eastern Meadowlarks nesting in native grasslands this summer, and he suggested that I talk to his land manager for some guidance.  So, I rounded-up my senior stewardship staff for a field trip and we paid a visit to the other land trust on October 30.  
Edge of the "crop circle" (darker foreground), native grassland (tawny center) and pasture (green, far left)
Tom, the preserve's land manager had successfully created native grasslands like we had, but had also failed to attract meadow-nesting birds.  Then, he decided to create "crop circles" - round meadows within the grasslands that he seeded with a mixture of 16 different species of low-growing flowering plants (i.e., wildflowers).  Three years ago, he established about 10 such circles ranging in size from 0.25-acre to over 4 acres.  And, this summer, Eastern Meadowlarks nested in his preserve - not in the crop circles (and not in the native grasses), but in a pasture composed of non-native grasses immediately adjacent to the largest crop circle.  
Diverse crop circle vegetation (foreground)
Tom watched the meadowlarks build nests in the pasture (which is just as monotonous a monoculture as the native grasslands, but lower in height).  Then he watched the adult birds fly into the crop circle to catch insects that were using the wildflowers.  Success!
Crop circle (foreground), native grasslands (mid-ground), and woodland (background)
Tom's crop circles get colonized by the same invasive plant species with which we have to contend, but he told us that he is able to control the invasives before they become problematic with a combination of mowing before the invaders set seed, spot application of herbicide, and the judicious use of a string trimmer.  He's got a smaller land stewardship staff than I do, so my staff should be able to do as well.
Crop circle (right) and native grassland (left)
My staff drew-up plans for our grassland modifications in the car on the way back to my preserve.  Stay tuned; it may be a year or two before we're successful, but at least we now have a plan!
Autumn color in the grasslands

Monday, October 27, 2014

Autumn Doesn't Get Any Better Here

Fox Chase Farm
The last weekend in October, just passed, was quintessential autumn here in the northern Piedmont.  Kali and I had errands to run on Saturday morning, but still managed to get some time to clean up the garden and rake some leaves - anything to be outside to appreciate the perfect temperatures, low humidity and cloudless skies.  Sunday was nearly a carbon copy, except it was a bit cooler and a little breezy - even more perfect,if such is possible.  We decided to take a walk in the afternoon in the county park downstream of my preserve.  The county had just lengthened the existing rail-to-trail route by installing a bridge over a ravine and I wanted to see the project and walk the newest part of the trail.
Looking across the new bridge back to the older part of the trail
The bridge is a handsome addition to the trail.  The CORE-TEN steel has weathered to a color that nicely complements the largely natural surroundings, especially in the autumn.
Across the new bridge toward the newly lengthened trail
The trail now terminates in a municipal park about 500 feet from the far end of the bridge.  Walking across the new span is nice, but the trail extension is so short that it doesn't add much to the walk - either in distance or interesting scenery.

On the return trip, I stopped to photograph Fox Chase Farm (lead image to this post) located adjacent to the county park.  Fox Chase Farm is a joint project of the Philadelphia School District and the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation (P&R).  The land is owned by P&R, but the school district operates the farm, which raises cattle, pigs, and sheep within the city city limits.  Ostensibly, the farm gives students the opportunity to become familiar with farming, but as one of only two farms still operating within the city limits (the other also operated by the school district), I wonder about the value of the investment for such an urbanized population. 
Harper's Run
Kali and I finished our glorious 4-mile walk following the course of Harper's Run within the county park.  Harper's Run is one of the most scenic tributaries to my creek, and a favorite photographic subject of mine.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Modest Guy

Over a year ago, representatives of the local garden club asked me if I would speak at the Garden Club of America's regional meeting in October 2014.  I speak to Rotary Clubs and other similar groups fairly frequently so, of course, I agreed to speak.  At first, the garden club wanted me to speak about the conservation work in my preserve.  But mid-year, they changed their minds and asked me to talk about invasive plants, a topic about which I know a great deal.  Since I hadn't prepared my talk yet, the switch was not a problem.

As the date for the talk approached, I gradually got the feeling that this was a "bigger deal" than just throwing together a few images for the Rotary Club.  Perhaps it was because I kept getting phone calls from garden club meeting organizers asking if my preparations were in order, and because several garden club members wanted to come to talk with me to make sure my presentation would be pertinent.

So, about a month before the deadline, I really began to work on the presentation in earnest and I put together a very good PowerPoint about the origin and management of invasive plants, with an emphasis on the showier horticultural thugs.

My presentation last week was very well received.  The audience was fully engaged and asked more questions than I could answer in the allotted time.  These women - and they were all women - were savvy, intelligent, and on the ball.  They came from all over Pennsylvania (i.e., Zone 5 of the Garden Club of America) and from points further afield.  I felt very good about the affair.

During the lead-up to the meeting, the organizers repeatedly mentioned that they wanted me to stay for lunch.  No problem - I'm always willing to enjoy a good meal, and these gardeners were so engaging that I looked forward to the camaraderie.  Following the meal, the group presented six awards.  After the fourth award, the moderator began to document the accomplishments of the fifth awardee.  Instead of using feminine pronouns, though, the moderator began to use male pronouns.  I scanned the crowd of 100 or so meeting participants and did not see another male in the room.  Hmm...

And, quickly enough, it became clear that I was the recipient of the Garden Club of America's Zone Conservation Commendation, presented to "an energetic gentleman of high character, modesty, and integrity who breeds success in environmental restoration and protection utilizing his managerial, teach and writing talents."  Aw, shucks.

Usually, such awards are pro forma (to thank a speaker), but this award was different.  The organizers has solicited letters of recommendation from six individuals who know me well, and the award had to be vetted by the Garden Club of America's national office in New York.  In addition, these women were so astute and interesting that I felt genuinely honored to be recognized by the group.  My head hasn't swelled, but I am proud to have received this award.    

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Moon of Falling Leaves Ramble

All eyes (image from the Internet)
In a comment on one of his posts, I mentioned to my blogging colleague Desert Packrat ( that I had to lead a full-moon walk last night in my preserve.  Packrat responded to say that he hoped the walk went well. I decided to recount the events of the evening in a reply to Packrat, but my reply grew to "post" length, so I'm pasting it here for everyone.

The sky cooperated beautifully last night, giving us great views of the moon and some interesting checkered patterns created by the subtly illuminated clouds.  Also, while it was a bit breezy, the temperature was perfect for the walk - mid 60s.

As I was leaving the office yesterday afternoon, I lamented to a co-worked that I had to lead the walk last night and that I'd have to make sure that none of the clumsy walkers tripped in a groundhog hole.  Well, none of the walkers fell into a hole, but honest to goodness, I did, and I went down on my back.  Boy, did I feel stupid, but nothing other than my pride was hurt.

In an effort to spot something - anything - during the walk, I shined my strong flashlight into some of the meadows alongside the trail.  No deer, coyotes, or foxes, but the light did reflect off a tiny "something" in the grass.  It was a pinprick of brilliant green light.  I left the trail, keeping the light shining on my "quarry" all the while.  When I got right up to the spot, the reflection disappeared (the angle of the light had shifted so the pinprick was no longer reflecting anything).  I searched and searched, but couldn't see anything until I finally spotted a wolf spider among the grass.  Sure enough, its eye(s) were reflecting green.  Neat!  After I spotted the first spider, we started to see them everywhere, which gave the group something to look for.

Near the end of the walk, I shined my light into an open meadow often favored by deer.  We saw two green eyes burning back at us.  The eyes blinked, and then whatever it was walked away.  The eyes were forward-facing; I suspect they were a fox or coyote rather than a deer.

Everyone seemed satisfied by the walk, but I'm inevitably disappointed when I lead these night walks.  We never see any animals (we're too noisy), we never hear any owls, and the sky is too bright from the reflected lights of the city to see any constellations.  It's hard to think of things to say to the participants, but most of them just seem to enjoy walking outside creating their own moon shadows.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Sunset Medow Ramble

On Tuesday evening, I had a chance to walk the native grasslands in my preserve just as the sun was setting.  The sky was dramatic, and the lighting was interesting, though barely bright enough to show the colors that are developing in the meadows and the woods.

The natural area preserve surrounds me every day, but the only time I get out into "nature" is after work and on weekends.  Otherwise, I'm mostly "chained" to my desk.  One of my board members warned me this would happen when I was promoted from land manager to executive director; he was prescient.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pretty Perfect Weekend Field Trip

I'm teaching ecological restoration at the University of Pennsylvania this term as an Adjunct Professor.  It's a class for graduate students, and I have taught it every other fall term since 1992 - that's 22 years now, about as long as some of my youngest students have been alive.

I'd like to take the students on a lot of field trips.  The more that they can get out in the field to see actual restoration work, the better.  But UPenn is very near the heart of Philadelphia and it's hard to get to a site, take a tour, and get back to campus in the allotted 3-hour class period.  So, I always offer a weekend field trip to my preserve.  We did the trip this last weekend.
Many of the students are foreign nationals, and most don't own cars, so they use the regional rail network to get near my preserve, and then Kali and I pick them up at the train station.  Yesterday's trip started off badly - a 60-year-old man walking on the railroad tracks was struck and killed by a train (it happens more often than you might imagine; most victims are suicides), which delayed the start of the trip by one hour.  But the students all finally arrived and we enjoyed two hours of nearly perfect early autumn weather.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Sora Out of Water

Sora (Porzana carolina) [Image from an Internet source]
This morning, two of my preserve's best birders and nature photographers stopped in the office after a morning photo shoot to report that they had found and rescued a Sora (Porzana carolina) on a trail through our tall native grasslands.  The Sora was alive (though clearly injured or sick); the birders planned to take it to a wildlife rehabilitation facility to see if it could be saved.

Two years ago, a birder found a Sora on another of our grassland trails, but that bird was dead. 

I have no idea why a fairly uncommon bird almost always associated with marshes would be found high and dry in the prairie-like grasslands we have established on parts of our preserve.  Nor do I have any idea why these birds are in bad shape.  It's great that they're here, but not if our preserve is acting as a "sink" in which the birds fall victim to predators or disease. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Late Summer on the Trail

Japanese angelica-tree (Aralia elata) seeds
It's been a while since I've posted (mostly because Kali's broken foot kept me from getting out much during her four-week convalescence), but her cast came off last Tuesday, the crutches are stored in the attic, and Kali is, once again, driving herself to and from work.  On Saturday afternoon, we took advantage of her new-found freedom and nice weather to walk on the level, even-surfaced rail-to-trail pathway in the county park downstream of my preserve.  It was the longest walk Kali had taken in five weeks, so we started out slowly; she was only able to walk a mile before her foot began to hurt and we turned around, but in that distance I got some late summer images.
Kali on the trail
One long section of the trail is bordered by dense growth of non-native, invasive Japanese angelica-tree (Aralia elata).  This plant is closely related to native Aralia spinosa, which is also known commonly as Hercules'-club or devil's walking stick. 

Aralia alongside the trail
Aralia branch and flower/seed stalk from below
Angelica-tree and Hercules'-club have the largest leaves of any plant in the mid-Atlantic.  Each leaf is pinnately compound, with a dozen or so leaflets strung along a central rachis.  The tree produces tiny white flowers on feathery pink flower stalks, giving the plant an interesting and unmistakable appearance.
Aralia leaves and flower stalks from above
Aralia gets its common name of devil's walking stick because the stem and even the leaves are liberally  festooned with defensive thorns.
Aralia stem
There were lots of weedy late-summer native plants producing seeds and fruits along the route...
False climbing buckwheat (Polygonum scandens)

Bur-cucumber (Sicyos angulatus)
The trail heading north along the west bank of the creek flowing about 20 feet below.
The creek photographed downstream
...and there was no shortage of non-native invasive plants, too, in addition to the Aralia.
Mile-a-minute weed (Polygonum perfoliatum) with blue seeds favored (and spread) by birds
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica)
Porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) - the bane of my professional existence
Autumn was just beginning to make its advent apparent in the trailside foliage.
Flowering dogwood leaves (Cornus florida) on the woodland edge are turning maroon
Great Blue Heron fishing the creek's shallows
Several groups of skittish Wood Ducks in autumn eclipse plumage were cruising the creek.  I captured the image below with my telephoto lens extended to its maximum, and then I further enlarged and sharpened the image digitally, so the quality is not great, but it was the best I could get.  When enlarged, I think the image looks a little Impressionistic as a result of my manipulations.  Wishful thinking...?  What do you think?
Wood Ducks on the creek
The creek at the north end of our walk