Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Monochrome Sky with Winter Trees

When I stepped out of my office last evening on the way home, the sky was really dramatic - overcast, but with a lot of texture in the clouds.  The fading evening light shone through a translucent gauze in places, while other parts of the sky were obscured behind thick clouds. I exclaimed to Kali, "Isn't the sky wonderful right now?  I've got to take some pictures!" to which she replied, "It just looks cold."  (It wasn't cold; we had a record high of near 70 degrees F yesterday.)
I ran to the house and managed to get some shots.  I think the effect was better a minute earlier, but I didn't have my camera with me then, so these will have to do.
I took the last image, below, up into the canopy of the huge, 250-year-old sycamore tree growing directly behind our house.  I think that the camera rendered the sky almost indigo, but it simply was very dim just before all the light went out of the day.

Monday, November 30, 2015

What Was I Thinking?

On the brink
The Friday after Thanksgiving (November 27) was sunny and exceptionally warm (mid-60s F), so I persuaded Kali to put on her hiking boots and get in the car.  We drove 1.25 hours north to Lehigh Gorge State Park, a long, linear preserve paralleling the Lehigh River as it cuts it way through the Ridge and Valley section of the Pennsylvania Appalachians.  My destination was a 1-mile (each way) hike/scramble up Glen Onoko, a steep, scenic ravine that boasts four waterfalls along its length.

Glen Onoko was a famous Victorian summer resort with a huge, rambling guest house perched on the bank of the Lehigh River at the mouth of little Glen Onoko Run.  Radiating from the guest house were trails through the woods that allowed visitors from Philadelphia and New York (who arrived by train) to enjoy the magnificent scenery, including the cascades and rapids along the ravine.  An elaborate stone stairway allowed guests to ascend 860 feet from the river to the top of the highest falls with relative ease.

The resort burned down (as did many wooden Victorian resorts) in the early 1900s and was never rebuilt.

I first came upon Glen Onoko in the early 1990s and have hiked there several times.  When I "found" the ravine, it was pretty inaccessible.  I had to drive up to the top of Broad Mountain, and then make my way on rough dirt fire trails to the top of the falls.  From there, I could descend down the ravine and enjoy the serenity.  During those early years, I don't think I ever encountered anyone else on my hikes.

Today, the Pennsylvania Bureau of State Parks has created a huge parking area at the mouth of the ravine (which also serves whitewater rafters on the Lehigh River in the summer).  But the serenity of the hike is gone.  Hordes of people ascend the trail every day, prominent rocks have been defaced by spraypainted graffiti, and discarded plastic water bottles are common in the undergrowth.  Nevertheless, the hike is still scenic, and the waterfalls impressive.

The biggest problem for Kali was that the trail is extremely steep, rough, and difficult.  Most of the original stone stairway has eroded away, so the "hike" is much more of a scramble up steep, sometimes slippery, rocks.  I didn't have any problems, but Kali is probably the least sure-footed person I know, and the outing was torture for her.  Ascending the ravine was tough enough, but descending was even harder.  At one point, she broke into tears, and several other times fellow hikers helped me to get Kali through particularly difficult sections of trail.
Kali scrambling uphill
I shouldn't have brought her on the hike, but I didn't want to leave her home on a really nice late autumn day.  Once we had returned to the car and shed our hiking boots, we concurred that we had made one another's day miserable.  Kali's got two huge black-and-blue marks on her right buttock and upper right arm to prove it.

One positive feature:  Kali's very slow ascent and descent gave me plenty of time to take pictures. 
Pennsylvania's tilted sedimentary rocks
First falls
Second (and highest) falls - about 60 feet

Cairn cavern just uphill of second falls
Visitors have created a wonderland of cairns in the rock overhang

Third falls
Approach to the fourth falls.  The stone steps are a Victorian-era remnant
Fourth falls through the rhododendron thicket
Fourth (uppermost) falls
Tree roots with moss and lichen garden
Fern and moss rock garden
Most intense color of the day
Next time, I'll do this hike alone.  In fact, the next drainage to the west is a stream called Jean's Run.  I've explored its valley before; it harbors a virgin old-growth forest.  The last time I was there, it was only penetrated by a fisherman's path, and there's one really wonderful and nearly impassible falls near the top of the mountain.  I hope it's still like that.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bald Eagle Update

Adult Bald Eagle with chicks (Audubon image)
Yesterday (November 11, 2015), one of my organization's members observed "our" two adult Bald Eagles mating - three times!  Of course, there's no guarantee that the birds will attempt to nest in my preserve again this winter, but it's a good indication that they might.

After last year's pair of eaglets fledged on June 16, 2015, we occasionally observed the adults and the immature birds throughout the spring and summer.  The fact that they stayed in the area was another good indication of their intent to attempt to nest again, but we couldn't be sure.  After all, Bald Eagles nested at the mouth of my creek along the Delaware River for several years and then abandoned that location, so they could have done the same here in the preserve.

Now, we just have to make sure that we have a sufficient number of roadkilled deer to sustain them through the winter.  Fortunately for the eagles, but unfortunately for the staff and the deer, retrieving enough roadkilled deer is not usually a problem.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Mariton Redux

Mariton woods in October
The colorful portion of autumn in the northern Piedmont is rapidly coming to an end, so I Shanghaied Kali on Saturday afternoon and drove her to the Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary I had visited two weeks ago.  We first stopped for a really good lunch at the Fig Tree Cafe in Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, just outside the sanctuary. (We shared a proscuitto and fontina panini with fig-honey jam, a spring mix salad, and a bowl of baked potato soup).  Then, it was off for a walk.
Walking stick on a trail marker
As soon as we got to the trailhead, we came across a walking stick posed motionless on the trail marker.

I told Kali I wanted to walk to the Delaware River overlook, a destination I had not visited two weeks ago.
Delaware River view (upstream [north]).  New Jersey is on the right bank.
The overlook is perched at the edge of a sheer, rocky cliff, but the view of the Delaware is somewhat obscured by trees.

The one-way trail to the overlook was mostly downhill.  Kali, who is terribly out of shape, had to rest frequently on the way back up, giving me plenty of opportunities to capture some images.
Shelf fungi on a fallen branch
Maidenhair fern frond in the shady understory
Tussock moth caterpillar
Unlike my suburban preserve where deer have eaten much of the native understory vegetation, Mariton is located in a more rural location so there's hunting within - and all around - the sanctuary.  Hunting keeps the deer numbers low.  As a result, the native shrub layer is more diverse than it is in my preserve.  Maple-leaf viburnum is particularly common.
Maple-leaf viburnum
Fallen red maple leaves
We climbed to the highest point in the sanctuary (744 feet), then headed back down to the parking lot via the long, sinuous Squeeze Trail.
Black haw viburnum drupes
Kali in the autumn meadow
Kali's not good on rocky, steep trails, so she didn't much enjoy our walk.  We would have had a better afternoon if we had walked along the Delaware Canal towpath just outside the Fig Tree Cafe in Riegelsville.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Arboreal and Spiritual Rescue

Protecting a tree sapling in a wire cage
We've had perfect autumn weather this year in the northern Piedmont, and today was no exception.  So, I decided to "fly the coop" for an hour or so this morning to take care of two trees in serious need of attention.

I've got five guys on my stewardship (i.e., maintenance) staff who should be doing this kind of job. However, because the weather was so nice, and because it would have been harder to tell the guys where the trees were located than to just do the job myself, I went out in the field.

The first tree, a linden (or basswood) with a diameter of about 8 inches, was being rubbed by white-tailed deer bucks almost to death.  When rutting season comes around, the deer rub their antlers against trees they find suitable and, in the process, scrape off the bark.  If they scrape the bark all the way around the tree, it will kill the tree.  For some reason, the deer seem to find basswoods irresistible, and they will savage any specimen that is not adequately protected.  My staff either encloses the trees in wire cages or they wrap large trees with burlap sacks.  In the case of the basswood tree I went out to rescue, the burlap bag had slipped down and the trunk was exposed.  So, I firmly reattached the bag and I enclosed the tree in a wire mesh cage.

The second tree I went to rescue was a red oak sapling whose protective wire cage had been completely overwhelmed by the insidious invasive vine porcelain-berry.  Imagine the tree being planted in the image at the head of the post completely blanketed by a mass of vines and you get the idea.  I cut away and uprooted the vines, replaced the wooden stakes supporting the cage, and generally tidied up the planting spot - I'm an "anal" neat freak.

While I was working, a man stopped to tell me that there was a sizable snapping turtle alongside the trail about 50 feet away.  I had just walked the trail to get to the tree and hadn't even noticed the turtle, which looked like a big, gray rock when I went up to see it.  Cool!  Then, when I went back to the tree to finish up, a woman walked by and thanked me for saving the tree.

She went on to say that my preserve is the one thing in life that keeps her sane and she didn't know what she would do if she couldn't walk the trails and rejuvenate her psyche.  She knew my name (though I didn't recognize her), and she concluded by thanking me profusely for being the heart and soul of the preserve.  She told me that she had so much gratitude and appreciation for me and and my commitment to the natural world.

Deferential type that I am, I sorta' gave her an "Aw, shucks" response.  But, you know what?  She really did lift my spirits.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary

On Wednesday, October 21, I visited the Mariton Wildlife Sanctuary, one of 42 preserves in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey protected by the Natural Lands Trust (NLT), a regional land conservancy.  The visit was a special treat for members of NLT's White Oak Society; anyone who has been a NLT member for 10 years or more continuously is automatically enrolled.
Mariton Sanctuary manager Tim Burris (center, with binoculars)
The Mariton Sanctuary is managed by NLT employee Tim Burris.  Tim used to be the head naturalist for my organization, but he moved on one year after I took my job here in 1988.  (Do you think it was something I said...?)  Tim and I have remained friends and colleagues since he left, but I hadn't seen him in quite a few years.  We gave each other big bear hugs when we got reacquainted.
Trail to the Delaware River Overlook
The Mariton Sanctuary is located in extreme southeast Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, right along the Delaware River, about 1.25 hours north of my preserve.  The eastern boundary of the sanctuary drops precipitously to the river road paralleling the Delaware. 
Tim addressing the members of the White Oak Society
"Mariton" is a contraction of the names Mary and Tony, the first names of the couple who owned the property and set it aside for conservation.  Tony and Mary originally bought 38 acres of overgrown agricultural fields and kept adding land as it became available until, by the time they died, they had accumulated 200 acres.  The surrounding countryside is more developed than it was when Tony and Mary owned the land, but now it would be fair to characterize it as exurban - a refuge caught between the sprawl of Philadelphia and the former industrial cities of the Lehigh River valley (i.e., Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton, Pennsylvania).  
Stone wall in the woods
The sanctuary is perched on the top and eastern flank of a Brougher Hill, a very rocky knob.  Much of the land had been cleared for agriculture, and stone walls constructed of the stones removed from the fields criss-cross the property.
American chestnut leaves
American chestnuts, both naturally occurring as well as some planted by Tony, occur throughout the property.  Tim told us that one technique that early chestnut restorationists tried to prevent chestnuts from dying of the chestnut blight fungus was irradiating chestnuts before planting them, hoping that the zap of radiation would protect the trees.  Of course, the irradiation didn't work (since the fungus is in the soil, not on the chestnuts).  But, some of the irradiated nuts that Tony planted have grown into 25-foot-tall trees that are producing abundant nut crops.

Ann Rhoads, probably Pennsylvania's premier botanist (retired) on right with blue backpack
Tim manages much of the sanctuary in fields and brushy young shrub habitat.  Sassafras trees are abundant in these brushy patches.
Sassafras produce four leaf shapes on the same plant

The day was almost perfect - low humidity, clear blue skies, good fall color.  If I had any complaint, it was that it was a bit too warm; we had temperatures above normal in the mid-70s.

Friday, October 16, 2015

A Poem for Autumn

This poem by H.L. Hix entitled "Will My Word Grow into a Tree While I Water It Every Day with Silence?" appears in the summer 2015 edition of Colorado Review.  For me, it evokes a fall scene in the Tibetan Himalayas.

It offers its gold leaves, the ginkgo,
half to the monastery and half
to the mountainside.  The kept leaves blow,
if not on their way down, soon enough
against the wall.  The given leaves know
their way, or need not, achieve, as if
bidden by it, the stream they follow
toward neither solace nor relief.
Downhill the given gather, mingle
with others equally stream-bidden,
but dwarf maple, and red, in a pool
where, still, they mimic meditation,
whisper nothing, nothing at all,
to any passerby who'll listen.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Perfect Early Autumn Walk

Walkers stopped to appreciate our newly renovated 1817 stone arch bridge
Yesterday was a perfect autumn afternoon--temperatures in the low 70s, low humidity, and crystal clear blue skies.  I had an opportunity to lead a 2-mile walk through my preserve for about 50 of my members and supporters of a statewide environmental advocacy group named PennEnvironment.  

I was approached by PennEnvironment because the organization wanted to highlight the importance of the EPA's new Clean Water Rule that protects small headwater streams.  So, my comments along the way focused on my organization's efforts to safeguard upland drainages through open space acquisition and habitat restoration.
PennEnvironment's David Masur (with child on his shoulders) addressing the group
The executive director of PennEnvironment brought his wife and two young children to the preserve for the walk.  Near the end, on a stone bridge spanning one of our headwater streams, he thanked the walkers for coming and encouraged them to advocate for clean water.
Walkers listening to David Masur just before walking up a long, steep hill out of the valley
It was a really fine walk, and the participants all seemed to enjoy themselves.  Plus, I earned 2-1/2 hours of comp time for working on a Sunday!  However, 50 people is too many for a really satisfying walk; fortunately, Kali helped by herding the stragglers at the rear.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Thousand Acre Marsh, Delaware

View north across the marsh.  Bridge at far right bears Del. Rte. 9 over the C&D Canal
I attended the Third Annual Delaware River Watershed Forum at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware over the last two days.  The first day's activities included a field trip to one of five sites along the Delaware Estuary to see conservation and restoration projects. I chose to visit Thousand Acre Marsh.  This extensive freshwater wetland is a well-known birding destination that is at risk for a wide range of impacts due to sea level rise.

The marsh is a freshwater impoundment located in the southwest corner of the intersection of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and the Delaware Bay.  The northern levee of the marsh (along the canal) was created when the C&D Canal was dug, and the eastern levee (along Delaware Bay) was created to protect the right-of-way of Delaware Route 9, which hugs the bay shore. 
A ship eastbound from the Chesapeake to the Delaware Bay in the C&D Canal
Representatives from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control informed our group about the efforts of a multi-agency partnership to expand habitat and bolster ecotourism while addressing the failing bay shore levee and combating the expansion of invasive phragmites reeds. 
Tour group at the water level control structure on the failing bay shore levee
Best feature of the tour:  I added a new bird to my life list, a Little Blue Heron!  In addition, there were more Bald Eagles flying here than I have seen anywhere else except in Alaska; most were immature.

Salem Nuclear Power Plant in Salem, NJ directly across Delaware Bay

Monday, September 28, 2015

Phantom of the Woodland Edge

For the last two years, I occasionally have seen a white-splotched female deer in my preserve.  This strikingly distinctive (and not very shy) doe frequents the meadows and a private fenced-in lawn just south of my organization’s headquarters. 

This doe is pied (or piebald), a condition that is relatively common among mammals, birds, and even reptiles.  A pied animal has irregular unpigmented patches of hair, feathers, or scales commingled with normally pigmented patches. The animal's skin is also unpigmented under the light patches and pigmented under the dark patches.  The piebald condition results from leucism, a genetic abnormality in which pigment cells fail to develop normally while the animal is an embryo.  If all of the animal’s pigment cells fail to develop normally, the animal will be completely white; if only some of the cells are defective, the animal will be piebald. 
Though the doe stands out because of her large white patches, she is not an albino.  In albinism, only the cells that produce the pigment melanin are defective whereas other pigment-producing cells continue to function normally, so albinos often have a pale yellow color created by other pigment-producing cells.

Another difference between albinism and leucism is eye color.  Albinos cannot produce melanin in their eyes, so they typically have red eyes because the underlying blood vessels show through.  In contrast, Pennypack’s piebald doe, like most piebald animals, has normally colored, dark eyes because the pigment producing cells in its eyes developed from different embryonic tissues than did its skin and fur cells.

The proportion of white to normal-colored skin on individual piebald animals can vary considerably between generations, between different offspring from the same parents, and even among members of the same litter.  Our piebald deer is a perfect example of this characteristic of leucism because our deer had two fawns in the spring of 2015, both of which were completely normal in coloration.
Incidentally, the terms pied and piebald entered the English language five centuries ago.  These terms referred to the magpie's black-and-white plumage combined with “bald” in an obsolete use meaning “streaked with white.”

Monday, September 21, 2015

Repurposed Pier

Philadelphia Coast Guard Station adjacent to Pier 53; central Philadelphia in background
Late Thursday afternoon, September 17, Kali and I drove to central Philadelphia to bid adieu to a friend and colleague of 20 years who has decided to return to his native New England later this month.  Before we went to his farewell dinner, though, we stopped at Pier 53 (also known as the Washington Avenue Pier) along the Delaware River to review a restoration project developed by a mutual colleague.  Pier 53 was the location where most immigrants to the United States who entered through Philadelphia came ashore.  The remains of the immigration entrance station vanished long ago, but the pier's concrete pilings were still in place, and the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation (a waterfront renewal organization) wanted to develop a project that would honor the immigrants, help improve water quality, and provide a recreational amenity for the city.
Overview of the pier restoration project
The image above (poorly lit because the sun was setting in the west) is an overview of the restored pier taken from the far river-ward end of the pier looking back toward the city.  The project features a gravel path and significant native plantings.  The large trees had established themselves and grown between the time the pier was abandoned and the time the project was initiated.
The far end of the pier; Camden, New Jersey is across the river
The original structure is gone, but the concrete pilings provided a stable foundation on which to rebuild some land.  In the image above, it is possible to see wooden walls backfilled with soil connecting the concrete pilings on the left.  On the right is a wooden walkway extending out over the river.  And, on the far left, is a sculpture/observation platform called the "Land Buoy" commissioned to commemorate the pier's heritage as the immigration station.
Kali atop the "Land Buoy"
View upriver; Benjamin Franklin Bridge (U.S. 30)
View downriver; Walt Whitman Bridge (I-76)
Cormorants on pilings
One of our colleagues who joined us at the pier project said that the site is a very popular gathering spot and is often crowded, even in the winter.  I found that hard to believe because it's really obscure and tucked away.  And, frankly, I don't think it would be all that attractive to the average visitor; the plantings are weedy and the native plants don't provide the show of color found in an annual garden planting.  Perhaps it's the attraction of the "Land Buoy" sculpture/overlook. 
Entrance to pier project
One of the more interesting design features of the site is its landward entrance at the back of a parking lot.  Instead of completely removing the asphalt, the designers cut sinuous channels out of the asphalt down to the soil below, and then they planted native grasses in these channels.  They wanted to simulate and stimulate the natural breakup of asphalt that occurs over time in all unmaintained parking lots.
The sendoff for Michael (second from right; dark shirt)
After our tour of the pier, our group of restorationists went to the Moonshine restaurant in south Philadelphia for a send-off dinner for our colleague, Michael.  The breeze was blowing, the night was pleasantly warm, and the food was really good.  Michael's got a lot more friends and colleagues than those who showed up, but, alas, we were the only ones who could make it.