Facilitating spiritual and cultural transformation through connection with wild spaces, with the help of God and neighbor, to create a world where wildlife and wild spaces are known as neighbors worthy of our love, kindness, compassion and care.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Kayak Packed with Garden Loosestrife

A short trip to Harris Island this afternoon led to the removal of two large bundles of the exotic invasive garden loosestrife (Lysimachia vulgaris) as well as a beer can, a plastic bottle, and a piece of styrofoam. It's good and challenging task, working to nurture habitat for a variety of native plants, insects, and other wildlife. My kayak rode a little lower on the way back. A good afternoon at what is quickly becoming one of my favorite wild spaces in Athens, PA.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Ridgetop Saunter at Little Pine State Park (7/25/2020)

Last Saturday I got to spend some time at Little Pine State Park in Lycoming County. I sauntered the ridge of Panther Run Trail with Erin, her parents, Lynn and Gloria, and their dog, Montey. We made our way from lakeside to ridge top and a great variety of wild neighbors greeted us over the course of several miles. We foraged ripe berries from lowbush blueberry plants while back-throated-blue warblers sang in the canopy above.

There's one relatively open spot atop that ridge where a few scotch pines are growing next to a stand of small quaking aspens. It is here that I enjoyed the cricket-like trills of at least three Canadian cicadas. They are relatively small cicadas that are dark in color with a little yellow on the back.

We had the gift of encountering three timber rattlesnakes (two dark phases and one yellow phase) between the location where the Canadian cicadas were singing and the place where Panther Run Trail turns back down a steep ravine towards the creek far below.

What a great adventure it was. What a joy to get to know the Canadian cicadas, timber rattlers, and the forest as a whole at Little Pine State Park a little better.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

My Wild Neighbors: Belted Kingfisher

I'm thankful for you, Susquehanna River. Each day I am fortunate enough to spend a little time upheld and carried along by your current while sitting in my kayak is a good day. Your water is a gift, as is it's flow; and your quality is yet another gift to be counted, as subaqueous contours provide habitat for a great multitude of aquatic insects, fish, reptiles, and amphibians as well as some mammals including the muskrats and beavers who make home along your banks. Your tree neighbors who line these banks between Lockhart and Font Street bridges are a gift to count as well! While accounting for the gifts you bring to this community I would be remiss not to mention the varied avian species who live here; eagles, herons, and mergansers each presenting unique character of their own.

Now I turn to you, belted kingfisher, for you are one of my favorite neighbors in this Susquehanna River community. These flowing waters are blessed by your bold character and your punk-rocker flare the whole year long and the rest of us are better for it. Friend and envy of fishermen, at once revealing the best fishing spots and making it look all too easy. What a gift to watch you hover on the wing just before plunging your whole body beneath the water's surface, and in no time you're back on the wing, most of the time, it seems to me, beak full!

Saturday, July 25, 2020

The Fly with Rainbow Eyes (genus Eutreta)

This is a fruit fly of the genus Eutreta. Located on Harris Island in Athens PA on July 24th. The most captivating eyes and interesting wings I’ve seen in a fly! Many of our smallest wild neighbors are worth a closer look.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Robber Fly (Family Asilidae) Athens, PA

Located along the banks of the Susqehanna River in Athens, PA this morning; I present to you another very interesting wild neighbor, the robber fly. With over a thousand species of robber flies in North America I'm not going to pretend I'm anywhere near proficient enough to take a stab at a species ID on this one. Robber flies are notable insects. A predator of predators, some robber flies have been known to take down wasps, beetles, and even dragonflies! They capture these on the wing and then consume these other insect predators as food. Since they are not aggressive towards humans, this is one more type of arthropod that we may enjoy without fear during these hot Summer months.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Spined Micrathena (Micrathena gracilis)

Four days ago I brought you the arrow-shaped micrathena (Micrathena sagittata). Today I present it's close relative, the spined micrathena (Micrathena gracilis). One of the fun things about this species is that they are known to construct webs at about face-height across hiking trails. Before criticizing this wild neighbor's (uncomfortable for many of us) habits, keep in mind that it does a good job of cutting down on the number of mosquitoes that fly around the forest at about head height too. Thankfully this is another species that is not poisonous to humans, so if one should land on your face, arms, or shirt upon accidental collision with it's web, no worries. This particular individual was found near the south side of Harris Island where the forest begins with an understory of ostrich fern and nettle.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Arrow-Shaped Micrathena (Athens, PA)

Yesterday afternoon I went into the yard to gather mint leaves so I could make myself some tea, and I found this beauty hanging out on one of the mint plants; an arrow-shaped micrathena! This is the time of year when they'll start showing up in yards, gardens, and forests. They are not dangerous to people, and are beneficial to the wild spaces they call home. The arrow-shaped micrathena is one among a great variety of eight-legged web-spinning neighbors to appreciate this time of year.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Welcoming the Season of Singing Cicadas and Goldenrod in Bloom (Diahoga Trail, Athens/Sayre, PA)

A two-miles walk on the Diahoga Trail is a good way to start the day; along the Susquehanna River from Athens to Sayre and back.

The fog blanketing the flowing waters of the Susquehanna doesn't last long.
Sun's bright rays from the eastern horizon burns it off quick. The channel of flowing fog is changed into the river of shimmering light.

Into the forest I go. A la sainte terre.

First of the year goldenrod; Each raceme is bursting with hundreds of small vibrant yellow flowers. Songbirds have quieted down as we enter these post-breeding days of summer, and the buzzy songs of cicadas have begun.

For everything there is a season, a time for everything under the heavens. The season of nesting birds gives way to the season of the songs of cicadas and goldenrod in bloom. Seasons; it is clear to the observant saunterer that there are more than four of them. So many more.

To all of my Wild Neighbors along the Diahoga Trail this morning, I thank God for you.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Uncommon Beauty of a Common Grackle

Written 7/5/2020

This afternoon the Susquehanna is the lowest its been since I arrived in Athens two short weeks ago; little more than a trickle along the western side of Paines Island. Even with eyes closed I can tell when I'm nearing the banks of the river because the harsh clucks of dozens of common grackles fills the air. Very few would come here seeking grackles since they are so common and abundant. In fact, I've even heard them called "junk birds," but to label them as such is to do a disservice to the grackle.

Some of the characteristics that make the grackle so well adapted to this riverine environment deserve respect, appreciation, and even admiration. While each individual picks for bugs and seeds among river cobbles next to slow-moving waters with strong, slender, slightly curved bills perfectly designed for the task, all eyes are vigilant to keep watch for danger. If one sounds the alarm, all retreat in unison, and sleek bodies with beautiful long tails ride the wind with strong direct flight. Some grackles seem to want to keep their toes dry and are very good at hopping from rock to rock maintaining just an eighth of an inch or so between scaled feet and flowing water. Others wade straight into the water up to the belly without a care. With today's temp hovering around 90 degrees F, that sounds more like it.

Sunlight reveals the common grackle's true colors. Due to their structure the bird's dark feathers reveal iridescent tones of metallic purple and green beneath the beams of the Summer sun.

 Many people spend countless hours seeking out rare and illusive wildlife, and I am no exception. But perhaps there's something to be said about welcoming a renewed appreciation for some of our most abundant native species.

Grackles are to the river's edge as silver maples are to it's banks. Their prolific status and well-adapted natures make them representative of the places they call home; of the wild spaces we so enjoy.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Water Willow (Justicia americana)

There's a special place in my heart for those plants that have found ways to thrive in the kinds of environments that are inhospitable to most. The places where the swiftly moving waters of the Susquehanna meet the leading edges of cobble-covered river islands is one of those environments. While sauntering the border of Paines Island I happened upon the beautiful plant called water willow, and it was in full bloom!

When I look straight into the center of the flower I see someone singing with eyes squinted and arms outstretched. Do you see it too?

Water willow is a very interesting low-growing shrub of a plant. It's got an eight-sided ridged stem and branches, long slender oppositely branched leaves, and at least in this case is firmly rooted between the river cobbles.

While the flowers are beautiful, what initially caught my attention was that this plant was alone near the leading edge of Paines Island surrounded by nothing but river cobbles. I knew immediately that this has got to be one hardy plant. At present the water level is low, and a wide expanse of the islands edge is dry. However, there are times throughout each year when this water willow is totally inundated beneath raging waters, and yet, in spite of these harsh conditions this particular plant is thriving. It is thriving not only to the point of having the energy to live, but also to reproduce. Some of today's flowers will become next month's seeds that get carried farther downstream so that the gift of the water willow may colonize new river islands which will be blessed by its slender green leaves and singing flowers for years to come.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

A Great Day starts with a Great Egret (Near Front Street Bridge; Athens, PA)

The subtle beauty of birds like the warbling vireo garner the appreciation of observant birders. The striking beauty of birds like the bald eagle immediately capture the attention of every passerby. The great egret who showed up near the south end of the Diahoga Trail this morning clearly lands in the second category of avian beauty. I made some new friends while watching this great egret along the banks of the Susquehanna River near the intersection of River and Satterlee Streets. First, I had the joy of sharing the experience with a recent new friend, Cathy. Then I met Sarah who was walking the river trail and had stopped to take a look. After that I met Justin, who saw me looking at something and walked over to find out what it was.

The orange bill and black legs are key identifying features. Notice how the long neck us held in an 'S" shape in flight while the legs are held straight back.

This particular bird probably did not breed in The Valley. It likely flew in from along the coast or down from Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge to the north of Cayuga Lake. Now that nestlings have fledged, this is the time of year when herons as well as shorebirds are on the move. Since the great egret is the first non-breeding bird I've observed here this Summer, its visit marks the early cusp of the fall migration season. What great joy! There is no telling what interesting bird-life will show up in days and weeks to come, especially since this area (with the confluence of the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers) creates a natural migration corridor.

I'm thankful for my wild neighbor the great egret, I'm thankful for the people with whom I shared this experience, and I'm thankful that the Fall migration has begun!

A typical spot for a great egret; at the edge of the water.
The great egret perched atop a pine tree for a little while.
There's an egret in the neighborhood. Can you see it in this photo?

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Straight To The Point (Tioga Point) June 29th, 2020

My route.
I did something today that I've been wanting to do since I moved to Athens two weeks ago. I sauntered the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers via kayak; launching into the Susquehanna at the Front Street Bridge, following the current southwards from there on down to Tioga Point, and then paddling north along the Chemung River from Tioga Point to the Route 199 Bridge. It was an amazing experience. I had the joy of encountering a great variety of wild neighbors along the way. There were white-tailed deer, a fox and her pup, vireos, flycatchers, eagles, ducks, and swallows!

Sycamore cove.
At one point I found a little cove off of the main current of the Susquehanna where I could rest in my boat on the water without going anywhere. There I paused for five minutes or so, noticing the unique perspective provided by my kayak. A pair of great-crested flycatchers sallied for insects on the wing just a few feet over my head while a white-tailed deer grazed on choice vegetation which included some silver maple leaves and even a couple of leaves from a knotweed plant. It is amazing to be so close in proximity to a wild deer to be able to identify the vegetation that it's eating without the aid of binoculars. Sideways tail flicks that communicate "all is well" by this deer at a distance of just twenty feet says to me that these wild neighbors either don’t care about or are oblivious to relatively still floating objects, however close to shore.
Gnarly sycamores resemble a grape orchard.

Upon re-entering the Susquehanna's southward current, I noticed that there was one spot where the forces of the river's flow had caused a patch of gnarly sycamores to resemble a grape orchard. These river orchards of lush vegetation and nutrient-rich waters are fertile indeed! Teeming with life! The banks are so full of life because the river is too.

Bank swallow.
Yes the river itself has a life of its own, forever oscillating between riffles and pools. It's easier to hear the songs and calls of birds while navigating the relatively calm and quiet pools, and the swallows seemed to enjoy low flights over the riffle sections. It makes sense. Insects like mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies prefer the well-oxygenated riffle sections of our rivers and so where do the swallows go to find the best tasty flying insects? The riffles! It's impossible to talk about one neighbor without discussing the place as a whole. The river and its surrounding forests is community; each animal interdependent upon the other; plants and trees engaged in competition as well as in mutual support of the riverbank. There are stratified habitat zones here, beginning with river cobbles or mud at the water's edge, transitioning to a zone of low-growing vegetation, and then into a layer of sturdy trees that are dominated by strong and beautiful silver maples.

I cannot get over these silver maples which in their context are made all the more beautiful as wave after wave of shimmering light dances upon trunk and branches, a gentle wind whispers through silvery leaves, and I hear the Spirit of God speaking into my heart, "these are your partners in sharing the love of Jesus. Make peace with this land and its wild inhabitants, and with the people of Athens. Be a neighbor and share what it means to be a neighbor for Jesus." What great joyful work is being prepared here! How amazing to be here, in this moment! How ecstatic yet deeply peaceful and serene to find myself drawn into a true moment of sauntering; senses in tune with this wild space, heart in tune with the Source of Divine Creativity! Onward I go, every moment, one of sacred and indescribable beauty. The low-dipping wind-whipping flight of a tightly clustered flock of bank swallows at Tioga Point is a sight to behold. Farther up the Chemung river, water striders were so prolific in one spot that it looked like a million tiny raindrops touching the surface as thousands of insects securely suspended atop the water moved about under the sun's dazzling light.

Today I am thankful for the beauty of this place, I'm thankful to have had the opportunity to traverse the route that I did, and I'm thankful for the unique perspective of the riparian community provided by my kayak.

Tioga Point

White-tailed deer along the Chemung River.
Harris Island

Friday, June 19, 2020

Paines Island Saunter

Catalpa blossoms.
An early morning saunter around the edge of Paines Island brings blessings beyond articulation. I stand at the north tip of Paines Island where the waters of the Susquehanna are channeled left and right in shallow riffled currents. A foggy veil rises as if summoned by the light of the new day. The smell of dead fish lingers in the air; breakfast fit for an eagle. Gazing outward from the shore of Paines Island the oscillation between riffles and pools that carry fine particulate matter as well as the occasional leaf or branch downstream is mesmerizing; the sound that the water makes as it rushes on by is enough to drown out the noise of nearby roads, farms, and businesses. If you ask me, this retreat is a priceless gift in and of itself. My prayer is that my senses be brought in tune with this wild space and that my heart beats in tune with the Source of Divine Creativity.

Zebra caddisfly.
Turning the focus towards the islands interior, layer upon layer is teeming with life. Grackles work the gravel banks that form and reform with the seasons. Yellow-throated vireos reside near the tops of towering silver maple and bigtooth aspen. Song sparrows and various warblers abound among the thick shrubby growth in-between. Zebra caddisflies seem to fill every bush and branch as well as the air in-between. Standing where gravelly shore transitions to shrubby edge the caddisflies land on me! They are attractive to my eyes and attractive to many a songbird's stomach! At present there are at least three broods of Baltimore orioles on Paines Island that are being sustained by a majority of these superabundant caddisflies!

Catalpa trees, scattered intermittently along Paines Island's east shore, are an accent of beauty. The elegant purple, yellow, and white blossoms adorn the trees and litter the ground beneath them. As I pass by I'm careful not to step on a single discarded flower. I know that ecologically it makes no difference if I step on them for they've already served their purpose; but it feels wrong to carelessly trample upon something so charming and delicate.

common grackles and a killdeer foraging among riffles.
This morning I met a muskrat with a look of extreme fear written across his face who startled me when he unknowingly ran straight in my direction to within three feet of where I sat.  While muskrats may not be an eagle's primary target, when a bald eagle's shadow is cast overhead this muskrat takes cover!

I met a white-tailed deer and her young fawn who seemed to be getting a guided tour of the island.

I met the green heron and the belted kingfisher who hang out in the same stretch of river but have no qualms with one another since the heron hunts along the shore and the kingfisher acquires her catch where the water gets deeper.

Muskrat, deer, heron, kingfisher, and so many others; I thank God for you.

Though there is work to be done, as I leave this special wild space, wherever I go today I'll carry the blessing of my wild neighbors at Paines Island in my heart.