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.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Leap Year Wildlife Tour

This morning's Creek and Canyon Wildlife Tour was bitter-cold as temperatures hovered around 20 degrees F and wind gusts hit us coming out of the north. It was frigid, and because of that I only spent 40 minutes on the trail with Keith, Amy, and Todd; but those forty minutes were pretty great. A scattered flock of Canada geese honked as they fed on submerged aquatic vegetation near the edge of the creek's opposite bank, a bald eagle was observed flying overhead a couple of times, and some very large icicles hung from the rock formations directly along the trail. We sauntered from the Darling Run Access Area parking lot to the confluence of Pine Creek and Marsh Creek where we paused briefly to learn a little more about the role that glaciers played in the current direction of Pine Creek and to hear a word from Nessmuk's book, Forest Runes. We gathered a few Eastern hemlock twigs with needles on the way back so hemlock tea could be enjoyed later in the day. All in all, a good experience in a beautiful wild space!

Here's hoping that the next Creek and Canyon Wildlife Tour's will feel a little more like Spring.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Signs of Spring (and a Wildlife Tour on Saturday!)

I was able to take note of some entomological signs of Spring while sauntering along one of our local creeks a few days ago. First, a midge perched on the branch of a small deciduous tree; then it was several dozen stoneflies meandering about on the top of crusty slowly-melting snow.

Midge. Note the long-ish legs on this tiny insect, clear wings, and fuzzy antennae. I couldn't help but marvel at those colorful iridescent wings!

Stonefly. Note the two-pronged tail that is typical of this family of insects.

Both of these species of insect typically emerge from the creeks of their origin in late-winter to breed; then upon egg-laying will come to the end of their relatively brief amphibious lives.

These little insects are just one among a number of reasons that I'm excited about Saturday's Creek and Canyon Wildlife Tour. We should get a look at some early-emergent insects and skunk cabbage as well as eagles and kingfishers. On top of that, those who are present will hear more of the story of the role that glaciers played in the current direction of Pine Creek. I hope to see you at Darling Run Access Area at 9am on Saturday morning if you can make it! Here is the full description of Saturday's upcoming Wildlife Tour:

For the Love of Wild Spaces. Gather at the Darling Run Access Area at 9:00am on Saturday February 29th to cover 4 miles of the Pine Creek Rail Trail.  Get acquainted with our Wild Neighbors along the trail as we make our way into the Pine Creek Gorge, beloved of one of the most prolific Nature Writers to have lived in this area, George Washington Sears, a.k.a. “Nessmuk.”  As we saunter along, we’ll pause to reflect on the words of Nessmuk himself.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

West Rim sidewall and Owassee Slide Run (2/20/2020)

This morning I set out to scale the side-wall of the west rim of the Pine Creek Gorge near Barbour Rock from the bottom up, to traverse the Owassee Slide Run ravine from the top down, and to experience five different habitat types during the course of a six-mile saunter. When I say EXPERIENCE five different habitat types let me just say that I'm not content to traverse the fringe of it. No, I want to be totally immersed in and get the full winter experience of the best the canyon has to offer. I didn't want to miss out on the amazing treasures that were sure to be found in some of the hard-to-reach places I intend to pass through today.

Today's route

Today's route, zoomed in

10:00am- It began easy enough, at the northern terminus of West Rim Trail. As I prepared to take to the trail, snowmobilers were gathering in the lot getting ready to ride the roads along the canyon's west rim. As there has been for the past week, a crusty snow covers the ground all around.

Young hemlocks along the trail
Between the trailhead and the intersection of Owassee Road I experienced the first habitat type of the day; mixed hemlock-oak forest. One of the very cool aspects of this first stretch of trail is that these species of trees which dominate the forest are present in a number of age groups. Mostly its the medium to large trees, but there are several patches of small thickly clustered stands of hemlock directly adjacent to the path. It's good to see what is called forest succession happening here along West Rim Trail; an indication of a relatively healthy community of trees.

Where West Rim Trail intersects with Owassee Road, I turned left on the road headed down towards Pine Creek. At the bottom of Owassee Road I experienced the second habitat type of the day, as hemlock-oak forest gives way to tall pale barked sycamore trees that line the banks of Pine Creek. One of the rather unfortunate variables about this creekside habitat is that much of the banks as well as the islands are packed with dense stands of knotweed.

Sycamores at Pine Creek

Geese on a gravel bar in Pine Creek
Partway along Owassee Road a pair of Canada geese had taken up residence on one of the gravel bars. Perturbed by my presence one of the geese let out one honk right after the other until I was far enough past to be out of sight. I'm sure the goose just wanted me gone, but the calls of that goose echoing off of the canyon walls was music to my ears. The river is poetry in motion; water flows, forming and reforming islands, gravel bars and the channel itself; gently yet powerfully winding its way through the gorge. All is fluid, ever changing. As it is with the river, so it is with the succession of trees in the forest, and so it is with life.

I continued along Owassee Road until I reached the point in the road that I guessed was close to being directly downhill from Barbour Rock. It's a long way from the bottom to the top, and difficult to figure out which canyon-wall-cut to settle into since the view of the top is blocked by the masts of many trees. A herd of eight deer were foraging along the powerline cut, which would make my third habitat type of the day. The relatively high rate of disturbance that is imposed upon the vegetation growing beneath the powerlines sets the stage for honeysuckle and staghorn sumac, both of which are present there in abundance.

Birch roots!
Now heading straight up the sidewall of the canyon beyond the powerline cut, I'm back in hemlock-oak forest for a little while. I happened upon a birch tree that captured my attention partway up the hill. Being that it lives on such a steep slope, it seems the soil around its roots has been carried downhill. One of the adaptations that a tree like this one must have is the ability to continually add to the vertical reach of its root structure in order to maintain the same depth and make a living on this steep easily eroded hillside.

Roughly two-thirds of the way up the canyon wall, things got challenging as I entered the fourth habitat type of the day; the land of dwarf juniper and red cedar. The thing about dwarf-juniper and red-cedar is that they do well in loose nutrient-poor soil. As you can imagine, loose nutrient-poor soil is not good for footing. But today I was helped by the fact that temperatures were in the low twenties and that meant the ground was also frozen; not frozen solid, but frozen crunchy, which makes some otherwise impossible hillside maneuvers doable; especially when one embraces the mode of transportation that is scrambling on all fours!

I knew I had entered the land of dwarf-juniper and red-cedar when the vertical face of a mansion sized rock stood in the way of my current trajectory. Looking up from the base of this mammoth hunk of sandstone I could see both cedar and juniper protruding from its top like spiky tufts of hair.

Mammoth rock!
It seems that every time I manage to successfully scale the sidewall of the canyon I'm always helped by the forest animals. In this case, some small-to-medium-sized mammal had left tracks on the ground which led me around the base of the mammoth rock and then zig-zagged between a couple of sheer rock faces, some of which, having icicle fangs on their faces seemed to say BEWARE! NOT THIS WAY!
Icicle fangs of the canyon wall!
There were a couple of places where I paused among scattered sandstone rocks on the steep eastward facing slope to enjoy the company of red-cedar and dwarf-juniper. Oh what a view these woody plants have, if only they had eyes to see it! Then, following the tracks of the small mammal (whose identity I'm not quite certain of) I topped out at a different location than I did the last time I took a route similar to this one on July 4th 2019.

The land of dwarf-juniper and red-cedar.
The rim of the canyon at Barbour Rock is a transitional habitat zone, being that it is the upper fringe of the land of juniper and cedar and the edge of more mixed hemlock-oak forest. It's also worth noting that, while I did not take the easy route today, Barbour Rock is one of the best most easily accessible vistas, a short half-mile walk along a level gravel path that starts at the parking lot along Colton Road, exactly three miles from Route 6.

I proceeded north on West Rim trail, through more hemlock-oak forest until I reached the point where West Rim Trail meets Owassee Slide Run. I veered off of West Rim Trail, entering the fifth habitat type of the day; hemlock and striped maple dominated ravine. Following the watercourse that cascades along the ravine's contours was easier said than done. While the ice formations in an around Owassee Slide Run were not as varied as that of Strap Mill Hollow three days ago, there was one ice formation in particular that caught my eye. It caused me to think of the chrysalis of a butterfly; a long thin strand of ice secured tightly to the bottom of a flat rock that extended out over and perhaps four feet above the waters of Owassee Slide Run. This long thin strand of ice had developed a thick bulbous bottom that dangled just inches above swiftly moving waters.

Chrysalis icicle
A little farther downhill I could hear the mighty roar of a waterfall in the direction I was headed. I tried traversing the south side of the ravine. Too steep. Crossing to the ravine's north side, the trunks and exposed roots of hemlocks, oaks, and striped maples aided in my descent to one of the most incredible icy falls I've yet to see in the Pine Creek Gorge! Massive icicles hung to the right and to the left of flowing water and the spray at the base of this forty or so foot waterfall created a thick frosty coating of ice out to about thirty feet from its rocky face!

This particular waterfall was a little less than half-a-mile from Owassee Road at the bottom. It would definitely be easier to access this waterfall from the direction of Owassee Road, but even then, easier in this case does not mean easy. Once I followed Owassee Slide Run to Owassee Road it was just a matter of walking back the road and then the northern-most section of West Rim Trail back to the trailhead where I started. My walking, hiking, scrabling, climbing saunter was finished at 2:30pm, four hours after it began.

The falls of Owassee Slide Run.

All in all, an excellent adventure today.

Scale the side-wall of the west rim of the Pine Creek Gorge near Barbour Rock from the bottom up- CHECK!

Traverse the Owassee Slide Run ravine from the top down- CHECK!

Experience five different habitat types during the course of a six-mile saunter- CHECK!

The Pine Creek Gorge seems to me to be one of the most unique places in the Pennsylvania landscape, and I find the northern part of the Pine Creek Gorge between Ansonia, Leonard Harrison State Park, and Colton Point State Park to be one of the most ecologically, geologically, and environmentally interesting of all the places in the Pine Creek Gorge.

Pine Creek Gorge looking south towards Leonard Harrison and Colton Point State Parks from Barbour Rock Vista.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Luminous Ice Scupltures of Strap Mill Hollow (2/17/2020)

From the northern terminus of the Pine Creek Gorge's West Rim Trail it doesn't take long to get to the tributary stream that travels down Strap Mill Hollow. For those that enjoy an off-the-trail adventure, there are only a couple of difficult spots if you want to traverse the bank of Strap Mill Run from West Rim Trail's wooden bridge down to the point where Strap Mill Run enters Pine Creek, just about a quarter-mile downhill. This was my route today.

My saunter begins at 10:20am. Most of the hemlock and beech dominated forest is covered by about an inch of crusty snow. Flat-branched tree clubmoss as well as the regular assortment of winter ferns are present along either side of West Rim Trail. A chipmunk greets me (scolds me rather!) from his or her perch on top of a downed snag. The air is calm, 30 degrees F, with a thin cloud cover overhead.

At the wooden bridge over Strap Mill Run, Eastern hemlock's embrace the cool flowing waters on either side of its banks, a love affair that's continued since the Jurassic period roughly 150million years ago. With an affinity just as strong, centuries old lichen clings to ancient rock.

Every nook and every cranny of Strap Mill Hollow holds its own secret treasures. A new-to-me species of liverwort is here. It has a kind of leathery texture that seems typical of many liverwort species, and looks like rows of narrow green scales stacked neatly in long rows. It is dense, yet seems fragile to the touch. Bazzania trilobata is its name; a species of liverwort closely associated with coniferous forests, and here it seems to have an affinity for large exposed hemlock roots on either side of the creek. And the creek itself is a wonder to note.

Water dances down this wooded ravine in frigid winter, its spray creating the most beautiful of icy sculptures! Oh what joy to be a spectator to such wonders as these! It is the hand of God at work through this life-sustaining molecule! Carefully and cautiously I must proceed along the banks of this lively little watercourse, for the crusty snow is not more than a thin (and in places slippery) film on the steep slopes where I may revel at the creative work of the water's spray as an art connoisseur in a gallery of fine sculptures.

Not only are the shapes and the contours breathtaking, but, as I stand at the base of a waterfall here at Strap Mill Run the sun has just burst through the clouds causing the icy sculptures to sparkle like diamonds! The sun's luminous rays are transfigured before my fortunate eyes in a kaleidoscope of yellow, blue, and green shimmering points of light as if galaxies of stars were dipped in a rainbow and placed within these icy crystals. Beauty beyond comprehension fills this place in this present moment!

I think what Emerson said must be true; "To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again." (Nature/Walking. Ralph Waldo Emerson/Henry David Thoreau. Beacon Press Books; Boston, MA, 1991. Page 15)

Breaths of fresh canyon air, a gift from our evergreen neighbors, is enjoyed by chickadee, chipmunk, and human visitor alike; all of us embraced in the same glorious light; all sense of self is lost within these ancient rock walls and the rush of cascading waters.

This is the paradoxical nature of self-discovery in wild spaces such as these, at least in my own experience which may or may not resonate with yours: My most profound experiences of self-discovery are these moments when (I often least expect it!) all sense of self is lost in the fullness of community with wildlife and wild spaces. Here the Spirit of God is at work in a way that is deeply transformational.

Today's experience at Strap Mill Hollow was without a doubt one of these, and I feel as Muir did in his Sierras, "part and parcel of nature." (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf. John Muir. Houghton Mifflin Company; New York, NY, 1916. Page 116)

I hope that you may experience the fullness of the gift of wild spaces as I have. There is no telling what priceless treasures await. I'm sure of this; wild spaces call to us; wild spaces have something to teach us about God, about ourselves, and about community; wild spaces welcome us home.

More of the ice sculptures in Strap Mill Hollow today:

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Warm Wild Neighbor: Skunk Cabbage

Pine Creek Rail Trail (near northern terminus) 2/13/2020  9:34am-11:02am
Skunk cabbage unopened leaves (left) and flower head (right)
The clouds are lying so thick this morning that the tops of the hills in the Asaph Wild Area are concealed as if by a thick veil. With temperatures in the mid 30's I can't tell if it wants to rain or snow. Thankfully right now its doing neither.

As I make tracks in the snow on the Pine Creek Rail Trail I'm in search of skunk cabbage; a warm, pungent, uniquely structured expression of Divine creativity that has a habit of blessing the wet low lying areas of the forest with its presence earlier in the year than any other flowering plant in this region.

Half-a-mile along the rail trail from the Stokesdale parking lot, I'm taking note of a couple of blue jays, a distant flock of crows, nuthatches, titmice, and a mourning dove that's singing.

About three-quarters of a mile from the trailhead, I chose to veer left on a side-trail just before the wooden fence begins where a bench sits on the side of the path. This narrow trail leads into the wooded marsh beneath a canopy of leafless black willows.

About 70 paces from the rail trail; a good sign. The spore carrying shoots of sensitive fern stand in densely packed clusters. These ferns are dormant yet holding clusters of spores that are looking ripe for dispersal. Sensitive fern is a species that shows a preference for wet low-lying forested areas. The same habitat preference as skunk cabbage. The ferns are here, and the cabbage should be too.
Skunk cabbage and sensitive fern
A few more paces and Ah! Sure enough right there at the water's edge I've spotted the first one. Just one look, and the structure of skunk cabbage is intriguing; shaped like a small dwelling, pointed at the tip, with an open door in the front within which the flower head (inflorescence) takes refuge. Standing in place for about five minutes I'm able to take note of about 20 more skunk cabbage plants within about a 10 foot radius. Some protrude straight up out of the shallow water. Others emerge from the mud and poke through the snow, or rather, melt the snow around them.

Skunk cabbage emerging through shallow water
Skunk cabbage emerging through the snow

That's one of the most fascinating things about the skunk cabbage, its an endothermic plant, capable of producing its own heat that is warm enough to melt the snow that sits above the newly emerging flower head.

Here is some information about the endothermic nature of skunk cabbage from a book I've been reading, titled Ecology Concepts and Applications: Fourth Edition

"Almost all plants are poikilothermic ectotherms [organisms that don't regulate body temperature and are therefore dependent upon the temperature of their environment]. However, plants in the family Araceae have the unusual habit of using metabolic energy to heat their flowers. Some of the temperate species in this mostly tropical family use this ability to protect their inflorescences from freezing and to attract pollinators. One of the most studied of these temperate species is the eastern skunk cabbage, which lives in the deciduous forests of eastern North America. This skunk cabbage blooms from February to March, when air temperatures vary between -15 degrees C to 15 degrees C. During this period, the inflorescence of the plant, which weighs from 2 to 9 g, maintains a temperature 15 degrees C to 35 degrees C above air temperature. As Knutson [scientist Robert Knutson] observed, this temperature is warm enough so that S. foetidus can melt its way through snow. The plant's inflorescences can maintain these elevated temperatures for up to 14 days. During this period, it functions as an endothermic organism. How does the skunk cabbage fuel the heating of its inflorescence? It has a large root in which it stores large quantities of starch. Some of this starch is translocated to the inflorescence, where it is metabolized at a high rate, generating large quantities of heat in the process. This heat, besides keeping the inflorescence from freezing, may help attract pollinators. Various pollinators are attracted to both the warmth and the sweetish scent given off by the plant...The inflorescence of the skunk cabbage maintains a high respiratory rate, equivalent to that of a small mammal of similar size. However, its metabolic rate is not constant. The plant adjusts its metabolic rate to changes in environmental temperatures. The metabolic rate increases with decreasing temperature, which increases the rate of metabolic heat production. By adjusting its metabolic rate, the plant can maintain its inflorescence at a similar temperature despite substantial variation in environmental temperature." (Ecology Concepts and Applications: Fourth Edition. Manuel C. Molles Jr. McGraw-Hill Companies; New York, NY 2008. Page 99)
Snow melted by skunk cabbage

Skunk cabbage inflorescence with pollen
When snow covers the ground in February in Pennsylvania and you're in the skunk cabbage's habitat, just look for holes in the snow cover. A newly emerging skunk cabbage flower head may have created that hole in the snow with the warmth put out by its body.

If you're as curious as me, go ahead and stick your finger inside of the opening in the pointed cap; on a cold day you can feel the heat! If you want to know how skunk cabbage got its name, then after you've touched the cap or flower head go ahead and smell your hand. It's not so bad, and I can honestly say that I've developed an appreciation for every part of it, including its smell. That being said, this is probably not the kind of flower to bring home for your significant other on Valentines Day.

Skunk cabbage inflorescence (no pollen yet)

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Little Brown Songster: A review of Nessmuk's Forest Runes

A few weeks ago I finished reading the book by George Washington Sears (also known as "Nessmuk") called Forest Runes: Poems on Living and Hunting in the Mighty Natural Wilderness of North America.

All in all it was a good read. His content comes from poetic reflections from his time spent in the woods of Tioga and Potter Counties of Pennaylvania, The tropics of Brazil, and the town of Wellsboro, PA.

My personal reflection is that his poems about wild spaces resonate strongly with my own experiences, but I wish he wouldn't have spent so much time on women, politics, and death in other sections of his book. I also disliked his descriptions of small town drama and his negative depictions of church, clergy, and religion in general. But, as human beings we are all unique, and my least favorite parts of Nessmuk's book may be someone else's favorites.

There are several poems that resonate with me more than the others, and at least one that begs a question. The poem I speak of is on page 17, and it's called Sunrise in the Forest.

Sunrise in the Forest
The zephyrs of morning are stirring the larches,
And, lazily lifting, the mist rolls away.
A paean of praise thro' the dim forest arches
Is ringing, to welcome the advent of day.
Is loftily ringing,
Exuberantly ringing,
From the height where a little brown songster is clinging,
The top of a hemlock, the uttermost spray.

The question, as I read that poem is, who is the "little brown songster"?

What little brown bird can be found in the woods of Pennsylvania in the Springtime singing atop a hemlock tree?

Winter wren Nessmuk Lake 10/19/2017
The littlest brown songster of the northern Pennsylvania forest is the winter wren. But the winter wren is a bird that resides in the understory of the forest, perhaps to be found singing atop a branch 5 feet off the ground or on top of a downed log over a creek. I've never seen this tiniest of little brown songsters anywhere near the top of a hemlock tree.

Other little songsters to consider who can regularly be found singing near the treetops are indigo bunting, scarlet tanager, American goldfinch, black-throated-green warbler and black-throated-blue warbler. The problem is, none of them fit the bill of "brown."
Indigo bunting Pine Creek Gorge 5/17/2019

Black-throated-blue warbler Pine Creek Gorge 5/17/2019

As I read through Nessmuk's other poems, the question of the identity of the little brown songster remained; that is, until I came across Nessmuk's poem titled A Summer Night, on page 64.

This particular poem contains the line, "The hermit thrush sings from the topmost spray of fir or hemlock..."

And so, there it is! The likely identity of Nessmuk's "little brown songster" in his poem Sunrise in the Forest is the hermit thrush. The notes of the hermit thrush make for what is arguably one of the most beautiful songs to fill the forest in the Spring and Summer.

Hermit thrush, Ives Run Recreation Area 11/10/2019
I had not thought of the hermit thrush. In my experience, I've known hermit thrushes to be understory dwellers, typically residing between the forest floor where it forages for insects in leaf litter and the mid-story of the forest where it can be found singing, perched on a branch perhaps up to twenty-or-so feet off the ground. That's not to say that a hermit thrush can't be found singing "at the top of a hemlock, the uttermost spray," but to this birder it seems an atypical scenario. But it seems that it is a scenario that Nessmuk enjoyed at least twice during his ventures into the forest.