Inspiring 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.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Warblers are returning!

A couple of days ago I found myself nestled in the thick of a stand of hemlocks along West Rim Trail of the Pine Creek Gorge. I'm excited to share that the forest is erupting with avian migrants! We're talking black-throated green warblers, black-throated blue warblers, and blackburnian warblers! Also with the warblers in this mixed flock were blue-headed vireos, golden-crowned kinglets, ruby-crowned kinglets, and of course, black-capped chickadees. A couple of hermit thrushes foraged on the ground beneath the flurry of activity in the mid-story of the hemlocks at the canyon's edge. I hope you enjoy this short video that I took in which you'll be able to hear the calls of a number of these species listed above; and the next time you retreat to wild spaces I hope you're able to enjoy spending time with some of these winged wild neighbors for yourself.

Here I am at a nice rock spot, with East Rim and Snyder Point in the background.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Lyre-leaved Rock Cress at Barbour Rock April 24th, 2020

With white bloodroot flowers showing along the Pine Creek Rail Trail it was clear that the next wave of Spring wildflowers was underway. Wondering what might be beginning to bloom along the canyon rim, I headed to Barbour Rock Trail.

Lyre-leaved rock cress at Barbour Rock.
There are many plant neighbors whose identity remains unclear to me for the majority of the year after flowers have come and gone; but the relatively short blooming season of many flowers is a special time to take to the forest for people like me. With so many uniquely structured and colored wildflowers emerging from among the rocks, roots, and leaf litter it feels as if many of our plant neighbors lift their heads to greet us as we saunter along, with faces shining ever so bright and joyfully to make the acquaintance.

It's no secret that one of my favorite habitat types in the Pine Creek Gorge is the land of red cedar and dwarf juniper that can be found along the edge and just below the lip of the steep canyon walls. I was overjoyed to meet another member of this particular community today. Rooted in the shallow layer of loose sediment on Barbour Rock, reaching out into the open air where vultures ride the currents, was this flower that I came to understand is called lyre-leaved rock cress. At five-inches tall, reaching out to about seven-inches wide with fleshy purplish branch-like stems was this eye catching member of the West Rim community.

I think what caught my eye the most was that even at first glance I could see that it seemed very well-adapted to its location. It's leaves were slender, slightly down-curved, rounded at the tip, and exhibited an alternate branching pattern from the bottom to the top of each stem. It's flowers were clustered; each having four white rounded petals and every flower had a touch of yellow in it's center. I imagine that it's lean structure enables it to stand tall even while strong winds push northward over its exposed sandstone niche.

While this is the plant I was most happy to meet today, it was by no means the only newly emerging wildflower along West Rim Trail. There are so many beautiful plant neighbors to see and the blooming season for some of them is not very long. I hope you may find time to get out and enjoy them before this years flowers are transformed into seeds for the future.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

A moment of birdsong

Since today is National Go Birding Day, I bring you this a short video from the wooded area of the Pine Creek Gorge between Darling Run and Pinafore Run. In it you’ll hear the short whiny 3 note call of the blue-headed vireo, the “wheer!” Of the yellow-bellied sapsucker, and the beautiful song of the winter wren.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Ancient fern relatives near Darling Run Access Area of the Pine Creek Gorge (April 24, 2020)

Many visitors to the Pine Creek Gorge may not think to pay heed to small pools of stagnant or slow-moving water along the path, especially not while the pools and riffles of beautiful Pine Creek run swiftly by on the opposite side of the trail. However, the unique characteristics as well as overall diversity of all that can be found in these small pools of stagnant or slow-moving water is remarkable. I was sauntering along the Pine Creek Rail Trail a little south of Darling Run Access Area...again...and a number of green stalks protruding out of a small pool to the left side of the trail caught my eye. There I happened upon one of the oldest known representatives of fern relatives, a horsetail. The fossil record shows that horsetails have been around for a very long time; since about 300 million years ago! Furthermore, early on in their evolutionary history these interesting plants of the genus Equisetum once grew to the size of a large tree!

green energy producing stalks and tall fertile stalk on right.
There are a number of things to note about these particular horsetails that I happened upon along the Pine Creek Rail Trail. First, in looking at the photo to the right, you'll notice a number of stalks grouped close together. Many of these, like their relatives the clubmosses, are likely attached to the same root system. Note also that some of the stalks are green with a spiraling of thin branchlets arranged outward and upward from the central stalk. These are energy producing stalks because the entire surface area of the above-water portion of the plant is photosynthetic. In addition, you may notice another stalk that is more of a pale color and has a cone-like structure at the top. This is a fertile stem, the horsetail's reproductive structure. Since these stems are connected at the roots (which makes them extensions of the same plant), the fertile stems receive energy via its root structures that are also connected to the energy producing stalks. It would be easy to make the assumption that these two different types of stalks (fertile and energy producing) are different plants entirely, but now we all know better.

fertile stalk.
Species identification of horsetails can be quite challenging and at the same time simple and straight forward. By taking a look at the outward appearance of these horsetails along the Pine Creek Rail Trail, I was able to determine, utilizing my Peterson Field Guide to Ferns of Northeastern and Central North America (2nd edition), that these were one of three species. Water horsetail, marsh horsetail, and field horsetail all have asceding branchlets that spiral around the central stalk. I needed to take my identification a step further by taking a look inside of one of the stalks. I don't like killing plants for identification purposes. Fortunately I was able to locate a fertile as well as an energy-producing stalk that were broken off and floating on the surface of the water. I took these home to look at under a hand lens.

These pictures that you see below are cross-sections of the horsetail stem that were photographed with my cell phone using my hand lens for added magnification. The definitive fingerprint of each species of horsetail is the pattern represented by the cross section of the stem.

cross-section of stalk.
The cross-section of the fertile as well as the energy-producing stalks were the same, confirming that they are the same species. These turned out to be marsh horsetail. According to my field guide, this particular species is described as a rare and local horsetail of open, wet woods. The marsh horsetail is a wild neighbor to appreciate, and it is not the only horsetail species that can be found in the Pine Creek Gorge. I hope you've enjoyed learning a little about this living representative of a very ancient category of plants, and that the next time you happen upon horsetails in wild spaces, that you might experience some of the the joy that I have found in making the acquaintance with these and others.

cross-section of stalk.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Darling Run in the rain (April 21, 2020)

It was 45 degrees Fahrenheit with a light rain. Starting at Darling Run Access Area I headed south. I set out to gather leeks and check on fiddleheads and knotweed. The fiddleheads were not ready and I gathered three early emerging knotweed stalks. Yes, I'm talking about Japanese knotweed; this exotic invasive species is edible and when cooked right it looks like asparagus and tastes like artichoke. I'll have to return next week to check on the ostrich fern fiddleheads and gather more Japanese knotweed.

I had the trail all to myself, save a few fishermen along the banks of Pine Creek. I am amazed at what little rain will keep most people from venturing out into wild spaces. As they go about their regular business of foraging and pair bonding, the mergansers and geese don't seem to mind the rain, and neither do I. To feel the gentle caress of wind and rain on my face is like being baptized anew in the full embrace of wild spaces every time it happens. Green leaves are never so vibrant as in the rain. The same goes for lichens and mosses that adorn these canyon walls. For those who revel in the sight and sound of waterfalls, there's no better time to enjoy these marvelous features than when the rain is coming down all around; falling from clouds, dripping from branches, seeping over dirt and rock into every deep-cut ravine, filling these canyon streambanks in a beautiful cascading rush as this life-giving molecule rapidly descends towards Pine Creek, and on this day every waterfall between Strap Mill Hollow and Pinafore Run is fully alive!

Choose to stay home and wait for sunny weather and you've missed it.

Upon making it to my leek spot, I gathered enough for the week and left more than enough for the forest and for the leeks themselves. Upon gathering up my odorific harvest I sat on a rock for a few minutes.

Here I rest in a moment of thankfulness while a winter wren's song echoes through this ravine, a raven's shadow is cast over Pine Creek from high above as the sun breaks through the clouds for a brief moment, and I hear the delightful pitter-patter of merganser feet on flowing water as one takes wing heading farther down stream. 

On my way back to the trailhead I was greeted by six ruby-crowned kinglets energetically foraging for insects among hemlock branches. Soon they'll continue their trip northward, perhaps to the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks in Upper New York. In about a month's time I hope to follow their lead (for a weekend visit).

The next time it's raining and you're given the opportunity to retreat to wild spaces, go! I trust you'll be amazed at what great blessings are in store for that someone who saunters through the rain drops. The next time it rains, may that someone be you.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Wildflowers at Pinafore Run (Tioga County, PA 4/16/2020)

Time and again, like a magnet, I'm drawn back to the wild spaces of the Pine Creek Gorge. There were a handful of wild neighbors with whom I made the acquaintance yesterday along the Pine Creek Rail Trail just a couple miles south of Darling Run Access Area. I longed to return to them again today. Our early Springtime wildflowers are wonderful expressions of Divine Creativity; blanketing the forest floor with all the colors of the rainbow. The saunterer should take care not to trample these delicate living treasures which cannot be said to belong to anyone but enrich the lives of all who pass by them.

The diversity and abundance of so many unique and beautiful wild neighbors, to me, begs the question, is it possible to be blessed so lavishly that the gift is taken for granted, under-appreciated, and disregarded as nothing too special? say that, its no big deal because its just the way things are. But the way things are in this northern hardwood forest is a special gift indeed! In addition, as much as I appreciate it these insects and birds who reside here likely do even more!

Pausing for a moment to appreciate a yellow-belled sapsucker systematically harvesting the sweet flow of a sugar maple, a common sight here in mid- April, I thought to myself, one does not have to know all there is to know about a particular field of study to engage in wildlife identification. Part of the joy of sauntering in any wild space is the experience of making the acquaintance with new neighbors, and getting to know old neighbors better. This is a discipline for the novice as well as the professional, that, thank God, never ends.

My attention captured by the call of a flock of crows, I fixed my gaze high above the waters of Pine Creek where a raven is mobbed by crows over flowing waters between steep canyon walls while an eagle ascends spiraling heavenward on broad wings. It is so good to be here today.

Upon arriving at the confluence of Pine Creek and Pinafore Run I made my way about 50 yards off the trail. Pinafore run was flowing strongly; water turning white where it cascades over around and between the boulders that fill this ravine. Next to these cold flowing waters, I crouched among the brown leaves and green stems for a better look at those wild neighbors who I came here to see.

Red trillium
Trillium, a vibrant pop of red with leaves and petals three springs forth from the brown decaying oak leaves of yesteryear. You are a bold stroke of The Artist's brush upon the forest floor and in my heart. Thank you.

sharp-lobed hepatica
Dutchman's breeches. To the one with the dangling pantaloons that are the colors of fried eggs; so unique and entertaining is your presence. The sense of character you contribute to this creek-side community is both elegant and comedic. I entertain my thoughts by pondering, I wonder where the fairy went who lost his britches. Thank you.
Greetings to you, sharp-lobed hepatica, the one with fuzzy stems, pointy-lobed leaves, and petals of varied pastel tones; your happy blooms that quiver in the gentle breeze inspire in my heart thankfulness for you and praise to the Spirit Divine who made us all. Thank you.

blue cohosh
Blue cohosh with purple stem, purple leaves, purple petals; tall and slender in comparison to the breeches and hepatica, you add dimension to this kaleidoscope of colors on the forest floor. Thank you.

To all my wild neighbors who've welcomed me here, for whom I am deeply grateful, thank you.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Favorite Wild Spaces (and a greeting to neighbors in China, Hong Kong, Turkmenistan and other places around the world)

I've noticed that I've had a lot of page views from China and especially Hong Kong in addition to Turkmenistan during the past several weeks. So, I'd like to share some photos from some of my favorite wild spaces.

I'd also like to invite you, wherever you live in the world, to share some of your photos of your favorite wild spaces on the Best Life Community Facebook page which can be found by clicking this link. If you aren't connected with Facebook or don't have pictures to share and still would like to participate, just share the name of some of your favorite wild spaces in the comments section of this blog post.

In addition, I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge that the covid19 pandemic is causing challenges for many individuals, communities, and countries around the world. My thoughts and prayers go out to all of my neighbors, whomever and wherever you live. Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation. Let's stay connected. Give someone a phone call or send someone a message today just to let them know you care. With the help of God and neighbor, we will get through this present global challenge.

Here are some of my favorites:

Bloomingdale Bog (Whiteface Mountain in the background) Adirondacks, New York
Viewing the top of Cascade Mountain from Porter Mountain, Adirondacks, New York
Pine Creek Gorge from Barbour Rock Vista, Tioga County, PA
Algerine Swamp Natural Area, Tioga County, PA

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Sapsuckers are back! (April 4th, 2020)

I've been having such an amazing time visiting the Algerine Swamp Natural Area that I wanted to show it to Erin today. About lunch time we got there. After sauntering a little ways through the balsam fir to the edge of where it begins to get very wet, we turned back out towards the road. Neither of us wanting to leave quite yet, we proceeded to walk west along Gamble Run Road. At about the place where spruce forest transitions to deciduous woodland, we heard the arrhythmic tapping of a yellow-belled sapsucker. My first thought was, "I'm glad they're back! What great joy to hear the sapsucker's off-beat percussion here today!"

A glance to our left revealed that a sapsucker was making good use of one of the dead branches in the mid-story of a large red oak for a drumming spot. While we looked on, a second sapsucker approached squeaking and with wings partly opened as the two males faced each other in close proximity on the branch. Following a brief quarrel, the second flew off into the forest; the drummer's domain effectively defended!

Was this practice, or had he already chosen a breeding territory for the year? It's hard to tell this early in the migration season; when many more have yet to pass through on the journey north. Of course, part of the population will breed in north-central Pennsylvania, but others will continue northbound from here, their arrhythmic tapping echoing through the woods in every land through which they pass along the way.

It is with the yellow-bellied sapsucker as it is with all of my wild neighbors; my heart rejoices in seeing them thrive. For their sake and for mine; this is why it is important to me to work for the preservation of the wild spaces that our wild neighbors call home.

Here is a link to a website managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in case you want to learn more about the yellow-bellied sapsucker:

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Uniform diveristy, boreal diversity; back at the Algerine Swamp

I felt drawn back to the Algerine Swamp Natural Area again today. On the surface, it is a uniform environment, so I made sure to bring a compass; especially since my intention was to travel deeper into the heart of the bog than I had the past several visits. Not only did I bring my cell phone which has a compass app; I also brought a makeshift compass consisting of a small plastic Tupperware bowl, cork, and magnetized paperclip just in case my phone battery would die while in the thick of the bog. It's good to have a contingency plan when entering some of the more wild of wild spaces. This is one of them. In addition, I made sure to tell Erin where I was going before I left home.

Here is a photo taken from the thick of the boreal bog today as well as my personal reflection of my time spent with my wild neighbors in that special place:

Uniform diversity,
Uniform boreal diversity,
Balsam fir, black spruce, hemlock and pine stand tall and straight; root balls raised just above the waterline, like frogger I hop from one to the next; progress is slow in the bog.
Sphagnum and pitcher plant recline against clear shallow water, except for the deep spot that swallowed my boot!
It's okay, I got it back. One foot wet the other still dry. I am one with the bog. I am one with the bog, I tell myself.
Uniformly thick boreal diversity; my line of sight takes me only fifty paces onward from every present point of view.
Compass required. Pointing a finger to guess which direction is west. Guess what, that's north! Re-orienting my steps again! A makeshift compass, I have brought, in case the cell phone battery dies.
No cell service, but the compass works. Good.
In the thick of the eastern side of the bog, I've found a good leaning balsam with which to rest for a while.  A gift to my ear are the songs of my avian neighbors winter wren, brown creeper and golden-crowned kinglet. I was surprised to be greeted by an extraordinarily inquisitive black-capped chickadee within arm's reach; she seems perplexed to see that I've pushed this far into the thick of the bog, rightly so.
The uniform diversity of this boreal bog evokes a sense of comfort and community as well as a sense of adventure on this day.