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.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Saunter to Sand Run Falls (May 30th, 2020)

I made a visit to the trail that leads to Sand Run Falls yesterday afternoon with Erin and our dog, Ivy, as well as Erin's parents, Lynn and Glo. The weather was warm, some clouds and some sun, with just a little wind now and then.

It seemed there was just so much to appreciate about this trail from the rocks to the plants and trees with leaves fully unfurled as well as singing birds and tiny red efts crossing the trail. Many of the sandstone rocks whose tops protrude several feet above the dirt like small islands are marked with pebbly conglomerate. Rough and bumpy to the touch.

The plants that grow along this three mile stretch of trail include a healthy variety of ferns and clubmosses. Of course, there are lichens on most every rock, tree, and fallen log. I was pleased to locate two species of liverwort as well; the ground dwelling conifer root loving Bazzania trilobata, which I've grown accustomed to calling Conifer liverwort, and the one with affinity for birch bark, Frullania eboracensis, which I've taken to calling birch bark liverwort.

Most of the birds are out of sight but not out of hearing range. the songs and calls of scarlet tanager, back-capped chickadee, and black-throated green warbler greet us as we make our way through the forest. There are some small plants blooming in these woods, and one that caught my eye today was starflower; having a whorl of simple leaves around the stem and one to two small white star-shaped flowers above the leaves, it is a woodland plant to take note of.

Starflower Trientalis borealis
We heard the roar of Sand Run Falls about five minutes before seeing it. When we finally did arrive at the base of the falls it felt totally rejuvenating to dip in for a quick swim.

I know that the plants and animals along the trail are not here purely for our enjoyment and consumption. These Wild Neighbors are teachers, who, as we take time to get to know each one, welcome us into a most profound experience of belonging as the Spirit of Divine Creativity in us is greeted by the Spirit of Divine Creativity in each member of the forest community and by the collective whole. Follwing the example of Jesus the Christ, I respond with the words, "Peace be with you, neighbor."

Sitting on a rock where two streams converge a little downstream from Sand Run Falls, I'm contemplating the gift of forgiveness. The forest knows the forgiveness that Jesus teaches about; never holding onto past things, flowing into fresh expressions of life, uninhibited by guilt and resentment. These things (guilt and resentment) have no place in the forest. The old oak does not resent the creek for changing its course. Neither does the chickadee hold a grudge against the snake who made a meal of her most recent brood of eggs. The forest may not know forgiveness as we do because there are no grudges or resentments to speak of here. But the forest can teach us about forgiveness because the forest knows release. I know that if I want to experience this gift of release that opens the door to fresh expressions of life and new possibilities for me, then I owe it to myself to follow this teaching of Jesus, making the decision to forgive all whom I have feelings of guilt and resentment towards. Even if it may take time to work through the process, I make the decision to forgive today.

I am a student of Jesus and of wild spaces. The forest teaches me the freedom of release. The forest is a good teacher and also a place and a living community. The forest is a space of belonging through which Jesus leads me into community to live my very best life in relationship with all of my neighbors.

My prayer is that the gift of forgiveness and the sense of belonging in wild spaces may be known by you as well. Peace be with you, neighbor.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Birding with Dovie

Keeping company with Dovie while watching young American robins in the backyard, on May 29th in Wellsboro, PA.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Getting Ready to Move

Scarlet tanager (female)
The yellow warbler whose been hanging around the branches of the red maple in front of the house for about a week and a half was not there today. He has likely moved on to more appropriate breeding habitat; maybe near a marsh, creek side, or lush field edge somewhere not too far away. But, as he moves on, others are arriving. A female scarlet tanager whom I'm sure will find a more heavily forested spot for nesting flits about in the branches of the tree just outside of my home office window.

I'm finding that, as I observe the seasonal transition of avian migrants, I'm reminded of my own upcoming move. Erin and I will be moving from Wellsboro, PA to Athens, PA on June 12th. The organizing, getting rid of some things, and packing other things has commenced. Moving from one place to another is a big undertaking for us human-beings, and though they engage in this behavior more regularly than we tend to, it is a significant undertaking for the birds as well.

As our winged neighbors invest time and energy in preparation for their seasonal move to ensure that it goes well, so I should do for mine. Though I must admit that I covet how light they travel. Their preparation consists of building up energy for the trip by feasting on high-energy nutrient-rich foods while my preparation consists of boxing books, packing clothes, and cataloging all of the information that the next pastor will need to know about this house, the church, and the Wellsboro community.

Seeing as the preparation for my move requires more then gorging on my favorite foods, I anticipate that I won't be sharing nearly as many blog posts and Wildlife Tour videos during my season of transition. I will miss living in such close proximity to such amazing wild spaces as the Pine Creek Gorge, the Asaph Wild Area, and so many interesting bodies of water. However, I'm looking forward to discovering what wild neighbors are living along the banks and in the channel of the Susquehanna River where it enters Pennsylvania for the second time right there in Athens.

Monday, May 18, 2020

The Icredible Biological Spectacle of Bird Migration

Wilson's warbler at Woodland Park
I sauntered along the trail beneath a canopy of vibrant green leaves at Woodland Park; flashes of scarlet, indigo, yellow, and orange zipped about all around.  In this setting I was awestruck by my awareness that the place where I stood afforded me a glimpse into one of the greatest biological spectacles in the world...bird migration!
It is true that bird migration is a global biological spectacle in which all inhabitants of planet earth are securely immersed. My vantage point at any given time provides a tiny snapshot of an event that spans two continents and, as the crow flies, about 10,000 miles from the southern tip of South America to the northwest corner of Alaska! Now, the majority of the birds that I was watching on this sunny day in mid-May likely covered only about 4,000 miles to get here after wintering in the forests of northern South America. No small feat!

Chestnut-sided warbler at Woodland Park
Here at Woodland Park I stood, mouth agape in wonder, heart filled with thankfulness and joy, while scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, blackburnian warblers, hooded warblers, northern parulas, black-throated-green warblers, Baltimore orioles, ovenbirds, and others gleaned insects from among the branches.

Some of the best news for all of us during this month of May is that, what I experienced at Woodland Park this morning is not unique to Woodland Park! Wherever each of us are, whether in a city or a countryside, we can take a moment to let the welcome of wild spaces wash over us in the form of bird migration.

Scarlet tanager at Woodland Park
Generally speaking, the smaller the woodlot, the more densely packed the full avian diversity will be. This time of year, whether coniferous forest, deciduous forest, meadow, or wetland; every small wild space in town or city holds its own avian treasures; many of which will continue the journey farther north, and some which will settle in to breed. This is one of the reasons why every small wild space (even if its only a small seemingly insignificant woodlot) that maintains some semblance of natural habitat holds value for conservation.

I encourage you to go spend time in some wild space so you can enjoy the incredible biological spectacle of bird migration, even if its just a 10 minute walk through a small local woodlot. You may even feel inspired to submit your bird observations to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's global database for bird observation and conservation,

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Brewster's warbler at Woodland Park (May 13th, 2020)

Golden beams illumined every newly emerging leaf of shrub and tree at Woodland Park this morning.  The forest floor was still a little damp from recent rains, which allowed me to saunter through the forest a little more quietly than usual. Making my way under a canopy of mature maples, with every step I was counting my blessings...scarlet tanagers, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, a small flock of three chestnut-sided warblers, and ovenbirds galore! Yes, counting my blessings and any lover of wild spaces like me would count these above mentioned as more than enough!

Then, from the mid-story of the forest my attentive ears picked up the distinct buzzy song of a blue-winged warbler; "zeee-BRRRRR!" The blue-winged is a truly beautiful bird; bright yellow body with blue wings and a contrasting black stripe through both eyes. I oriented skywards, scanning the canopy expecting to see a brilliant flash of yellow. I could see a small flock moving about in the branches above me, gleaning insects from the newly opening leaves. Typically the yellow coloration of the warbler I thought I was looking for stands out, but not so in this case. Was there a branch obstructing my sight? With my eyes I picked up a black-capped chickadee, one, two, three chestnut-sided warblers, and another bird...what's that? focusing on that mystery bird with my 8 x 42 Nikon  binoculars I noted a warbler shaped body and spiky bill, a whitish belly, some yellow on the breast, and a dark eye-stripe. It let out another "zeee-BRRRRR!" and flipped itself upside-down  as it dangled by its toes thirty feet above the forest floor at the end of a branch to pick at some unfortunate insect that must have been hiding on the underside of the leaf. I could see this bird had a gray back, yellow wing bars, and a bold yellow forehead. I knew immediately it was a blue-winged x golden-winged warbler hybrid; Brewster's warbler is the name given to this particular form. What a gift it was this morning to be able to observe this rare bird, which is, hands down the rarest bird I've seen at this location in the five years that I've lived in the area.

Brewster's warbler
I followed this mixed flock composed of three chestnut-sided warblers and a Brewster's all through Woodland Park for about 15 minutes. As they made their way through the middle to upper levels of deciduous trees with this bird nerd in tow, I imagined that they'd welcomed be to integrate as part of their group. I don't eat bugs and I don't have wings, but I can whistle a tune so maybe that counts for something.

From the location where all of the main trails meet, we made our way towards the tower and then along the field edge bordering honeysuckle bushes. From there it was along the wooded hillside and then quickly through the pines and all the way down to the complete opposite corner of the park where Siemans and Bryden Streets meet. From my perspective we covered that half-a-mile relatively quickly, and of course, the going was much easier for them than it was for me.

My route, following the Brewster's and chestnut-sided warblers for 15 minutes.
One of the chestnut-sided warblers.
It was intriguing how closely the Brewster's hybrid was associating with these three chestnut-sided warblers. It begs the question, what common traits motivate them to integrate like this? Is it that Brewster's and chestnut-sided warblers both have a yellow cap, black around the eyes, and a whitish belly? It's got to be about more than similar dietary preferences; after all there were at least five additional species of warbler flitting about Woodland Park that were not associating as closely with either of these two species anywhere near as much as Brewster's and chestnut-sided's were associating with each other.

Wondering about this as I sauntered along, I continued counting my blessings, filled with thankfulness that Brewster's warbler made that list today.

To have had such a wonderful experience in this little town park with so great a diversity of winged neighbors which included the rarest I've ever encountered here, I feel like Jacob's favored son Joseph; showered with amazing gifts (in Joseph's case, a beautiful robe; in my case, special experiences with wildlife and wild spaces) not because of anything I've done to deserve it but because I am loved. Is it coincidence that some of my most notable experiences in wild spaces often coincide with my taking time to retreat so I can be intentional about nurturing my relationship with the Source of Divine Creativity?

For someone who has determined that his personal mission statement in life is to inspire 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 love, kindness, compassion and care, moments like this morning's encounter with a Brewster's warbler and his companions is call-affirming.

Still counting my blessings.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Living Treasure of the Spruce Bog at Algerine Swamp Natural Area, Tioga County, PA (May 7th, 2020)

I recently paid a visit to the Algerine Swamp Natural Area to get better acquainted with the wild neighbors who call this Pennsylvania spruce bog home. From my parking spot along Gamble Run Road I headed west through a thick belt of balsam fir and then traversed an open hemlock swamp before arriving at the edge of the spruce bog. As I made my way south through a maze of spruces, firs, hemlocks, and pines over root-ball hummocks and water-saturated sphagnum I was overjoyed to happen upon a black-capped chickadee who was busy excavating a nest cavity in the trunk of what appeared to be a balsam snag. My stumbling upon this little energetic wild neighbor's home was purely a matter of luck. If not for the sound made by it's wings as it alighted to and from its nest cavity I may not have noticed it. Truth be told, my attention was captivated by the root-ball hummocks and the diverse plant communities that cover every inch of this special place. There are invaluable living treasures in this world which all should know about, even if we don't ever visit them. This is one of them.

Plant life on a root-ball hummock.
Go to the mountains and in the distance, lakes, rivers, and far-off forests can often be seen. The spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp Natural Area is not like that. Upon entering this space, all else fades away. Nothing can be seen in the spruce bog except the spruce bog itself. This is a space of solitude.

In traversing the bog, there are moments when spruce and fir press in from all sides in total embrace, and moments when, upon entering a glade of leatherleaf bushes, an experience of boundless delight. All in the spruce bog exists in a constant state of gradual transformation. While it takes a trained eye to notice it, things have changed here since a year ago, a decade ago, and a century ago; in some spots only a little, in others, significantly. This year's leatherleaf glade can be changed into a stand of tall spruces over the course of a decade, and vice versa. In experiencing the bog's confining embrace and wide open freedom I am reminded that I too exist in a constant state of  gradual transformation thanks to the Source of Divine Creativity who is at work in the spruce bog and in my own heart and mind as well.

Transformation does not happen in isolation. Transformation happens in community. The spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp is a space within which I experience a profound sense of community every time I visit. These root-ball hummocks aren't just interesting to look at, they are biological structures that host an amazing variety of ecologically stratified habitat zones through which space is nurtured for an incredible diversity of wild neighbors!

One of many root-ball hummocks in the bog.
I should take a moment to clarify that a root-ball hummock is a stump and root-ball left by a deceased tree. These partially submerged woody remnants provide elevated substrates (sometimes only a few inches above the water level) upon which a great diversity of plants take root and grow in the bog.

Sphagnum moss is a foundational component to the bog both biologically and physiologically. Sphagnum is present throughout the water column (I'm not sure how deep!) and climbing up the sides of hummocks up to about 7 or 8 inches above the water level. Creeping snowberry and bunchberry plants do best 6 inches to a foot above the water level. Conifers that look the healthiest are growing atop hummocks raised a foot or more above the water level. Trees growing closer to the waterline tend to be leaners.

Another variable to consider is light penetration. The coniferous trees that fill the bog reduce light penetration where they are present. Lichens thrive on bark and branches of trees, especially snags. Bazzania trilobata liverwort and mosses other than sphagnum do best a foot or more above the waterline in at least partial shade. Bog bilberry and leatherleaf bushes are prevalent where full sun is allowed to penetrate any spots that are ever so slightly raised above the water line.

Whether on sphagnum, fallen log, or root-ball hummock, no available space is left unoccupied at the spruce bog! In fact, this is why there are no well-established trails in the bog; a single step cannot be taken that avoids contact with some diverse community of living organisms!

The spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp Natural Area is a truly beautiful place. There is much to be appreciated here, even by looking on from the edge of the bog, where thick balsam fir or hemlock swamp gives way to root-ball hummocks, as long as one is willing to put up with the biting insects, or perhaps even to see the flies and mosquitoes as vital members of the spruce bog community. 

Nashville warbler (photo not taken at Algerine Swamp)
A gentle breeze blows through the bog today; too strong for mosquitoes to handle, but the midges are out as well as some flies, and that means, so are the birds. I'm most excited to have happened upon a couple of bay-breasted warblers and some Nashville warblers. Both species are neotropical migrants for whom boreal bogs are preferred breeding habitat. The term "neotropical" refers to the wintering habitat of these avian species which is in Central to South America; and of course, the word "migrant" refers to their behavior of migrating a far distance from their wintering grounds to breed.

Bay-breasted warbler (photo not taken at Algerine Swamp)
In the case of the Nashville warbler, the spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp Natural Area is near the southern part of it's breeding range. The heart of the breeding range for this small insectivorous warbler with the yellow breast, green wings, and bluish head with a red cap  is in south-eastern Canada. The bay-breasted warbler is the warbler with the red-and-black face, creamy yellow neck patch, and two white wing bars who shows a stronger preference to breed farther north than here. That being said, the spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp Natural Area possesses all the characteristics of the boreal habitat preference exhibited by both of these warbler species, except of course, for degrees latitude.

In a month's time it will be interesting to see what orchids and other flowering plants are in bloom, and to find out if the bay-breasted and Nashville warblers chose to stick around, or if this was merely one stop among many via their annual northward journey.

If you should choose to visit this place, make sure you have a map and a compass, and that you tread lightly with each step so as to do no harm to one of the most ecologically significant living treasures in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

Looking into one of many dense clusters of conifers in the bog.
One of the more open areas with abundant leatherleaf shrubs.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Barbour Rock Sidehill Deer Trail in early May

One of my favorite rock formations.
A scramble down over the lip of the West Rim of the Pine Creek Gorge via a wet muddy deer trail (located about an eighth of a mile south of Barbour Rock) was easier said than done; the first thirty yards proved to be pretty hairy, but then this mudslide of a trail connects with a well-established side-hill path also maintained by deer. From there its easy going through a fortress of sedimentary rock; protruding rocks, balancing rocks, rocks that blend with the hillside, and colored flat-topped rocks that are home to diverse communities of mosses and wildflowers; early saxifrage, lyre-leaved rock-cress, plantain-leaved pussytoes, round-leaf ragwort, early meadow-rue, and moss flocks. This flowering plant community is in turn host to a diverse community of insects, spiders and snails which support a wonderful assortment of winged neighbors; today dark-eyed juncos and black-and-white warblers as well as a multitude of others! Red cedar, dwarf juniper, and chestnut oak add structure and vitality to these massive sandstone protrusions while stunted serviceberry's delicate white petals adorn the steep slopes, dangling from the tips of smooth gray branches.

Goblet lichen
The lichens are one more noteworthy element of this rocky fortress. Lichens paint these rocks with a variety of colors and textures; smooth-white rock, frosty green rock, dark green rock that looks and feels like toad skin, light green fluffy rock that (upon close inspection) is a thick maze of fruiticose branchlets and is spongy to the touch. There is gray leafy rock, there are places where the rock displays multiple tiers of beautiful green goblets, and there is orangeish-yellow rock that looks like its been powdered with the finest gold dust. It's fitting because biological diversity is a living treasure that's found in places like this.

Rhodobryum ontariense moss
There is one particular balancing rock formation I've become quite fond of each time I pass this way. It is chimney shaped, about twenty feet tall and ten feet around at its base, and it's got a wide flat top that I imagine must be a nice hangout for the vultures who ride the wind currents of the canyon and utilize rocks like this one as resting spots during the day.

Black-and-white warbler
I love this diverse community here on the side-wall of the West Rim of the Pine Creek Gorge near Barbour Rock, so I'll continue forth along the path that the deer have made, careful not to veer off of it so as to avoid damaging this sensitive side-hill community. What a day. What a place. What a gift.