Tuesday, January 21, 2014

'Just" A Walk In the Woods

There can never be 'just' a walk in the woods! Local trails, no matter how familiar, always hold surprises. In the Piedmont region, where the Eastern continental landmass tilts seaward from the Appalachian Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, creeks and rivers carve their deep paths down through millions of years of rock and debris, eroding and shaping the rolling and even steep landscapes we know close-to-home. For many residents of the Mid-Atlantic, the Piedmont geophysical region is familiar, yet often unexplored and under-appreciated ground. 

An outcrop moss and fern community growing on blue-gray Wissahickon schist.

Aspects of the landscape that we describe as 'just woods' in winter reveals itself as a complex tapestry of color, timber structure, and flow of geological forms that invites exploration. Ridges, outcrops, ravines, tumbling creeks, and yawning valleys are filled with light, color, and surprises on a winter's walk. Local parks and greenways such as Philadelphia's Wissahickon Gorge and Valley Trail are fascinating trails bisecting one of our oldest Eastern cities (see Friends of the Wissahickon www.fow.org ) - a local trail for 1.5 million residents! Come summer these swaths of urban wooded valley and ridge will be cloaked in green, hidden by foliage for everyone except the hiker beneath its canopy.

Pale green trunks of American beech contrast with the red-leaf carpet of
leaves in this typical ravine stream of the Piedmont. Fagus grandifloria.

My local trails are embedded in the agricultural landscapes of South Central Pennsylvania and northern Maryland. I am lucky to count the Appalachian Trail, the Mason Dixon and Conestoga Trails as my local favorites. These are difficult ravine and ridge trails, studded with outcrops, and rocky underfoot. Winding across public and private lands, these trails rise frequently to the Piedmont tablelands where cultivated fields and pastures border the forest. The brushy edges of forest and field come alive with winter flocks, cohorts of several bird species that move and forage together through cover.  Sometimes it's easy to take for granted the common birds that form these cohorts. Last week while hiking a favorite trail in Maryland, an out-of-town visitor from Japan was nearly bowled over by his first cardinal sighting!

Cardinal eating seeds along a forest edge.  Nearby a Japanese tourist was jumping up and down, so excited by his first cardinal sighting! All birders, no matter their home country, do a little 'life bird' dance - and this young man
really had the moves!

A favorite competition between my birding friends and family is winter hawk watching by car and by foot. Perched on highway light posts, fences, silos, oak limbs, and winter-bare treetops along edges and roadsides, we call out our sightings with (hopefully) correct identifications. The buteos, the biggest hawks, are easiest to identify and a good place to start for the novice birder in winter.  No matter how many times you spot a big burly red-tailed hawk, his chest shining bright in the low winter sun, it's always a thrill. Especially if you call it before your companion! Walking the familiar woods, keep your eyes open for red-shouldered hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, and coopers hawks that work the wooded edges for songbirds and ground birds.

Red-shouldered hawk, the brightest red of the buteo hawks.
Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, near Cambridge, MD

The breast of the Mockingbird reflects soft earth browns as it perches low
in brushy areas during winter months. Come spring he'll perch high and
sing his breeding territory declarations from favorite  treetops.

In winter the Mockingbird is quiet but very active in his cold weather territory. His patch is guarded ground  for the many food resources he has claimed, from berry bushes and brush piles to old orchard trees with a bit of old hanging fruit still on the limb.  A three mile hike along the Ridge Trail at Susquehanna, one of the jewels of Maryland State Parks, revealed over a dozen mockers close to the footpath holding their berry-filled winter yards within very defined boundaries. These yards are declared in early autumn with exact boundaries established by much flying from perch to perch, loud repetitions of their collected songs (each given three times!) and sometimes, a hopping, fluttering face-off with a neighboring patch owner. By winter all is settled, but still the boundaries are flown and inspected throughout the day. 

A shaggy River Birch with its red-brown peeling bark. Betula nigra.

A winter hike over familiar ground gives us a wonderful opportunity to look for identifiers of tree species in our local parks and trails. Bud structure, tree form, and bark texture and color are intriguing ways to learn the familiar trees of our yards, paths, parks, and streets. Donald Peattie uses rich language to describe the types of bark found among the Mid-Atantlic forest. For the persimmon - "deeply divided into innumerable square plates." American Holly - "roughened by little warts." Black cherry - "aromatic, broken into irregular scaly plates divided by braided fissures." Paper birch - "orange-brown, peeling, papery thin layers marked by raised lenticels." What a creative exercise for the trail-bound poet.

Fruit of the Sycamore dangles like golden-brown ornaments. Platanus occidentalis.

When I hike local trails, especially with students and grandchildren, I chose a theme that will have us looking in all the usual places for hiding-in-plain-sight surprises. We've hunted for Christmas ornaments, eating and garden utensils, and listened for anthems. We've taken watercolor paints and crayons (in the 64 pack of course!) to draw or paint in our journals with hues that most closely match items in nature.  On one well-remembered local hike I took a book of Mary Oliver poems to read at each bench along a town path.

For me, when I am short on time but yearning to get out for a walk in the winter woods, I take the camera and one lens: a macro, telephoto, wide-angle, or standard. I purposely limit my shots to what the lens will allow. With each familiar trail I can capture unique views of  "just a walk in the woods."
I hope you enjoy the results throughout this blog!

No comments:

Post a Comment