Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Shift in A Pond Community: American Lotus

Ever visit a place so often that when something new arrives it becomes a whole new place? This happened where I work, a beautiful farm and park that contains several constructed wetlands that over the years have naturalized beautifully. Each has a path, one paved around, the other grassy and full of muskrat holes. The grassy path pond is large, more like a small lake, built by Ducks Unlimited over twenty years ago. Full of cattail and muskrat to eat it, it is year-round haven and hot spot for wetland birds of all types. Well it was full of cattail last time I looked. Now it is full of this:

American Lotus

Wait. I just walked this pond in early spring and it was still full of cattail. How did a complete shift in wetland plants occur? American Lotus has taken over the two acre pond and cattail is, except for some edges, all but gone! It's never been here before. No one planted it. It's rare in Maryland except for a large coves full of it in Turner's Creek off the Sassafras River, just across the Chesapeake from Swan Harbor, maybe less than twenty miles as the crow or heron or egret or ibis flies. And that explains it. Wading and scavenging birds carry lots of things on their legs such as fish eggs, frog eggs, rootlets, algae. They also carry a lot in their poop like seeds, rhizomes, and bits of plant material that regenerates when squirted into a wet environment. Maybe squirted is too strong a word?
So really, that huge meadow of American Lotus is not all that far away for these cross-Bay travelers:

Great White Egret


Glossy Ibis

Great Blue Heron (juvenile)

The American Lotus, though rare in Maryland and Pennsylvania, is considered a real pest in Rhode Island where conservation folks are doing their best to get rid of it. It's aggressive nature and large, really large round leaves, quickly overtake shallow ponds and shade out emergent plants. In addition, when a massive amount of this plant dies off come autumn, the decay and rotting process underwater can literally suck the oxygen out of the water, killing fish. Until other plants can compete with it, it acts a monoculture to the detriment of a diverse wetland plant community.

Seed pods will turn brown and release large seeds in the winter.

A muskrat lodge is heaped high with dead cattail stalks.
This friendly Muskrat carries a lotus leaf to her mud bank feeding platform on the bank of the pond.

The muskrat, which are all pretty tolerant of human observers here, seem to have adapted to their diet change well. A particularly friendly muskrat, who I've met before in close quarters, traveled back and forth two times with freshly picked lotus leaves to munch on, practically at my feet. There are four large lodges in the pond but where all were  obscured last summer by tall cattail stands. Though there is plenty of cattail along the banks with more emerging between the large lotus leaves. We'll see how aggressive the lotus will become as the beds continue to expand. 

Meanwhile there was plenty more to see! This is now high summer and the butterflies and dragonflies are really showing their colors!

Viceroy Butterfly  on soybeans.

Red Admiral on Gum.

Orange Sulphur on Loosestrife.

Hobomok Skipper
Summer Azure
Silver Spotted Skipper

Common Whitetail Dragonfly

Eastern Pondhawk, female

Handsome Blue Dasher!

Before we know it the summer will make its turn towards autumn. The tree crickets are now singing as are the katydids at night. And in the ponds at Swan Harbor the edges and banks are well fed upon by a myriad of beetles and caterpillars. The call went out a few days ago for volunteer hawk watchers over at Elk Neck State Park's Turkey Point Lookout. Soon everything changes again! 

All of the pictures you see in this post were taken yesterday or today at the ponds at Swan Harbor Farm, which is open to the public for birding, fishing, hiking, etc. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Birthday Edition of Hiking with Dogs Day: Kelly's Run at Holtwood

Fifty four turns around the sun today and it's Sunday - Hiking With Dogs Day. The coonhounds and I walked the top two miles of the Kelly's Run Trail at Holtwood, Pennsylvania. It's a blue blazed six mile loop (not to be confused with the Mason Dixon Trail, also blue) that I've done many times, but because of senior coonhound Annie and her wobbly hip and slow pace and lots of lay-down breaks and drinking breaks and stopping in the trail to pee breaks - well - three miles/two hours/too hot was long enough for her.

Bug is SO HAPPY for Hiking With Dogs Day - Every Sunday!

I am truly blessed to live close to so many trails. I can reach over thirty different trailheads within a half hour drive of my home, even connect to the Appalachian Trail by way of the MDT and Horseshoe Trails, our two long distance trails here in the valley. Kelly's Run Trail and the Pinnacle Trail System of the PPL Holtwood Dam properties are very popular as they go through some of the most rugged and most beautiful Susquehanna ravine forests and loop as circuits. 

Many property owners give permission for the Kelly's Run Trail to cross their fields and woodlots - walk respectfully.

Sunday mornings can bring out the best hikers. I met a man and his hiking buddy, Bob the Beagle. I am not always comfortable taking pictures of random people on the trail, so my stories will have to do. The man was Old Order Mennonite (they don't care for picture taking anyway) walking the trail down to a neighbor's house for Sunday prayer and group singing. We said 'Good Morning!" and stood a few minutes to chat about hounds - a favorite topic among the Amish who still hunt with dogs. He complimented Bug and Annie and explained that today was Bob's birthday. "Oh, so is mine!" The Amish hiker threw up both hands and sang "Happy Birthday!" and presented me with a bag full of ripe raspberries! 

Kelly's Run Trail follows the old Holtwood Road, perfect for hiking directy to the creek and river.

Small-leafed Cupflower along the trail was full of many species of Halictid bee.

The trail crossed over some open fields, down through the woods, and down a very steep section. Bug and Annie were hogging the narrow path when a family of four came up from the bottom section. They were beat. The temperature and humidity was rising and they looked sooo tired. I had to step off trail and tug on the coonies to clear the way. I stepped right into a HUGE patch of wild raspberries. "Oh, look!" I said to them as they huffed past. You would've thought I had handed them ice water. "OH MY GOD!" they all cried together and the youngest one said "You can eat these?!" Before I could step out of my accidental discovery the family was devouring the berries. And laughing. Their frowns turned upside down over those berries! 

Maple Looper clinging to a walnut sapling.

Once on the old Holtwood Road it was easier to let the dogs spread out. Annie sat down and decided to rest. I explored the brush around her and discovered some nice caterpillars. A large and long Maple Looper  clung lengthwise to a walnut twig. At almost three long inches, this highly variable brown and grey caterpillar will soon transform into a handsome two-toned brown moth.  With Annie still sitting, I explored some more and found a stunning Abbott's Sphinx moth caterpillar climbing the post that held a PA Game Commission sign. Handsome!

Abbott's Sphinx moth caterpillar.

Annie decided it was time to continue. She knows this path well, and knows too that at the bottom is some fine, cold drinking water spilling down Kelly's Run into the Susquehanna.  An older couple and their black lab were practically sprinting up the road. We stepped aside to let them pass and the woman, in her seventies I'm sure, fit as a fiddle, called back "We left you plenty of berries!"

Bouncing Bet on the old Holtwood Road.

At the bottom of the hill, our long rest break awaited. Bug waded deep into Kelly's Run while Annie drank her fill of the cold mountain-born waters from the rocky bank. This is our turn around spot for today. Annie was feeling the heat and her hip I'm sure was getting stiff. She laid across the cold stone bank and began to pant-snore, her signature sleeping sound. I let her to rest and took Bug further up the run. Soon we were shrouded in a thick forest of Rhododendron and I was lucky to get a few shots of the last blossoms of the summer. With bees, of course. 

Bumblebee probes a few of the last Rhododendron blossoms of the year.

The 'hood' or top petal of a Rhodie blossom is a welcome sign for bees.

Thick, glossy leaves adapted for humid, wet ravines.

With Annie peacefully snoring behind us, Bug waded some more, and I admired the last little cascade of Kelly's Run. Most people who come to this trail hike further up, along a tumbling, noisy stair-steps of waterfalls and boulder gardens, but at the bottom (few people come all the way down - knowing they have to hike all they way back up), there is just this one little spigot.  I'll be back soon to do the whole circuit when it gets cooler, but old Annie will have to stay home. I don't think she'll argue as she is quite the sofa hound now and her long hiking days, I'm sad to say, are over.

The bottom of Kelly's Run as it empties into the Susquehanna

As we headed back up the old Holtwood Road I met two hikers with full packs. We stopped and chatted. Annie laid back down. They were spending the weekend doing the complete Pinnacle Circuit, two nights out, three days hiking. They mentioned how remote it all felt, being from just south of the state line in Maryland.  "It's nice to know you can just put on your pack and head out for a few days so close to home," said one of the hikers. The other man grinned and added " And the raspberries are incredible!"

The hike back up the old road and the top-wise blue-blazed trail to the Holtwood Arboretum was punctuated by Annie's 'breaks' - laying down, peeing, eating berries (yes, she does that). I will admit that once we crossed the big hayfield, through the searing sun, I laid down with her in the breezy shade when the trail ducked back into the woods. The cool grassy flat was a wonderful place to spend a much-needed rest break with this old hound dog. 

Annie, the Old Coonhound.


PPL maintains the trails very well throughout the area, as do volunteers of scouts and a Friends group.

Mid-Atlantic Hikes group does a good review of this and other PPL hikes in the area. A great website!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Warm Season Storms

The Mid-Atlantic is often in the crosshairs of major weather events that barrel down from arctic or rumble up from the tropics. We live precisely in the region where cold air masses from the north collide with warm air masses from the south, and where ocean systems come ashore to land in our backyards. I can't remember a time when I didn't thrill to having a front row seat to these dramatic events, and though some were dangerous and one or two (maybe more) scared the wits out of me, I  love the excitement of tracking summer systems and learning the why's and how's of extreme weather. Hiking, paddling, driving, and walking through the summer, I am always on the lookout for evidence of how warm season storm events such as tornadoes, micro-bursts, front line winds, thunderstorms, and hurricanes, change our landscape.

Granddaughter Kenzey and I chased this big thunderstorm to the grocery store - shelf or Arcus cloud at base.

Arcus cloud over Swan Harbor Farm dropping cool sinking air into surrounding warm air mass below the main storm.

Evidence of past storms is all around us, we only need to learn how to read the landscape for the story.  Hiking through Eastern forests, we can see a strange  surface topography called 'pillow and cradle' that has nothing to do with human activity. The mounds are the remnants of wind-thrown trees at the root mass, long decayed, leaving a great pile of soil and embedded cobbles. The hole from where the tree was ripped from the soil lays at the base of the mound. Large collections of mound and cradle topography can be traced to strong summer storms, micro-bursts, or in some Northeast forests that have never been harvested - great historic storms like the Hurricane of 1938. 

Pillow and cradle surface topography in a Northeast forest.

On a recent visit to Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, the family home of Teddy Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, NY, my nine-year-old granddaughter couldn't help but 'whoa!' all the way to the water's edge at the sight of dozens of massive trees cut from the trail. We counted rings on stumps and observed openings where large patches of raspberries (that we ate) growing in a recent canopy openings. This was evidence of Hurricane Sandy that only two years ago tore through the Mid-Atlantic in October 2012. This was a scary storm for those of us who lived near the Mason-Dixon Line as the eye passed right along the boundary of Maryland and Pennsylvania, and pummeled us with northern trailing edge winds. It left us without power for ten days - and plenty of raspberries this summer!

Sagamore Hill NHS at Oyster Bay, NY, bears scars of Hurricane Sandy, 2012.

The boardwalk to the cobble and shell beach at Sagamore Hill had been replaced in 2013, the old one torn out by the storm. Much of the brackish grass meadow was killed by saltwater overwash.  Ragged gaps in the forest edge revealed that many of the old trees had been blown down and tidal guts and ponds now stood where entire patches of forest were ripped away.  Nature will soon fill the gaps and reorganize new ecological communities in these raw areas.

Raw, open gashes in the bay forests at Sagamore Hill NHS.

Citing a shortage of lumber as a reason for the delay in rebuilding the ruined boardwalk, the NPS used plastic wood product instead. It will be interesting to see how this material holds up in the next big storm to come this way.

Photo: National Park Service

High heat and humidity clashing with cool air masses create our most impressive storms along the Chesapeake Bay. Super cells can top out at 70,000 feet and rotate at their bases like slow-motion tornadoes or very small hurricanes. The precipitation from these monster storms can come as deluges, dropping several inches of rain over an hour.  Highly charged, a super cell can fill the air with weak but noticeable static electricity until dramatic bolts of cloud-to-cloud or cloud-to-ground lightening releases energy that can cause quite a disruption in our daily lives.

This huge summer storm sent a bolt of lightening that blew out our computers, lights, and set off alarms at Swan Harbor.

A rapidly building super cell over Swan Harbor Farm.

Unlike the West, lightening strikes here in the East do very little damage to our forests as the region is less prone to arid, droughty conditions. But that is not to say we don't have our fair share of ground strikes. Hikers who take to the forests in summer season are cautioned to be wary of hiking along ridgelines and promitories when thunderstorms approach. I've been in two very close calls on days that started out beautiful and ended in powerful storms that wreaked havoc with high winds, frequent lightening, and tremendous rains that resulted in dangerous flooding.

Lightening-struck tree in Elk Neck State Park, right on the MDT.
As many of us are hiking, biking, paddling, and exploring the out-of-doors during the warm months July through October, it's good to be storm-aware and know how to take precautions against rapidly building or moving storms. Once we learn the how's and why's we can better appreciate the awe and excitement of storm watching - and even a little chasing!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mason Dixon Trail: Map 8 - Elk Neck State Forest

Sunday, July 13, 2014:  Elk Neck State Forest (Elkton) to Northeast, MD, 9 (maybe 10?) miles

Well, we survived.

At least we two old ladies did, while the young soccer player from Madrid tore up the trail in some of the summer's worst heat and humidity yet, happily waving his spiderweb stick to clear the trail for those limping, huffing, and stumbling behind him. Alex just sauntered along. I whined and pined for winter.

Really nice trailhead signs, but confusing blazing on-trail. A tradeoff.

So for this, our next section of the 200 mile long Mason Dixon Trail,  I was really missing winter with its views, crisp air, chilly breezes, and - well - you get it. I much prefer cool season hiking, so I will spare you my pout. But just know that not a molecule of air was moving deep inside the Elk Neck State Forest, Maryland. And, still nursing a sore foot from a late springtime tumble with coonhounds, this nine mile section reminded me that I had to be careful on round pebble surfaces and in deep slippery gullies. Funny, how after hiking miles along steep trails in the ADK and Vermont, I assumed my injury had healed only to come home and find our local long-distance trail lying in wait for me.

Mountain Laurel through the forest was dense and tall.

I missed the annual Mountain Laurel blossoming (again) back home in PA. I don't know what was more important this time, but I kick myself every summer when I encounter large thickets of Kalmia latifolia anywhere in our Mid-Atlantic acidic forests and realize the bloom is past. In winter, which I was dreaming of during this hike, this native evergreen shrub adds a beautiful green understory to our deciduous and pine forests.  The MDT wound round and through dense stands of Mountain Laurel, especially at the start of the hike. Note: We left out the long hot road hike section through the town of Elkton (1 mile) and along a major roadway (1 mile) and picked up the trail at a small parking area off of Huminski Road, just west of town.

Pitch Pine defined the forest type for much of the hike.

As the trail snaked its way through the state forest, we were reminded again and again that we were on new and fragile ground, it having been deposited here on the upper Delmarva just a few thousand years ago by a meandering Susquehanna. The soil was thin, underlain by sand and pebble, carpeted with pine needles from pitch pine overhead. We passed many old, fallen oaks easily toppled by Hurricane Sandy two years ago. The sandy soils offer scant hold to the big, heavy trees in dangerously strong winds.  They all laid toward the south, victims of the tremendous 'returning north winds' on the backside of that historic storm. Pitch pine, the predominate tree of the vast pinelands of New Jersey not far east of here, resist the wind with their wide-reaching network of roots and slim wind-adapted tops. These trees define the Mid-Atlantic Eastern Seaboard forests, and here in the Elk Neck State Forest, somewhat inland, they  define this tract as well.

From the Peter Bond Trail look out platform, looking towards Carpenter's Point, the Northeast River, and the Bay.

Recent rains and high humidity created the perfect conditions to have a box-turtle-palooza! We found four box turtles in our hike through the state forest, all close to the trail where our gaze would naturally fall, so I wondered how many we must have passed that were just beyond our looking! We counted scute rings on all of them, ranging in age from a small and very curious five year old brown-eyed female to a thirty-something male, and a pair that were aged over fifty years. I really should have had my hand lens with me. It was in the bag of cling wraps, ibuprofen, first aid supplies, and itch cream I'd left on the kitchen table - pleh. 

Kim and Turtle #1 - peeking out.
Turtle # 2 - shuttered up tight.
Turtle # 3 - gazing at Alex.

Turtle # 4 - tightly inside.
The geology of Elk Neck describes the transition from the upland Piedmont to the Coastal Plain. Here the ancient Susquehanna once meandered back and forth, taking with it a number of captured streams and rivers, fanning out in marshes, deltas, floodplains, mudflats, and beaches. The Upper Shore areas of Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) exhibit some beautiful high bluffs seen best from the water or shoreline trails. Deep in the interior of the forest, however, we observed the highly eroded gully-wash streams, unconsolidated pebbles, sandy plains, and now and then, a cemented hunk of river gravel.

Lightly cemented Tertiary Upland Gravels, outwash freshwater stream alluvium of an ancient Susquehanna River.

Kim and Alex take a snack and water break on a sand bluff.
The wandering nature of the MDT through the state forest was a nice break from some of the straight and narrow road hiking we'd done on earlier sections. It was so wandering that after we took our break at Plum Pond bluff, we missed a dog-leg turn and found ourselves across from the park maintenance building. Some of the hard plastic blazes, nailed into the trees (bad form!), had been vandalized and we're sure that turn must have been one of those. So here we were trudging up a sandy road, past the noisy shooting range and the quiet archery range, until we found the trail head signs again. We picked up the MDT through the forest and finished our off-road hike in the town of Northeast.

A lightening-struck tree, just past the Plum Pond bluff.

As far as the Mason Dixon Line goes, we are as far south as from the PA/MDstate boundary as this trail goes. But the actual survey team did travel farther to south in 1764 as they established the Tangent Line: the boundary between Delaware and Maryland. From June until September, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon - in a heat and humidity so stifling that many of the large survey party suffered heat illnesses - walked up and down the line from the Nanticoke River to New Castle County twice: the first time to lay the line, the second time to adjust it.

Map in collection, University of Delaware

The marker star to lay the line was the tail of the Little Bear, Ursus Minor. Astronomer Charles Mason, working through the night, tracked the star with his brass telescope and zenith sector, sending out his candle men into the wilderness to mark the line as the star aligned with the wire embedded in the telescope lens. By day Jeremiah Dixon fixed the line according to offset calculations established by Mason the night before, directing a huge party of axe men, chain men, assistants, and brushmen to clear a path through some of the thickest forest in the region. When corrected, the 80 mile line ran perfectly straight from the swamps of the lower Delmarva to the farmland of the Piedmont. How they did it so quickly and so accurately remains a mystery, and even with modern satellite technology to check their work, today's surveyors marvel at their precision.

Emerging flower of  Indian Pipe, Monotropa uniflora

Come fall, the rechecking and realigning slowed as the famously dense fogs of the peninsula shrouded their path day and night. Though temperatures had cooled significantly and the work was less taxing on the large party, financial backers in Philadelphia worried that progress had slowed to the point that it would have to be continued the following year, thus create a cost overrun. But in a grand final push to correct and set the final line, Mason and Dixon finished by November and returned to Philadelphia to write their reports. The next spring they would begin to establish the West Line, finally dividing once-and-for-all, Pennsylvania and Maryland and ending decades of boundary disputes.

Alex and his bright blue shirt served as our 'walking blaze' through the forest.

Though our path is not straight like the Tangent Line, the MDT was laid out purposely to wander above and below the famous Mason Dixon Line to give hikers a taste of the landscape as the surveyors may have experienced it. They did not have to contend with the noise and traffic of Route 40, however, and at the point of limping, I was a little impatient to get back to the wooded trail after we spent some time on the sidewalks and roads of the tidewater town of Northeast. A local shopkeeper, a neighbor of Kim's, graciously allowed our sweaty group to use her bathroom. Then on through a rougher part of town to avoid a wickedly overgrown field that apparently does not see much of a trail crew in summer. But- Lo! Rita's! Along the highway! Must have ice! Beyond Rita's and across the highway was the Little Northeast Creek, a return to the wooded trail and a noticeable change in landscape - we'd not only crossed Route 40, we'd crossed the Fall Line!

Above the Fall Line at trail's end for this section.

Hopefully our last MDT section east of the Susquehanna from Northeast to Perryville, MD, will happen on a much less humid, hot day. For those following the maps, know that some of the plastic blazes are moved, removed, destroyed, or in some way tampered with.  We missed a major turn because of their removal and probably hiked an additional mile trying to find our way to another trailhead. That missed turn, however, led us to a beautiful overlook that we would not have discovered had we not popped out at the park office, the Peter Bond Trail. Worth the diversion!


Edwin Danson (2001) Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Famous Border in America. John Wiley and Sons, Publisher.

John Means (2010) Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware, and Washington D.C. Mountain Press Publishing Company.