Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Crossing and the Climb: Adventure Day in Cape May

Adventure Day! Those words are guaranteed to induce wide-eye-ed-ness in grandchildren and the jumping-up-and-down anticipation of something challenging and something new! The Astrophysicist and The President were selected by their mom to spend the day with she and ply the broad mouth of the Delaware River via the Cape May-Lewes ferry.  Our destination: Cape May Point State Park, New Jersey. The challenges: learn how to walk on a rolling deck, look for sea birds through binoculars, and climb a really tall lighthouse,

Our destination for Adventure Day, via the Lewes-Cape May Ferry.

Walking on a rolling deck was pretty fun! It was just cold and windy enough that everyone except one other outdoors family were all huddled in the snack-bar. Seven us had two full decks to ourselves, although Duke the Brindle Boxer and his family did come out for a few minutes to visit with the kids. So did the Captain. Captains are cool that way. Both The Astrophysicist and The President quickly gained their sea legs and cruised around with binoculars and sketchbooks to see what we could see.

The Astrophysicist and The President snuggle up to Captain Joe Napoleon during his coffee break. 

This is the 50th Anniversary Year for the Cape May - Lewes Ferry.  It's an important route that connects Delaware to New Jersey via a ninety minute passage. Birders in our area (including me) take this round trip at least once a year to catch pelagic species venturing into the broad mouth of the Delaware River where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Gulls are numerous and always worth the extra careful look for the beautiful but illusive Icelandic Gull mixing in with Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls in winter. The Astrophysicist quickly caught the gull bug and followed a mixed flock trailing in our wake. He learned to correctly identify the Greater Black-Backed Gull and the smaller Herring Gull by size and coloration.

A huge birding platform that moves.

As a mom and a grandparent x 5 (how'd that happen?!) its important to me that kids have big adventures outdoors. This summer The Ecologist learned to paddle her own canoe solo on a huge lake. Now her brothers are experiencing the open bay, a wild beach in winter, and a big climb; challenges that are just big enough for them. Including those challenges unplanned as when The President tossed a plastic juice bottle over a rail fence at the park. Mom insisted that he climb through the splintery rails  to retrieve it. It wasn't at all fun, but The President did what had to be done, and apologized for making the earth cry.  He rejoined the expedition as its leader through the back dunes on our way to the Cape May lighthouse.

Beach grass holds high dunes in place against the onslaught of the sea.

The Cape May Lighthouse is our destination through the wild dunes.

Cape May Lighthouse is 160 feet high!

We wandered around the dunes (on the trails, of course!) and visited the hawk watch for a while. This is the second to last weekend for volunteers who are manning the scopes at this large observation deck. They broke all records this year with over 100,000 raptor sightings so far! This observational data will be tallied as per species, sex, age, and time/date  to add to an ever growing longitudinal study of the incredible fall raptor migrations that happen here every year.

Temporary back dune pond fills up in spring and summer and rests semi-dry in fall and winter

The beach plum - cloning itself all over the back dune

The beach plum grew short and stout throughout the back dune area where we hiked towards the lighthouse. This native small tree is a favorite of the red fox who 'plants' the seeds or pits as he leaves his scat at favorite marking posts. Foxes will poop to mark territory as visual signals that a trail or patch of vegetation 'belongs' to a certain claim. We looked for fox scat in obvious places:on top of drift wood, near stumps, and at the base of fence posts. The President found two scats, um...poops...on a log. "Poop!" he giggled, having recovered from making the earth cry earlier. 

A piece of whale jaw - intricate structure for such a huge bone!

Comparing kid jaws with whale jaws.

I love visiting  the wild swaths of marsh, dune, and stunted pine forest that makes up this coastal plain peninsula, on either side of the Delaware Bay. It's all young landscape, being formed and shaped even as we walk the trails. And it's very flat. Averaging only 25 feet above sea level the idea of impermanence and the possibility of major changes during intense storms is always in the back of my mind. Cape May maintains strict conservation rules. Many residents know something about birds, native plants, ocean life, river and marsh, and are happy to share it. All residents, however, are aware of how precarious a home they have and land planners work towards maintaining strict building codes and conservation statutes. If only all coastal communities could be as aware.

The light - a beacon of safety for generations of seafarers, sailors, and merchant marine.

If there's a metaphor in this visit, it's the lighthouse. Cape May shines like a beacon of how conservation and human needs and wants can be balanced. There are no barrier islands to protect the cape from nasty storms, which we get plenty of here on the Atlantic Coast, so the importance of the high dunes for protection are critical.  And, unlike on some of the barrier islands up and down coast from us, this area has not been overdeveloped.

The WWII gun battery emplacement still stands - minus  guns - on the beach. No more U-Boats, however.

I really find repulsive some of the resort towns  that stretches of the Mid-Atlantic coastal shores unsightly and vulnerable to severe property loss and habitat destruction. Cape May folks understand that the dune system is their only defense against an angry sea, so it's cared for and protected. Around the peninsula vast stretches of marshlands have been protected to ensure that rising seas and battering waves are calmed by the natural systems best able handle them.  But on to the lighthouse!

We made it to the top!

We made it to the top of the lighthouse and we were treated to beautiful views of the sea and the landscape around us. It wasn't easy an easy climb for the boys though. The Astrophysicist who enjoys the starry heights of the heavens at night counted out the dark steps and the window-lit landings ("Pull Over!") and made note of the double-walled tower space becoming increasingly narrow. The President's pants kept falling down so the landings every thirty steps made for perfect yank 'em up stops. The boys were determined to make it to the top. And once there, a museum docent met us with a big smile, a warm room, and a short introduction to the light and the light keepers with photos and displays placed around the small room, where we all fit very nicely. Then - she opened the door out...

Cast iron spiral staircase the whole way up!
"This is the coolest place on Earth!" cried The Astrophysicist in the strong wind atop the Cape May Lighthouse!

The Astrophysicist and The President cautiously stepped through the door into the wind. They grabbed on to the thick steel rail and tentatively made their first circle around the deck. "Look! The ocean!" "Look our car!" "Look at all those houses!"  "The beach!" "The dunes!" and my favorite "Look at those white dots on the lake! Swans!"  Every few steps they stopped and shouted into the wind. People waved from the parking lot. The Astrophysicist squealed with delight. The President, now comfortable, toddled a few laps around.

Fresh water pond system and the pine forests beyond - North View.

Another trip around. They knocked on the window to say hi to the volunteer inside. They took turns going inside to watch the other make a turn around to peer smiling through the thick wavy glass. They looked up at the light and across at the huge tankers awaiting their Bay Pilots out at sea. "Grandma - Can the Captain see us waving?" No, but they could see the light, I said. "OOOOOO! They can see the light!" Then it became apparent to The Astrophysicist why it was important to see the light. He quickly inferred that without out the lighthouse, ships would crash into the beach and become a shipwreck. "Yes," said the docent, "And they have!" She pointed out where on the cape famous wrecks lie and where at certain times we could come back and see what remained of them. 

The small village of Cape May - South view.

We made our way down the long winding staircase after thanking the docent. We picked up Mom halfway down. She was hanging out in a comfy pull-over spot, high enough for her, thanks. Off to the gift shop where she picked out a beautiful book to take home and the boys were so pleased and so proud. We took pictures with the lighthouse and the new book.

Gathering up Mom on the way down.

With May The Magnificent Lighthouse by Nancy Patterson

The Astrophysicist could not be prouder of himself!

Birds we listed for the day included the fox sparrow, chipping sparrow, house sparrow, northern shoveler, ruddy ducks, greater-black backed gulls, herring gulls, ring-billed gulls, bald eagles, a merlin, cormorants, northern gannets, common loons, surf scoters, Canada geese, mallards, pintails, mockingbird, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawk, and a possible red-throated loon, but I am still on the fence about that. No amount of studying the blurry in-flight pictures of the bird winging hump-backed with legs dangling beyond the tail has convinced me yet. Too fuzzy and too unsure, I won't count it towards our sightings.

Fox Sparrow

Northern Mockingbird
Female house sparrow

First year male house sparrow

Greater Black-backed Gull

Immature herring gull harassing a loon - diving!

Waterlogged common loon scrambling out of the ferry's path

Our day was coming to a close and we returned to the ferry terminal to catch the Cape Henlopen back to Lewes. Windier and colder, we first had a nice snack inside, then we ventured out again.. Gannets, loons, scoters, gulls, and cormorants glided along with our ferry, the Cape Henlopen. We played a game of Spider Man tag and snuggled out of the wind behind the great ventilator stacks on the top deck. We sank into the joy of another Adventure Day finished, happy for the boys' accomplishments; their brave climb up the lighthouse and earning their sea legs! Back in the car heading home, The Astrophysicist and The President went sound asleep.

Snuggling in the brisk winds of the open Delaware Bay, Mom and The President.


Cape May and its surrounds are identified internationally as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The Cape May Bird Observatory maintains year round programs for experienced and novice birders alike!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

South to North Point: What Could Never Return Just Might

I've often heard that the Mid-Atlantic might as well be considered one long crowded corridor of interstates, beltways, industrial lots, suburban sprawl, cities, and degraded scenery.  I suppose such perceptions might be correct if based on limited experiences visiting just the daisy-chain of East Coast cities.  But there is a remarkable re-wilding happening here and it surprises people who venture beyond the highways how quickly things get rowdy, unkempt, and even a little toothy.  But is it the same nature we originally bludgeoned out of the way to make room for human ventures? Is what returns the same as what was lost? And what was lost that can never return?

Old generator building at North Point State Park.

This week I  did some birdwatching with my old friend Mike at North Point State Park  just south of the old industrial center and ports of Baltimore. The land formerly held an amusement park, a waterfowl hunting club, a dump, and a busy waterfront ferry terminal. The general area known as North Point saw action during the War of 1812 and has served as an important agricultural area for 350 years. And now, like many of the places I visit and describe on this blog, it seems to be infilling with a new wildness- almost but not quite back-to-nature.

 Circa 1940. Photo Credit : Baltimore County Historical Society

Ruins of the Ferry Grove Pier, 2014.

The birding was light this morning, too cold and windy to offer us much but there were some mallards and gadwalls in the forested wetland,  pied-billed grebes, chickadees, white-throated sparrows, a hermit thrush, robins, and a very curious titmouse. The woods, typical of the coastal plain forest of American holly, sweet gum, white oak, and pine is in a  mid-succession phase with lots of edges draped in vines and crowded with other sun-seeking plant competitors.  The wind and the rough-shod look of the woods had me missing what might have been there before the days of steel mills, market hunting, amusement parks, and wartime manufacturing. What I saw was a simplified ecological system, a natural world that seemed somehow impoverished. This land has been through so much for so long, it seems to have lost its ecological identity. But in small ways it was trying to re-establish itself with help from conservation management.

Carolina Chickadee.

What is coming back, however, looks nothing like what was here at the time Europeans first set foot on these shores hundreds of years ago. It looks nothing like the landscape of our native peoples, who at the time of discovery, had already been decimated by European viruses that preceded settlers by a century. What is here now does not instill fear of predators or disease. These things have come and gone. What remains has been lost and recovered repeatedly, with each cycle of landscape change throwing off another handful of species, some gone for good, some slowly edging their way back. Like the cement shell of the trolley generator building that sits hollow and decaying in the woods, this is more like nature in ruin clawing its way back. I'm always a little sad to visit places like this. Though I enjoy watching people come out and enjoy their connections with the outdoors, this semi-wild environment is like an echo. It's as though we've forgotten what really wild may have been like, and we don't know how to identify the signals of recovery. Maybe, since humans were on the menu thousands of years ago, we don't want to remember!

Forested wetland along the trolley track berm.

It's true that people come to parks to enjoy nature, but what they see now is just what they expect to see: a safe, quiet, recreational area that offers the harried, modern soul a place to unwind. People hike, birdwatch (like us), fish, wade, ride bikes, walk dogs (on leashes), without realizing that the baseline of ecological function has shifted into a mere shadow of its former self, devoid of all fang and claw.  When a fox or coyote is observed, we speak and act from ancient fear-based emotion, wild tales and fables, gazing through woods for a predator lurking there, hand on gun with traps and poison at the ready.

Female Northern Cardinal in open edge.

What we see now is a barely functional landscape, a severe reduction of a complex ecosystem that once included higher level predators.  No bears, bobcats, cougars, wolves. No trophic cascades of predator-prey relationships and all the visible and invisible implications these relationships have for a landscape free of human interference. Of course that interference was well underway over 10,000 years ago and landscapes change dramatically through climatic and geological events as well.  But my point here is not to advocate for the intentional human facilitated reintroduction of big predators into a long-settled landscape, but that when they do wander in, and they do (as in the case of bears and big cats and wild dogs in Maryland), we not go ape-crazy about it.

Tufted Titmouse.

A landscape in recovery requires its predators to bring a system into dynamic balance. First studied by Aldo Leopold and his contemporaries in wildlife management, the science of trophic cascades has grown steadily within the context of conservation biology and ecological restoration. When only a few decades ago policy dictated that the purposeful removal of predators would make for a healthier prey-based environment (to benefit the human hunter), we are now realizing the weakness and bias this line of thinking entailed. 

Hermit thrush in thorny edge by the marsh.

I can't help but feel a little sad walking through such a beautiful place. It's a sadness I am coming to feel more and more the older I get, knowing my grandchildren will live in one of two worlds: one made richer for our understanding of the wild, or one impoverished by our ignorance of it. I watched a video (linked in Notes below) this weekend from one of my favorite trans-disciplinary science websites where Dr. Jennifer Jacquet describes how extinction can be viewed in several different ways to include economic and ecological extinction. She tells of  the decline of Florida  fisheries, the loss of the Stellar's seacow, and of Old George the Pinta Island tortoise - the last of his kind. She said something that caught my ear, "I stay up at night lamenting about the loss of species..."  I think I do too and walking in the absence of creatures and plants sometimes follows me like a shadow. I think about elk a lot and must plan a trip to central Pennsylvania to see them - get my elk fix.

Successional Coastal Plain forest at North Point State Park.

As Mike and I walked along we stopped at a road berm to look over at the soybean field where earlier in the morning I'd watched a large white-tailed deer buck. In full rut the buck chased two does through a vine-covered finger of woods that divided two fields.  He stopped breathless when he realized I had been there for some time. On full alert he stretch his swollen neck, sniffing the wind, looking in my direction. He shook his massive rack of antlers, pawing, snorting. Then he turned and looked through the woods to the opposite field to check for another threat to emerge. Another buck maybe? A long breathless wait, a pause silent and edgy. I imagined a panther on a limb, a wolf circling wide around the field. Today it could well be the crack of a poacher's rifle. How many kinds of predators has the deer learned to watch for over tens of thousands of years? Millions of years? What predators are imprinted on his genetic memory we can only guess may have hunted his kind in the time before settlement?

In full rut but still cautious.

So does this re-wilding resemble in any way the ecological communities that were here before human interference? No, sadly not at all. It is fascinating to see, however, how persistent nature is, how quickly it fills a vacuum with interconnected living networks of air, water, and land plants and animals.  Sturgeon are making a comeback thanks to ambitious long term reintroduction and management programs. But are they the same genetically? Has captive fisheries breeding changed them or altered their behavior? Bald eagles are everywhere, when only fifty years ago they were completely absent, thanks to environmental laws and protections. How must they re-learn their landscapes of industrial and military claim?  The coyote has a presence in our suburbs, edging into the city no doubt feasting on some of the tens of thousands of large rats that occupy Baltimore. She is coming back all on her own - but she is not like her ancestors either, transformed by her time in exile in the north country, having cross-bred with Canadian wolves. I doubt we will ever see elk migrating to their ancestral wintering grounds on Chesapeake shores, even though reintroduced herds are growing in north central Pennsylvania. They don't know the old routes. The old routes are fragmented by interstates and sprawl.

Bay Shore Amusement Park opened in 1906 and closed in 1947.

Mike informed me that deer are relatively new to the park, having come in over the past two decades. He saw not even one in the 90s when assigned here for many years. That jarred me. I am so used to seeing whitetails everywhere I go when in Pennsylvania and northern Maryland. The idea that they are new to North Point after almost a hundred and fifty years of intense development pressure - well, it warmed this naturalist's heart! Can a natural predator be far behind? Would we even allow it?

White-throated Sparrow.

As I was leaving the park to head home, I was happy to watch a family observing the two does that had returned to the soybean field.  I stopped and put down the window:  "Nice to see, eh?"  Mom turned and said "My boys have never seen real deer before! This is so exciting!" In what once was the huge parking lot for the Bay Shore Amusement Park now turned agricultural fields and woods, the big buck re-emerged and continued the chase.

One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. 

- Aldo Leopold


Trophic cascade theory is a powerful way to think about and envision a rewilding landscape. Trophic Cascades: Predator, Prey, and the Changing Dynamics of Nature is a great read for the naturalist and landscape ecologist alike. Peter Terborgh and James Estes, editors.

An amazingly beautiful video of the trophic cascade events that occurred when wolves returned to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming. Titled "How Wolves Change Rivers" this case study reveals the many ways ecological communities are released from the constraints of too many elk (called 'deer' by the Brit narrator) and how predation pressure of wolves releases cascades for other predators and scavengers, increasing biodiversity at multiple levels and scales. 

Dr. Jacquet gives an eloquent and informative talk on extinction here:

A Friends webpage for North Point State Park is a little more informative than the DNR page:

Thursday, November 13, 2014

William Kain County Park: A Catfish Named Thoreau

This post all started because of a catfish named Thoreau. I am not a fan of Henry David Thoreau, however. There I said it. Hate me if you must. So much for the purity of nature and wilderness and pristine beauty, because I think there is something to be said for the  urban and suburban park even if it was subdued by howling traffic noise. Henry The Writer would have torn his hair out and run off - and he would have missed out on some interesting conversation, too. Here in the midst of busy interstates and rural-turned-suburban roads in South Central Pennsylvania is this wilderness completely enmeshed in the works  of human endeavors. I was looking for a place to spend Veteran's Day afternoon  to just soak up the light and maybe meet some folks enjoying their day off. So after my work was finished at home I headed up to William Kain County Park that is literally bisected by Interstate 83.

Lake Redman near York, PA

Lake Redman and Lake William, the two lakes contained within the park hold almost 3 billion gallons of water and serves as York City's main water supply. Outside the city by a few miles, the water is pumped into town for showers, car washes, cooking, flushing, watering gardens and lawns, drinking. But here, before it makes its journey north, it fills a dammed valley and is home to all manner of wild things and loved by city residents. There were only a few folks out this day, however, so I found where the action was and hung out with some determined city fishermen as they jigged for catfish below the Lake Redman Road bridge. I listened through the sounds of I-83 traffic and as  school buses and farm trucks rumbled by just inches from my perch on the rail of the rural country road bridge. The fishermen below me were all York City residents, all claiming a concrete abutment at each end of the bridge. I struck up a conversation with Tony.

Tony the Fisherman

Our conversation went mostly like this:
Tony - "I come out everyday. Everyday! I even ice fish. This is beautiful country and to think it's my backyard! God is blessing me everyday here!"
Me - "How do you come out here?"
Tony (pointing to the other fishermen gathered on each of the bridge's four abutment) - "We come in Noel's van everyday. He picks us up at Mickey's Barber Shop after Noel comes home from work. You know Mickey? He's a nice guy. And everyday when we get here that eagle and his wife are here. All year long. They fish here like us too. Last year they had some children. They fished too, when they were big enough. I will never get tired of watching those eagles."  (On cue a bald eagle flies over, of course.)
Me - "I bet this place can get busy on a summer afternoon."
Tony - "You know what? On weekends it might get busy. But mostly it looks like it does today. Kids nowadays sit in front of their computers or the TV after school. Young men with nothing to do watch TV all day. Even the folks who do come out here walk around or sit on a picnic bench and do nothing but stare at their phones. That ain't right! Ain't they ever fished? You can fish for a lifetime and never see the same thing twice everyday you're out."
Me - "Why do you think that is? That young folks don't come out?"
Tony - "They wouldn't know what to do with themselves being all quiet and just watching. Them phones have replaced their brains. They don't have to think no more. Now they carry their brains around in their hands. Don't drop your brain! (Everybody laughs!) They can't hear nature's music neither cause they gots earplugs in. Or earphones - whatever you call them. They's deaf to all this."

Home built fishing craft ply the waters of the Lake and are popular here. What a great rig this was!

The park has many nice canoe and kayak launches but some people bring boats they've built themselves- it seems to be a city tradition here -while others take to the trails on mountain bikes or on foot. I did a little of both this afternoon, dropping my line into the lake for a while then heading off down to the boardwalk at the south end for some quiet observing. The farther you walk from the lake, the more the traffic noise recedes.  Soon I was surrounded by woods and the familiar calls of a downy woodpecker. He was quite approachable as he made his way slowly out to the farthest end of a twig,  probing for insects. A female downy was up the hill, but unlike her mate, she was sticking to main trunks and large limbs. You can tell a male and a female apart  by the little red patch on the back of the male's head where the female has no red at all.  Sometimes the birds are far off and even with binoculars you can't see the presence or absence of the patch, so its easier to note where they are on the tree. The males venture out on twiggy thin branches, while the females work the main trunks.

Downy woodpecker, male.

Red tinted alder stems brightened the shoreline draped with their brownish-pink catkins. Some stems appeared to be  sporting patches of snow. Snow? But how could this be? Our first snow flurry isn't forecast until early Friday morning and besides it was in the mid-60s. Upon closer inspection I discovered the twigs were collared with gatherings of wooly alder aphid. These insects produce waxy streamers that make them look more like mold than a tasty meal for a predator. The streamers help the insect drift off on the wind, floating on a breeze like a fluffy plant seed. The patch I found was clearly preparing to take flight. Shortening days and cooler temperatures signal that it's time to find a silver or red maple on which to burrow and lay eggs in bark crevices. When the eggs hatch in spring the young will suck juices from tender maple leaves and most certainly be tended by black tree ants that collect sweet honeydew these insects produce. By August the maturing aphids will make for the alders floating like snowflakes in summer to continue to feeding on plant juices and grow to sexual maturity.

Wooly Alder Aphid

The trail wound around the lake, across a boardwalk, and up the hill to where it runs along a field edge bordering a farm. Thoreau did not like farmers, so he wouldn't have liked this trail. Of course, during his two year Walden Pond experiment, the pond and the woods surrounding it were bordered by farms most of which were run down and exhausted. Farmers to Thoreau represented waste, laziness, and ignorance, and he clung to these ideas even as he worked as a surveyor's assistant and helped divide up the very lands (woods and all) he once praised for their wild attributes He did not approve of private ownership, yet earned his living defining boundaries.

 The trail skirts a beautiful farm. I counted three different kinds of soil conservation practices along this stretch.

The trail circled back to the parking area through a scrubby stand of trees, standing bare now.  The rough and thorny look of the woods contained a winter flock of small birds rooting around in the brush. The sun dipped to touch the crest of the hill. Two winter wrens, my first for the year, dropped into a tuft of weeds to settle for the night. The landscape, though heavily altered and managed by humans, held its wildness close. With the noise of trucks thundering along the interstate and the homeward-bound rush hour traffic rising with the early darkness, bird sounds drifted into silence. Gulls winged out to the parking area to stand and sleep on the warm pavement. Crows gathered to their night roosts. A heron squawked as she glided onto a log where she'll do a little night fishing near the bridge.

Bay-Brown Polypore - these fruit in fall on short stalks from damaged oaks.

I recrossed the Lake Redman Road bridge and found the fishermen packing up for the evening. Tony was happy to show me the large catfish he caught. "This will make a fine dinner! I tossed a few small ones back, but this one I sure wouldn't throw. Don't Thoreau the Catfish!" The group of men howled in laughter, slapping their thighs and teasing Tony for naming his fish Thoreau.  We all walked together back to our cars and the men carefully packed their fishing gear and buckets into Noel's van. In fifteen minutes the fishermen would be back in their homes along the old streets of York City. I'm  sure Thoreau The Writer would not have appreciated the utilitarian use of the park but he would have identified with the  rejuvenation the fishermen took home with them along with their catfish. He might also have enjoyed a catfish named in his honor, too.

Sunset over Lake Redman

Just beyond those hills is the city line. Standing here with the sounds of traffic as backdrop to a darkening lake, I puzzled over Thoreau's biases and irreconcilable beliefs about utility vs. nature. The woods in which he lived at Walden Pond was cut regularly for firewood by townsmen and farmers, even as he lived in his simple cabin. The gentleness of his surroundings had been tamed generations before by settlers, so much so that Thoreau needn't have worried about predators or angry Indians and  his romantic views of nature became possible. I wonder if the romantic era of nature writing would have happened at all if the landscapes in which writers like Thoreau lived hadn't been made simple shadows of a more brutal and violent time when nature was feared and then beaten into submission. All this ruminating about Thoreau abruptly ended when two coyotes yipped from the hilltop trail I had just traveled along! The new urban - suburban wilderness emerges. What would Thoreau have made of this?!

Tim Draper recorded a young pack from his back deck near here just a week or so ago. I wonder if what I heard this early evening may have been the same group? Take a listen:

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Nothing Happens By Accident: Ted Parker Natural Area

I took a break from another one of my writing marathon weekends to venture out across the windy plains of Lancaster County and visit again the Theodore Parker Natural Area along Stewart Run in Kirkwood, Pennsylvania. This is one of my favorite nearby bird sanctuaries, and having met Ted and followed his good work makes it all the more special.

Gusty winds roared across the ridge tops yet down in the creek valley it was still and even a bit chilly. Winter flocks have begun to assemble so I followed a small mixed  group of juncos, chickadees, cardinals, kinglets, nuthatches, and titmice down the trail. I wanted to enjoy the opportunity to just wander this natural area alone and since every manner of football game was on TV this afternoon, I was for a short time completely by myself. Until I wasn't. There was Ted Parker. Not in real life, of course. He passed away in a plane crash in Ecuador in 1993. But there he was, his image engraved on a new interpretive sign along the trail. I stopped to say hello and to remember the ground-breaking work he accomplished in bird conservation. He was a Lancaster County boy who explored this and many other county hotspots throughout his youth. Birdsong was his Passion, stemming from an early fascination with bird vocalizations and calls. He memorized and could identify 4000 species by ear at the height of his career in the jungles and rain forests of South America.

Ted Parker in Guyana. Photograph by Mathew Medler, Conservation International.

I met Ted in 1984 not here in our local woods as you might expect, but at an Audubon regional meeting in South Carolina when I worked as a ranger on a sea island near Charleston. He came out to the island to record a nesting colony of black skimmers after the meeting. I was happy to meet him there and take him out to the site. I had never met an audio-ornithologist before! I was just beginning to  bird by ear myself and was interested to learn how he cataloged and archived his field recordings. I started to ask a question in the middle of a recording and he shushed me. Typical me. His complete library of recordings can be found online with Cornell's Macauley Library (see Notes below).

Red-blazed trail follows the flood plain of Stewart Run.

While at Cornell, Ted designed a new conservation science tool, the Rapid Assessment Program (RAP) for measuring - very quickly - biodiversity in areas threatened with development. He worked primarily in South America with an expert team from Conservation International. It was very fitting that the Lancaster Bird Club lobbied for and succeeded in adding this bird-rich valley to the county's natural areas inventory in his honor, as I always find it alive with bird sounds any time of year. The wind high above the musical creek and the quiet peeps and chirps of the winter flock ahead of me created a rich soundscape that I know Ted would have appreciated. I walked past the sign but still had the feeling I wasn't alone. Not a scary feeling - just that I was not the only one out here...

An oak eyes me through a veil of crust lichen.

I was photographing an 'oak eye' through its veil of bark and lichen thinking "Oh, it's the tree watching me!" when from around the huge bole came a white bearded man whom I immediately recognized as a fellow birder from this area, Rich Humphreys.  Having nearly lost his eyesight to a lifelong battle with Type I diabetes, Rich identifies birds primarily by ear - a fitting way to bird here considering Ted Parker's passion for bird sounds. He knows the trail by heart and was on his way for morning coffee seven miles away at a friend's house whom he visits every Sunday. Our paths just happened to cross as he was listening to the same winter flock - just on the other side of the tree! We greeted each other and he looked closely to study my face. "Have you been reading the Meister Eckhart I sent you?" Well, now this is another story for another day, and I made some excuse about a PhD ddissertation taking up all my time, but he cheerfully said "Well! Here we are! Nothing happens by accident!" We walked together - well it was more like me jogging to keep up with him down through the valley stopping briefly to identify birds, even by their tiniest cheeps and squeaks.

Listening to birds and quoting Meister Eckhart, Rich Humphreys.

With most of the woodland's herbaceous layer having died away for the winter, my eye was naturally drawn to the lush green of ferns, Lycopodia, and moss. On the schist rock outcrops there were thick gardens of rock polypody, a small fern that is common in this valley. I examined the sori, underside pockets that contain ripening spore and I noted that it had begun to release 'fern dust' into the moss and leaf mat. Well hydrated after Saturday's rain, the miniature fern forest was plump and lush.

Sori are found on the underside of fern fronds.

A burst of feathered red rocketed from the forest and flew fast to the opposite side of the creek. In a thicket over a little tumble of water four cardinals and a red-bellied woodpecker chatted and warned of us coming down their path.  Frost-whithered jack-in-the-pulpit drooped over the creek with bright red berries. The limp stalk was barely attached to the bulb, and it fell off in my hand. I placed the bulb gently in my pocket as it was already showing its little sharp 'tooth.' It will be a nice addition to my woodland rescue garden at home if some squirrel doesn't dig it up. I planted the red berry seeds in the bank.

Jack-in-the-pupit seed berries

It was at this point Rich turned and asked "Do you believe in gnomes?"  Now, coming from anyone else I would have laughed out loud, but Rich spent years in Germany studying Meister Eckhart and the Medieval cultures of this beloved theologian. Gnomes were (and are still are) important to those who lived in the ancient German forests. So of course I had to say yes!  And walking with a Medieval religious historian through a landscape pocked with holes, hollows, and dens, why wouldn't I? It's too bad that modern industrial society has commercialized, trivialized, and even ridiculed these ancient forest stories and beliefs. The Susquehannocks had stories about little people here in the river valley, as did the Scots, Irish, and Brits who settled this area alongside the Germans. And up in Strasburg an Amish quilter  tells a great story of gnomes who hid aboard a sailing vessel bound for America with some of the first Mennonites to immigrate here in the 1700s. It's all great storytelling fun and a wonderful way to take a nature hike with children.

Skeletonized leaf

Leaf beetles or sawfly larvae have been hard at work along this trail. Skeletonized leaves were everywhere, all very beautiful. Noting how closely my friend was examining each new find I decided to put the macro lens on the camera and get close up shots to take home. Some leaves looked like they had been visited by a variety of eaters like caterpillars, beetles, sawflies, fungal diseases, and aphids. It became a detective story to figure out which eater left which marks. It seemed that every leaf  on the forest floor had been chewed in some way!


North winds howled over our heads. Tree limbs and branches rained down. I got a little nervous! Rich had to make his coffee date so he picked up the pace, but I wanted to stay and explore, so we said our goodbyes. "Now you know when and where to find me," he said, waving. "Remember that every creature is the Word of God!" And he was gone. Something big crashed down on the hillside. All this falling wood! All this food for creatures of the forest floor to eat!

Stalk and urns of moss.


How must it be
to be moss,
that slipcover of rocks?—

greening in the dark,
longing for north,
the silence
of birds gone south.

How does moss do it,
all day
in a dank place
and never a cough?—

a wet dust
where light fails,
where the chisel
cut the name.

-Bruce Guernsey, from Peripheral Vision (1997)

A late fall polypore, Ischnoderma resinosum.

Turkey tail and late fall polypore were in full brilliant color all along the trail. This is the time of the year when these bracket fungi really are beautiful. All bracket fungi are wood eaters and are important recyclers of carbon. With all the limbs and branches broken loose by the winds there will a lot to eat this winter. Bracket fungi seem unaffected by cold temperatures and continue to eat their way through logs and dead standing timber right on through to spring.

Bjerkandera adusta  on an oak log. Very common in late fall.

I found  a great specimen of Fuligo septica. This slime mold looks like dried out cake batter but is very much alive and moving! It can travel up to a meter over the course of a few weeks and this particular creature (yes, they are considered the animal among fungi!) seemed to have jumped from log to log. I poked away some of the surface crust to reveal the black spore mass underneath looking very lava-like. I once saw a slime mold actually traveling along a log near here with a group of mycologists at night. One of the weirdest things I've ever watched!

Fuligo septica, showing black spore mass beneath.

I looked up through the nearly open canopy at the sky. It was only two in the afternoon and already the light was beginning to fade. Daylight savings time ended last night, so it seems the day is somehow truncated and snipped a little short. My two hour break was coming to an end anyway. Time to start back and think about my late afternoon paragraphs, sentences, and citations. But as always happens when I become distracted by my own thoughts I was rattled to awareness by something wonderfully wild.

Small but beautiful mushrooms on a stump end.

A red-bellied woodpecker swooped down to the tree I was leaning against. She was just feet from my head to start then made her way, probing and snapping up insects all the way to the top. She swooped down again and repeated the whole process on the tree I was facing. This time she landed at eye level, looked at me and gave me a sharp "CHAT!" and made her way slowly up, leaning on her tail, her red head a bobbing marker of her progress.

Red-bellied woodpecker.

The walk back to the car alone was not uneventful!  Wondering about little people of the forest had me whimsically watching for places to live or hide if I were only a foot high: a knot hole made a roomy entrance, an old animal den under a fallen tree would serve as a warm and cozy home, rootlets dripping recent rain into the soil beneath a cut bank could fill a small bucket. But again the feeling of being watched...

Rain filtering down through the soil drips from rootlets into a tree hollow.

As I approached the bend in the trail that led up out of the valley I found my observer standing on the high rock outcrop above Ted Parker's picture on the trail sign: a very curious  doe fawn. She must have been there watching for most of my slow wandering walk back, as her vantage point afforded her a long view up to the rocky tumble that blocks the creek. She must have been thinking I was a daft human for stooping and looking into hollows, peering into knot holes, and looking through binoculars at birds in the brush.

Large outcroppings of schist frame the creek valley.

I rounded the bend and pretended not to see her. She took several steps down the cliff towards the parking area. I dumped my pack on the front seat, took out a trash bag and started cleaning up Halloween candy litter with an eye towards the outcrop. Here she came! She walked right out to the clearing of the parking area and swiveled her ears. I said the quietest 'hello' and she took another cautious step towards me when what I assume was her mother back in the woods let out loud whistled snort. The fawn doe bolted, white tail flagging as she bounded away towards her mother.

Stewart Run pushed through a rock tumble.


One of Cornell's tribute articles to Ted's memory:

Cornell's All About Birds 'Sound Lessons' page with Ted's narrated recordings.

This long link will take you to the Macaulay Library at Cornell University where all of Ted Parker's audio files are archived. He records his own voice in cataloging each piece.,%20Theodore%20A.,%20III&recordist_id=911&__hstc=75100365.3b6a9c31c95cbeb86a579d683b5d1f63.1412720458334.1412724814805.1414969305998.3&__hssc=75100365.6.1414969305998&__hsfp=3293941805