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

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