Saturday, April 26, 2014

Pierce's Woods

Wildflowers of the spring forest come and go quickly, their colorful flames of blossoms and leaves dimming as the canopy overhead begins to fill in, shading the woodland floor. Today I walked the natural forest trails of Pierce's Woods at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. This is a great place to learn the natives by sight with a wildflower I.D. book and journal, or by joining one of the pleasant walking tours with a staff naturalist. Then venture out into any of the beautiful state forests or parks in Pennsylvania to test your identification skills in the wild!

Blue Cohosh in Pierce's Woods
Emerging fiddleheads of cinnamon fern.

Pierre DuPont bought the large tract in the early 1900s. Named Pierce's Woods, the Quaker farmer whose family had settled and farmed a portion of the land, held the original land grant assigned to his family by William Penn. DuPont, in addition to being a gifted business man, was also a naturalist and horticulturalist. When he learned that property was up for sale, he quickly purchased it to save it from development. He appreciated the 200 acre property for containing a vast native forest that had been lovingly preserved and protected from the plow and logging by the Pierce family for hundreds of years. Today it is well cared for by native plants gardeners and serves as a refuge for rescued native plants relocated from highway projects and construction sites.

Virginia Bluebells
Red trillium
Rue-anemone and Trout lily among the fiddleheads, Pierce's Woods.

Visitors to the Pierce's Woods section of Longwood Gardens should pick up a map or check the website for times and dates of wildflower walks. The wild area is quite unlike the manicured and sculptural formal gardens, that has uneven, unpaved, and mulched trails. The wooded site borders the soon-to-open Eastern prairie meadow site - open to the public after years of ecological restoration this summer!

Check the website for up-to-date events and educational opportunities. These change frequently and there are dozens of classes and walks throughout each month. If you live with an hour of Kennett Square, it is well worth the price of an annual membership. You want to come back again and again!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Living With Wildfire - Or Not.

Today our rural Pennsylvania landscapes are under a wildfire threat. Impressive winds and dry conditions. My time last week in Austin, Texas is definitely not the Mid-Atlantic, but a recent trip to the Capital of Live Music, did afford me a few short excursions to observe and compare how we live - or not - with increasing threat of wildfire.

The greatest challenge to ecosystems in the Hill Country region of Texas is the threat of wildfire, made more so due to severe drought conditions. Texas straddles the boundary between the East made wetter by warming oceans and more frequent and intense precipitation events, and the West made drier by less rain and hotter, longer dry seasons.

Blackjack Oak leaves are thick and waxy, an adaptation to prevent water loss.
Wildfire has become a daily threat almost year-round, especially for residents in the sprawling West Austin suburbs. Folks have pricey homes built inside or perched on the edges of the scenic canyons filled with highly combustible woodlands, composed mainly of the ashe juniper whose volatile oils literally explode the tree into flame. Many home owners were on the emotional edge in 2011 as the Bastrop County Complex Fire swept through the valleys below and burst up canyon walls like torches. "Every summer," a local confided, "I swear I worry 24/7 until a little rain falls. It seems a little rain is all we get anymore. Sometimes less."

Honey mesquite is a favorite for BBQ's and grilling because of it's fragrant oils.

The soils of Hill Country are naturally sandy and dry. Mesquite and oak predominated as the larger tree species found along streets and in parks. Some tree and shrub species have adapted to tens of thousands of years of fire cycles. Ladybird Lake, the main recreational and scenic feature of Austin provides waterfront habitat for many fruiting trees, willow, sumac, and ash, but also creates a worrisome path for canyon fires to follow in dry season. The famous Congress Avenue Bridge, occupied below by tens of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats, has it's own observation park for bat-watchers who gather every evening to watch them take flight. It's a great view from the pedestrian walkway above, looking all around at this dry forest (where it isn't paved or built upon). The landscape is one of contrasts: bustling city and quiet waterfront, wetlands and uplands, wildland and a skyline that is rapidly transforming. The week of the Bastrop County Fire, more people gathered to watch the approaching flames and walls of smoke than bats.

People gather in the observation park to watch bats at the Congress Avenue bridge.

Being a Mid-Atlantic naturalist, the contrasts between our lush temperate forests, frequent rains, and abundant waterways and the Hill Country's dry sparse woodlands was stark: scarcity of water determines what, where,and how plants and animals survive here. Thorns and thick bark protects many trees and shrubs from browsing animals and sweeping fires. Animals that can dig, burrow, or roost in cooler places readily do so, while those left to the sun and dry conditions are scaled (lizards!) or plated (armadillos!). One of my mammal encounters was with a "herd" of huge eastern fox squirrels, clearly not as endangered as our own DelMarVa fox squirrel. Big, bushy, reddish gold, these Texas-sized tree squirrels did their best to recover every possible seed, acorn, or nut from the park near our conference hotel. A lone armadillo dug a burrow on a construction site I could watch every morning.

Austin's linear parks serve not only as wildlife habitat - valuable green space in an otherwise parched landscape, but also as wildfire corridors that potentially could bring fires directly into the city.

The threat of wildfire is a constant concern, though this is hidden from most tourists. Residents are asked to protect themselves and their property year-round. Yards are cleared of brush and flammable forest litter. Some neighborhoods that occupy canyons are at very high risk: when developers sited these tony communities in picturesque valleys, they ignored the drought-fire cycle history of the region and built directly into the combustible woodlands. Many canyon communities have only one way in and out, putting entire neighborhoods at risk. Not unique to Texas, the same 'prime' real estate development pattern can be observed in California and Arizona, where hundreds of ill-sited homes are lost in "one match fires" that become deadly infernos. 

2011 Bastrop Fire at Austin's doorstep. Credit: Austin Humane Society
I spoke to a Master Gardener who was leading a tour of Austin's beautiful pocket gardens. Lucy remembered well the Bastrop fire that destroyed 1700 suburban homes. Frightened family pets, not adapted to the fire-prone landscape - unable to burrow beneath or outrun the flames - fled through the outskirts of the city to protected parks and lake shores where they were gathered and housed nearby until owners could claim them. Displaced families, unable to take their pets with them to temporary housing sought foster families to care for beloved animals (including horses, llamas, donkeys, and goats) until new homes were found. "It makes you think very hard about where and how we live. Zoning laws need to take into account the natural and changing cycles of drought and wildfire seasons when permitting new homes," she said.

Credit: Bastrop Fire Authority, TX
Besides frightened and injured pets, the Bastrop Fire Authority noted that during the 2011 fire, numerous wild animals, including birds, bats, deer, and bear, fleeing the burning canyon hillsides fled into populated neighborhoods to escape the flames. A city on alert, Austin became a haven for wild and domestic critters alike. "It will happen again," said Lucy, "There is no doubt. We've built so far out into the canyons that we occupy wildlife escape routes. Usually they flee by following waterways and lake shores, but that is prime real estate these days. They flee through our yards and shelter in our gardens."

The fire alerts are up throughout Pennsylvania and I am thankful it is a fairly rare occurrence.  Even though fire is an essential ecological process, vital to many biotic communities, climate change and shifting land use forces us to reconsider how and where we live in relation to the possibility of a burn.

More about this complex fire - one of the most destructive in Texas history can be found here:

Austin Humane Society's film of the pet rescue:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Spring Came Today!

Four weeks ago, a friend from Chancellorsville, Virginia emailed to ask "When are you going to post a story about spring?" I thought a moment before answering. A month ago, at the time I received her email, it was still snowing with nightly temperatures in the single digits. I had to remind myself that where Cathy lives and works, spring was already budding and peeping and greening up. I was still sloshing through snowy trails. My Friday night peeper watch had been less than exciting. Only last week did about five peepers call at my favorite riverside vernal pool framed by well-built stone walls of the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal Lock 12. I responded I would post a story about spring when I was sure it was here. Well, today it came!

A spring peeper, handsomely translucent! 

The temperatures shot into the seventies and it seemed, in an automatic response, that my lawn immediately turned green and started to grow. The wetlands at Swan Harbor Farm where I work, about twenty miles south, has been loud with peepers since Monday, but tonight Lock 12 was roaring with tiny frogs. Suddenly maples popped their chubby red buds. My apiary has been busy for about three days now, after a long winter of worry. Many field bees are returning with pollen baskets heavy with bright yellow pollen. The skunk cabbage decided it was time to send up leaves after weeks of tentatively hiding hooded flowers in semi-frozen muck. It was a start and stop spring, long in coming, but then voila! here it is at long last.

Dutchman's breeches, Dicentra cucullaria - oh the scandal!

Down at the old canal pond along the river, the peepers were all about yelling. They were determined to shout spring into existence. It was deafening but exciting to hear - at long last! From little green clumps of fresh foliage on the forest floor, Dutchman's breeches were beginning to bloom. A close, on-the-ground examination of these favorite spring blossoms revealed two outer petals fused into the 'pants' imagined by early naturalists, with the two interior yellow petals peeking out from the bottom. Victorian naturalists were embarrassed by the 'breeches' part of the popular name, for as any good, cultivated botanizer of the day would have known, 'breech' actually meant 'rump' or rudely put, 'backside'.  So they were pretty proper about using the scientific name Dicentra. The tightly sealed downward hanging flower is only accessible to the long tongue of the bumble bee, an important source of early spring nectar.

Trout lily leaf knifes it's way upward.

Another exclusive bumble bee flower is the trout lily, Erythronium americanum. Though no flowers yet graced the forest around the canal pond today, the sharp-pointed leaves emerging from underground corms several inches below, were knifing up through a thick mat of leaves. Also downward facing, the soon-to-appear lily blossoms will attract queens with their delicate scent. The queens are eager to collect nectar and pollen to provision their nests. She'll provide honey pots full of nectar and pollen cakes for her young, whom she's been incubating patiently with the heat from her body in an old mouse house hidden in a clump of grass or pocket in the stonework of the canal wall.

No longer watered by the river, the old Susquehanna and Tidewater Canal at Lock 12 is a vernal pond that stretches over sixty feet in length between the lock walls. By early summer the pond dries up and the peepers return to the forest.

Hoping to see an emerging bumble bee queen, I hung around until almost dark. The river was roaring with snowmelt from northern Pennsylvania and New York. The peepers were exuberantly announcing the first real day of spring. But, it soon turned chilly again, and I saved watching for bees for another warm day. So while Cathy at Monticello has enjoyed the early spring flowers and bumble bees for several weeks now, the fun has just begun for us in the Susquehanna Valley with so much more to come!

For the folklore of our native wildflowers:

Jack Sanders. The Secrets of Wildflowers: A Delightful Feast of Little-Known Facts, Folklore, and History. Lyons Press (2003).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Nature of Home

My 'home' plant: mountain laurel.

I recently accepted a travel award to attend a symposium for graduate students doing research in environmental studies and agriculture. The symposium will take place in early May and I will have to take some time off from work to attend. I filled out my request for vacation time and began to make plans for my first trip back to Chicago in over 40 years. When I was young our family traveled to Chicago to meet with my aunt and uncle (he was in the Navy) and to see the sights. I remember standing on the shore of Lake Michigan with my aunt. I recall the trash, the smell, and the color of the water. It wasn't pretty. We didn't stay long!  I'm looking forward to going back and visiting what is now a restored shoreline, full of birding areas, parks, clean beaches, and a city celebrating a return of its 'wilderness' - I can't wait to see it again!

My aunt grew up in Baltimore and mentioned to me how different the Great Lakes area was, how hard it was for her sometimes to really get to know a place being in the Navy and transferring all over the world. She was a birder, as was my grandmother. I remember her saying how she never felt at home unless she could see some of her favorite birds: cardinals, orioles, and chimney swifts. She was glad that she'd seen all of these in the Chicago area.

One of my Aunt Loretto's favorite 'home' birds, the cardinal.

So as I begin to research some trails and birding hotspots for my trip, I think about what animals and plants remind me of my growing up in the hilly Piedmont of northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania. From my childhood are the mountain laurel and barred owls. Living along Deer Creek and the Little Gunpowder River and roaming day after day, sometimes night after night along the woodland trails, both mountain laurel and owls were plentiful and became part of my natural 'mooring' to place.

The smell of a thawing skunk cabbage wetland is my 'home' scent, from river valleys in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

I've traveled a bit across the country and have a real love for different natural landscapes:  tallgrass prairies of the Flint Hills,  bald cypress swamps of the Lowcountry, alpine balds of the White Mountains. But these places, though novel and incredibly exciting, are visited not lived in - not raised on.  I remember standing in the Chiricahau Mountains in southern Arizona. My sister and I could not get enough of the pine-scented air and the volcanic ash soils that crunched underfoot on the trails. Once home, however, I recall heading back to work (Maryland Park Service) after our vacation had ended and hiking down a mucky trail to the river. The bright woods, waiting for leaves to shade the hollow, was thick with the scent of skunk cabbage and thawing mud. That, I thought, was the smell of home in springtime.

I plan to pick up another sketchbook before I head to Chicago. I have over twenty sketchbooks loaded with maps, illustrations, poetry, notes about birdsong and animal tracks - all from forty years of exploring the outdoors at home and far off. It's time to start a new one. I wonder what natural sights, smells, and sounds will make an impression on some blank pages? With a trip to Austin, Texas right around the corner (Farm-to-Cafeteria Conference), a new place for me altogether - this will be nice spring time to compare far away nature with the nature of home.