Friday, January 30, 2015

MD: Doing Push-Ups on the Pond - Swan Harbor Farm County Park

Wetlands in June.

Checking on our resident muskrats today I found the wetlands stark and devoid of anything green but the muskrats were nonetheless very busy! Were it not for the 'rats cruising under the ice to open leads and breathing holes, the whole pond might have been solid. But there they were - kerplopping down as I approached. Muskrats are active all year and do not hibernate, nor do they store food like beavers do. Instead they are active, mostly at night, foraging for plant roots and tubers in the mud below.

Wetlands at the end of January.

The lodges, called push-ups, are high, conical, and piled thickly with cattail stalks, much higher than they were in summer! Inside, well above the water line, their winter rooms are snug and warm. They add more material almost every day so that the lodges appear to be rising from the pond as winter continues.

A lead or water trail is kept ice-free by foraging 'rats.

I am always impressed by animal builders.Their resourcefulness and manipulation of materials could teach us a thing or two about efficiency and design! The muskrats here are also aware of potential predators - we have a coyote who hunts around the pond. Leads are kept open like moats around the push-ups. Few lodges are close to the bank.

Cattail is food and shelter material.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

DE: Owls, Cycles, and Sky - Bombay Hook NWR

Clearly the people who don't like winter are not having a good week. Oh well. The rest of us out here are enjoying the cold and wildlife and scenery and snow and the owls! Winter has really settled in and we've just passed the meteorological mid-point of the season. We notice storm cycles and freeze/thaw events as hallmarks of January and February. The pace and intensity of winter feeding  shifts among birds and mammals. Courting, nest maintenance, mating, and egg-laying begins with eagles and owls in January.

Holly hedge and one of hundreds of hungry robins.

This week I looked out of my office window across to where a huge, old hedgerow of American Holly grows and noticed a lot of activity. There was a forecast of snow and like people flocking to grocery stores to get milk and toilet paper, American Robins were invading the hedge by the hundreds! A lot of folks  think that Robins are a sign of spring and aren't used to seeing them in mid-winter. Get out some more and you'll discover that not only are they here all winter, but they are here en masse! By afternoon the hedge of holly had been cleaned of every berry! Freeze/thaw cycles help to ripen wild berries, breaking down complex sugars through several natural processes. Berry-eating birds are keen to watch for winterberry, holly, oak-leafed viburnum, and poison ivy berries and clean them off when the time is right.

Crystal clear surface ice in Bear Swamp, Bombay Hook NWR

We are cycling regularly now between hard freezes and melt-offs. One day a pond may be open water, the next topped with ice. Shallow swamps and bays can freeze and thaw dozens of times in mid- winter. It pays to visit the water's edge often to look for tracks in snow on icy surfaces, or when open, for ducks, herons, and geese foraging for quick meals in the open leads before it freezes over again. 

Ice stacking at the high tide line. Bombay Hook NWR, DE.

Everyday cycles of the tides will push ice up to shores and banks, building ice dunes that can get quite high! Almost all of the tidal marshes now have collars of ice. Along our big tidal rivers with plenty of wind to push floes around, there may be walls and dykes of ice. Ice dunes form so high at Presque Isle State Park in Northwest PA, that beach hikers are advised to strap on ice spikes or crampons - or else stay off the lake front.

Beautiful skies after an arctic front passes over Bombay Hook NWR, DE.

Skywatching is spectacular in mid-winter as arctic fronts bring the driest air of the year. Night skies, ushered in by Orion the Hunter, spill the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Daytime skies are deep blue with racing clouds on the back end of fast moving Clipper systems that come almost weekly now. Landscape photography is especially rewarding in mid-winter as beautiful scenes can change by the minute in low golden sunlight and shifting patterns of clouds.

Bufflehead males and females are staying close to each other.

As daylight begins to linger in the late afternoon, our arctic avian visitors begin to exhibit pairing and courting behaviors. Great feeding flocks of snow geese, Canada geese, and tundra swans cycle back and forth from fields and open water. Echoes of waterfowl hunters' guns remind us that the hunting season is coming to an end, but rafts of ducks will continue jump from the sound of guns to settle in quieter and safer waters down river for a short while yet.

Photographer framed by jetty walls. Port Mahon, Delaware River.

My favorite cycle of the mid-winter season is the dawn-to-dusk light show of golden rays as each day the sun climbs a bit higher in the sky. My daughter and I spent a very late afternoon at Port Mahon on the Delaware River this week catching the sunset over the vast tidal marshes there. Short-eared owls dipped and bobbed in the fading light, red sun illuminating their round faces. She found a screech owl popping out from a wood duck box for a sun bath. Later in the week she photographed a lone snowy owl perched watching in the marsh.

Red-phase screech owl wintering in a wood duck box, Bombay Hook NWR. Photo by Emily Eppig Curran (!)

Short-eared owl hunting at dusk, Port  Mahon, DE. Photo by Emily Eppig Curran (!!)

Snowy owl in the marshes at Port Mahon, DE. Photo by Emily Eppig Curran (!!!)

Owl woods at Adkins Arboretum, Ridgely, MD.

I visited Adkins Arboretum this week on the Eastern Shore and was treated to a rather long and loud conversation of barred owls in the low woods. Our permanent resident owls, including the barred, screech, barn, and great horned owls have started their courtships. Without summer leaves to block the view we go owling in winter, looking for perched owls, nesting owls, listening for owl calls and calling them to us. It's a winter tradition we've kept since both Em and George were very young and now she includes her own children on these cold owl outings.

Song sparrow rooting for insects in grass, Adkins Arboretum, MD.

Winter sparrows of many species flit from tufts of grass to weedy edges. White-throated, song, fox, savannah, and others test our observation skills. Winter flocks at the feeders include more sparrows by the day as the feed heavily before and during our periodic snow storms.  I returned from a long day of meetings to find all of my feeders nearly emptied! Sure signs of another storm on our doorstep!  Happy Winter!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

MD: Deep Freeze and Fun on the Bay -Youth Winter Bird Count at Swan Harbor County Park

This has been a very cold week at the Head of the Bay in Havre de Grace, Maryland. But that didn't stop the kids from coming out to Swan Harbor for a winter bird count with the Harford Bird Club, a chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society. The clear skies and brisk arctic winds promised a challenge for the kids but they were eager to go! Volunteer group leaders, some of Harford County's best birders, rallied their bundled and layered charges in the classroom at Swan Harbor and off they went!

The ice hasn't started to pile yet, but note the ice mirage across the Bay as if it was stacking up!

Kenzey's group, led by Dr. Dennis Kirkwood, worked their way around the farm and followed the road to the Bay. The winds were fierce but the birds were out! They quickly gathered up species and numbers. At the approach to the long fishing pier a small open water patch in the ice provided good looks at a pied billed grebe and a American coot foursome. Canada geese, canvasbacks,  hooded mergansers, and a pair of bald eagles were counted out at the end - brrrr! But no one complained as binoculars went up and down, kids lined up at the spotting scope, and the tally was checked off. We even saw an ice mirage!

Dr. Kirkwood helps Kenzey get a life bird!

Seasonal bird counts are great traditions in birding history. There are counts for backyards, Christmas, Sea Watches, fall hawk migration, nesting surveys. But the youth counts are special. This is the next generation of citizen scientists, researchers, conservationists, and wildlife advocates. Most state and local birding societies have youth events and even youth groups. This is outdoor mentoring at its best.

Kenzey bundled and layered!

Here in the Mid-Atlantic winter is a great time to be a birder! It seems all of the feathered arctic shows up at our doorstep blanketing our fields and marshes in geese, swans, and ducks. Atlantic inlets and open water Bay channels fill up with diving ducks, coots, mergansers, loons, and enormous rafts of waterfowl. Snowy and short-eared owls invade the vast intertidal zones along our biggest rivers. Hawks, falcons, and eagles of all shapes, sizes, and ages work the wild beaches, woods, and fields and gather at Conowingo in huge numbers at the open water there to scavenge and hunt fish. The excitement of winter is infectious among birders, especially the kids! One little girl who snuggled up against my granddaughter as they waited to see the bald eagle pair through the scope said "This is the best thing I've done all winter! I LOVE this!"

Checking open water - or leads - for rafting ducks and geese

The most important part of any count is tallying and sharing the data.  All the groups returned to the classroom to warm up with hot chocolate and homemade oatmeal cookies while leaders prepared to take the day's totals. Groups reported in from the wetlands, the ponds, the road, the woods, and the Bay. Kids read from clipboards as grown-ups did the math and entered the count with Cornell's E-Bird data entry software. The global map projected on the wall 'blipped' as submissions poured in from all over the world and the kids were excited to see our own bright green bubble of accomplishment light up for Swan Harbor Farm. Our winter count was complete! Cheers and applause!

Taking the final tally while warming up with hot chocolate!

I often hear people complain about the cold and the winter season. But I have to celebrate the parents who brought their kids out on this day, when some would have questioned their 'parenting skills' by exposing children to such weather. These parents, some having never participated in a birding event, not only brought their kids bundled and layered for a morning in the arctic wind, but went out themselves! It is too easy to say 'oh it's too cold' and park ourselves in front of a computer or TV, believing we've made the safer choice to stay inside. But in the long run, this is teaching kids to take the easy-out with avoidance and apathy (and the complaining that comes with it). 

Winter landscapes inspire us to observe and appreciate the persistence of life.

As they say - and as I know to be true - inactivity, especially in winter, leads to long-term behavior and health issues. We are now witnessing the emergence of a younger generation that will not live as long as their grandparents because of poor eating and lifestyle habits. We need to step up, as parents and grandparents and outdoor mentors to encourage kids to embrace winter as a great time to venture out. Winter is a great teacher that offers greater awards for the effort. I'm so happy that these parents brought their kids out and that the kids are now hooked and looking forward to more birding fun!

Frozen bubbles locked in ice on the edge of the Bay.

Live in the Mid-Atlantic? There's lots to do with your state and local birding groups and some groups have youth groups - like the Dunlins (my granddaughter's group) with the DOS.

Harford Bird Club was the sponsor of today's youth bird count:
Maryland Ornithological Society
Pennsylvania Audubon
Delaware Ornithological Society
New Jersey Audubon

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Sketchbook 2014

With creative time at an all-time premium in 2014, I was lucky to get these few small sketches and paintings finished. No big canvas for me this year - or for the past four years come to think of it. Trying to work an hour or so before and after work and a full day every weekend on my PhD research has left almost zero time for art. This year's journal time seemed like a vapor compared to pre-graduate school days when I could fill a sketchbook a year!

Pine Barrens, NJ

Sometimes the urge to sketch overwhelms me and I must stop and sketch. My hikes in Virginia's Bull Run Mountains and the New Jersey Pine Barrens were less about putting miles down and more about finding places to sit and notice how these places were different from my close-to-home hikes in the river hills of the Susquehanna. 

Bull Run Mountain, VA

Newark, DE

Although I was able to do more birding in 2014 than I have in the past few years (once my dissertation proposal was approved the first thing I did was take a pelagic trip!) my favorite subjects had to take a second row seat to some new explorations in landscape and watercolors. Trying to budget creative time with research time was a challenge. It was a challenge, too, trying to find room at the big Gettysburg farm table to work! Stacks of books, papers, notes, files, and computer left little room even to sit down and eat.

Peach Bottom, PA

These are very small studies on 6 x 9 and 8 x 10 watercolor sketch pads. My friend Sylvia gave me a backpacker's watercolor set a few years ago and I am just getting around to using it. I plan to take w/c's with me on future long distance hikes and paddles so it's been fun learning what a very limited set can do.  Thinking about the AT again as well as the Camino de Santiago...

Blackwater NWR, MD

Elk River, MD

Holtwood, PA

Zakiah Swamp, MD

Kennett Square, PA

What I noticed about my journal work this year was lack of reflection as compared to journal pages of ten years ago.  Not much in the way of poetry or scientific observation either. I guess I'm in a different life landscape now in my early fifties compared to younger years. I blink and a week has passed. I work steadily on a project or a paper, look up, and a month has flown by. Then a year.

Cardiff, MD

Codorus, PA

I'd like to blame my PhD work for the lack of creative output, but that's not true. The process of research and writing is its own creative path, especially so for my pursuit in environmental history and landscape ecology.  But I do look forward to having more time to get out and travel again! God knows I have a stack of blank sketchbooks waiting to go!

Friday, January 2, 2015

PA: First Day Hike 2015 - Kelly's Run and The Pinnacle

Happy 2015 from The Pinnacle!

This is a tough, rocky bit of of the Conestoga Trail and as our First Day Hike of the New Year it was a winter hike at its best. Windy, cold, and steep, this 'lollipop' circuit combines the up-and-back run from the base of a high river hill to the top with a round-and-up loop of Kelly's Run for a total of 5.5 steep miles. We both agree that winter hiking beats humid hot days of summer in these parts. We built up heat soon enough and were comfortable the whole way.

A new hiking pole for Kim from her son, disguised for wrapping purposes!

The tradition of First Day hiking started over a hundred years ago and has endured as a New Year's Day event for families, friends, clubs, and parks in the EU and North America. It comes from the hiking traditions of Germany and Austria where long distance walking and family holiday hike outings have deep roots. It was a pleasure to come across so many folks out on this trail today celebrating the First Day Hike all wishing each other a Happy New Year with smiles and conversations about plans for the day and tales of past hikes in the Holtwood area. 

Hiking poles helped a lot!

Kelly's Run and The Pinnacle are both part of a large land holding managed by Pennsylvania Power and Light (PPL) that includes several large dams across the Susquehanna River and the inflow valleys that contain dozens of creeks and streams. PPL land is managed for recreational use with miles and miles of trails, many picnic pavilions, ball fields, campgrounds, and boat launches. Several unique natural area sites are protected by PPL as well. These sites  have Friends groups and university clubs that oversee and offer events and hikes to the public.  The rugged orange-blazed Conestoga backpacking trail is almost completely contained within PPL lands. It starts in Marctic Forge, twenty miles north of The Pinnacle. There are two campsites available for backpackers who follow this craggy path south  through scenic ravines, lush hollows, and across steep cliffs to the Norman Wood Bridge just south of Holtwood.

Share the trail! A pheasant hunter and his dog.

It's good to know, too, that public hunting grounds are snug up against PPL lands in many areas, including here at Holtwood, so seeing hunters using PPL trails to access public lands is a good possibility. This morning we met up with two polite young men on their way to a nearby PGC gamelands unit, excited to have the whole day to hunt. Later on a pheasant hunter and dog crossed Kelly's Run on their way to the scrub forest and open lands along the base of the cliffs. Though some hikers (usually not from Pennsylvania) are annoyed by the close proximity of hunting lands or by the presence of hunters themselves, there has never been trouble to my knowledge. Hunting is an important part of PA as anything I can think of, and we've done well with the idea of 'multi-use' in my home state. 

The Pinnacle up-and-back is rocky and steep!

From the Kelly's Run crossing at its mouth (under an old road bridge and railroad culvert) the climb up to The Pinnacle involves a bit of scrambling but the views from the edge of the trail overlooking the river are outstanding. Stands of Virginia Pine frame every look across towards York County and we looked over at several of the creek valleys we've hiked this past fall on our Mason Dixon Trail trekking.

View from the top!

Once up and over the cliff  we followed a woods road to the top and  it seemed people simply appeared! Note: There is an access road open only in summer that leads to the ridge top, and in winter with the gates closed and locked below, people will park at the end and walk in on the flat. Today there were plenty of hikers who'd made the trek as we had, some coming from the north, some from the south, others road walking up. There was a lot of mingling with the car-folks who walked the half mile from the lot. Lots of "Happy New Year's!" exchanged up here. Conversations started about past hikes, where to go from here, birds and birding from the lookout, the river, and fitness goals for the New Year that included these rugged trails.

Cliff top overlook on the orange-blazed Conestoga Trail heading down.

After watching an eagle pair circling a nest on the opposite shore, we returned the way we came to rejoin the Kelly's Run loop. Inching down some of the steeper bits, some of it on our butts, we stepped aside to allow a more adventurous hiker forge past. He had at least twenty years on us - but he hopped along like a mountain goat. Oh. I aspire to be like him in my 70s!

Before I forget - here's my First Day poem-prayer for 2015...

    Prayer for the Dawn of A New Year

    May we grow in understanding of our role as stewards of 
    this old and ailing Earth.
    May we replace paranoia, fear, and denial with acceptance...

    of our responsibilities to our one and only home.
    May we rediscover the beauty of seascapes, heavens, 
    forests, and hills - and in all the creatures who live here.
    May we put aside our clinging to boundaries and borders,
    and open our hearts for the sake of humanity
    and our Planet. 
    May we truly grasp the ideas of interrelatedness and 
    May we realize and enter into the hard work that is Love, Healing, Caring, Compassion, and Gratitude. 
    May we teach this to our Children, Grandchildren, and Great-Grandchildren so that they may teach theirs. 

Kelly's Run Trail - south ridge.

We intersected the blue-blazed Kelly's Run loop at the bottom and began our trek up the very narrow boulder strewn creek. The shady, cold recesses of the valley contained a lot of ice, some of it on the trail, so we continued to take our time. We watched a few people slip into the cold water from  glazed rocks and logs trying to make crossings. The poles were especially helpful and we suffered no more than a little slip here and there.

Rocks and crossings were glazed with ice.

Kelly's Run ravine is mostly in shade during the short days of winter, so ice is a possibility even on days when the air temperature is well above freezing.  The tall and ragged cliff walls were draped in icicles  today and as some of the higher cliffs caught an hour's sun, we could hear the glass-breaking sound of large daggers shattering down into the ravine. 

Lots of ice along the cliff walls!

When the snows finally come (and we hope they come soon!) it would be a good idea to use strap-on  ice spikes (Yaks)  for your boots. Most quality outdoor shops like REI and EMS have these available and they are worth the $20 to have in your pack for these slippery stretches of ravine trail when you can't see the ice that underlies the snow. And if hiking alone, it's not such a bad idea to let someone know you are down in this cell phone/ GPS free zone. If you fall or find yourself in trouble and need help, you'll have to wait until someone comes along or wait until someone doesn't hear from you! Many of the Susquehanna ravines are deep and dangerous and require a hiker to pay special attention to weather - flash flooding and ice are high on my list! 

Icy blankets under dripping boulders.

The Susquehanna River Valley is known for its deep creek ravines that drop precipitously from the tableland above, the Piedmont Plateau. The slight eastward tilt of the vast plateau above coupled with repeated cycles of glaciation to the north and massive melt-off over tens of thousands of years have combined to create rapid down-cutting by the river and its tributaries. Some of the streams have become entrenched - unable to meander - held in place by high cliffs, large boulders, and deep V-shaped valleys. Frequent waterfalls, cascades, and tumbling steps of rushing water are constant companions as the narrow trail skirts around or over rocky obstacles. 

Kelly's Run at it's icy best on New Year's Day.

By mid-afternoon we'd come up through the creek valley to the dense woods that blanketed the gentler hills above. We heard a screech owl whinny as we left the steep canyon as if to say 'Good Job!" In the oak-poplar woods the trail is wide enough to hold two hikers side-by-side for a time until the trail opens out into the park where we'd left our cars. A great start to the New Year! 


From the website Mid-Atlantic Hikes, a fully indexed and mapped hiker's trail share.: