Thursday, February 26, 2015

PA: Abandoned Farm Snowshoe Hike - Nixon County Park, York Co.

By the mid-20th century, farmers using technologies unimaginable to colonial agriculturalists had replaced farming systems  heavily dependent on human and animal labor. New systems utilized mechanization to make more efficient the process of growing food, fodder, and fiber. In effect,  the mechanization of agriculture simplified tasks as well as landscapes.

Yearling white tailed deer in an old overgrown pasture.

Ecological landscapes are by nature 'messy' and complicated in their relationships, functions, and effects. Highly controlled and managed agricultural properties are maintained for efficiency in production. Today I strapped on my showshoes after an all day snowstorm in search of how simplified landscapes become complex after farm abandonment.  

I made my way around a long loop of trail called Bird Hollow at Nixon County Park, York County, Pennsylvania, and noted landscape structures created by humans (sometimes inadvertently), embellished or transformed by nature over the past fifty years. When this old dairy farm was abandoned in the 1960s and sold to the county park system, park managers did little to stem its rewilding. Today winter is the best time to look for the human-built scaffolding of this once highly productive (and ecologically simplified) farming landscape. With the high contrast of a thick blanket of snow set against the forest, I could locate and travel to these features without worrying about thick underbrush, ticks, or damaging tender plants underfoot.

Old farm road, now Bird Hollow Trail.

The forest that occupies the hollow is typical of Piedmont ridge and valley types: tulip poplar, black walnut, white oak on the slopes, and red oak on the ridge. None is particularly large, and wind-throw seemed the main reason for a toppled tree or leaner. The higher into the valley I hiked, the deeper the stream gashed into the hill, revealing high cut banks. This is a centuries-old landscape feature, common to areas once heavily farmed. As an environmental historian, I take a long view of nature and man on a landscape and as an artifact of past landscape use and appearance, stream scouring and straight-down-the-hill gashing may be the most reliable clue that this area was devoid of trees. This stream runs out of the hollow and joins the stream in the valley below. With a wide floodplain and gentler slope, the gashing ends.

I followed the valley stream for some time, crossing  trails of red fox and deer. Snowshoeing up into the wetlands that define the head of the valley, brushy areas harbored birds and grazing white tailed deer - by the dozens! The trail underfoot was packed solid ice beneath the fresh snow and I went down several times. The deer were mildly curious as to why I couldn't walk more than a few dozen yards without crashing. I left the established trail and sidestepped up to an old cattle path, clearly visible in the snow as a ledge in the valley slope that wound diagonally up to a high pasture, thick with goldenrod stems, briars, and small trees.

Downhill leaning osage orange hedge row - a thick layer of ice beneath the snow!

Looking back down at the valley I could see how animals have made trails along the boundaries of this wet meadow for a long time. From the hillside I could see deer highways that cut straight through the wetland (and the deer who made them nestled down in the warmth of grassy hummocks). The cattle trails of the past century circled the valley on higher ground intersected by modern roads beyond the suck of mud. Imagine farmers of a hundred years ago looking down at this valley now with its housing development across the way, modern (and busy) paved roads ringing the hollow and the wetlands, and an overgrown pasture holding twenty deer instead of fifty cattle.

Song Sparrow along in the pasture wetlands.

I topped out on top of the ridge with Bird Hollow just on the other side. I took out my binoculars and watched a red-shouldered hawk hunting in the wetland below. Sitting warm in my snowpants against an old osage orange hedgerow, I sat quietly for an hour and watched the drama of hunter and hunted play out. Finally the hawk scored a meal when it dropped into a hummock and came up with a rat. It perched very close to where I was sitting!

Red-shouldered hawk.

Farmers today keep wild edges intact around their fields and pastures, understanding that hawks help keep rodents under control. Agroecology, a cross-discplinary combination of agricultural sciences, conservation biology, and landscape ecology, allows for a new way for modern farmers to think about and utilize natural landscapes to help control pests, conserve resources, and build resiliency into working lands. Back in the day, however, hawks would have been shot out of the sky. Rough and wild edges would have been grazed down, burned, or put into cultivation.  Ideas about nature have changed over time, as have some (but not all) attitudes about wild things, but it seems some Americans still have issues with certain four-legged predators!

The more I looked, the more I saw.

The more I looked into the valley below, the more deer I saw! I upped my count to thirty, adding another ten bedded down on the opposite hill. With the absence of grazing cattle, the deer find plenty to eat.  The realist in me knows that this many deer yarded up in a small valley could be in trouble if another big storm moves in and they can't get beneath the snow and ice to find food. From this distance I could see dark patches of mud where they'd pawed and scraped their way to roots and shoots.

An old hayloading ramp almost obscured by brush.

Finished with my bird watch sit, I trekked over the hill and back into the woods. Here I saw an old cellar hole, spring house, corn crib silo footing, and the back wall of a bank barn. And more scrapes. Lots of them!  But these were much smaller compared to the scrapes in the wetlands. I soon observed flocks of sparrows settle into the snow and start a hop, scrape, jump up and back dance as they cleared a new patch of snow to reach the rich ground below.

Sparrow scrape.

Working in groups of ten or twenty birds, white-throated sparrows (and two fox sparrows!) attached a patch of snow and within minutes exposed grass and soil and all kinds of seeds, grubs, and good things to eat. I sat again, my back to the spring house wall and watched this energetic group open one scrape after another until - vroom! - a sharp-shinned hawk pivoted into the flock in hopes of getting a quick meal. Unsuccessfully, I might add. Within minutes the sparrows returned and the hopping and scraping began again.

Fox sparrow joining white-throats at a scrape.

Again I hopped off the trail and trekked back out to the old pasture to visit a classic 1940s osage orange hedgerow, one of my favorite landscape features of the park. Intentionally planted to create a living fence to hold cattle, the elder 'mock orange'  trees still support gate posts, rails, and barbed wire embedded in their heartwood. The conservation value of a mature hedge is incredible. Europeans, especially the Brits and Scots, have come to know (the hard way) the value of hedgerow conservation for protecting wildlife, wild plants, and edge habitat for bees. I wish the NRCS would start a hedgerow program here. Bringing these magnificent boundary features back through new plantings and careful management for those that escaped road widenings and brushing out of the 1970s and 80s would serve our native bees and birds very well.

Edges are interesting features. There are few if any examples of straight-line boundaries in nature, so when I come to an edge of habitat against the edge of different habitat, I'm pretty sure humans had something to do with it. The edge of a trail against the pasture, the edge of woods against the old field, a straight long rut in the snow along the valley floor, the lip of dark slate roof of the spring house against the slope of snowy woods - all are clues that the landscape has been altered by people. I find it endlessly fascinating how landscapes adapt and change over time when people walk away.

It was interesting to see an old pasture gate, still chained shut under lock, seeming to hold in old ghosts of dairy cows.  I could imagine the cows running up the old road, now the Bird Hollow Trail,  to fresh green pasture after the winter snows had gone. The main 1930s barn and milking parlor still stand, a beautiful renovation that serves as the nature center down the hill from here. And so, I decided to head that way and stop in to say hi to the staff there.

An elder among youngsters - 60 year old osage orange.

I asked the naturalist about the care or management of the old osage hedge. "It's a beauty isn't it?" she replied, "Most people don't notice it or ask about it. I'm glad you did!" We chatted a bit about old farmsteads and she gave me a few sites to visit - which I'm eager to see. She shared with me an old photo of the barn before its conversion to a nature center. And just as I was saying goodbye, that sharp-shinned made a pass for the center's bird feeding station. Unsuccessful, again.

Friday, February 20, 2015

MD: Winter Walk in the Deep Freeze - Swan Harbor Farm County Park

Thousands of Canada geese have been gathering on our fields to forage in the snow.

Snow-covered fields, ice-covered Chesapeake! We may be well past this winter's meteorological mid-point but this is the deep cold  heart of the season. Arctic winds have been sweeping down into the Mid-Atlantic for the last week with wind chills of -10 to -25'F not uncommon. I took a long walk on one of our balmier twenty-degree days this week to check things out.  Winter walks are the healthiest thing I know to do when winter blahs, colds or illness, or just plain boredom sets in.

Looking southeast across the Chesapeake Bay.

My first stop was to look over the high-cut cliffs out at the water. The upper third of the Bay is now frozen over. Had this been a two hundred years ago the ice harvest would be in full swing with ice thickened to ten inches or more. Even up into the 1960s the ice harvest was a hugely social event with hundreds of townsfolk skating, riding, fishing, and partying on the great white Chesapeake. Blocks of ice were pulled off the cutting yards by horse sled, stored in ice houses covered in straw to keep for summer deliveries in town. Now no one harvests ice this way so there's far less excitement (in fact, there's  far more complaining - which bothers me to no end!), and winter is more of an inconvenience than an opportunity. For many people it's an excuse to stay inside and do next to nothing except complain about the cold.

Subnivian zone.

The great fields that in summer held soybeans, wheat, corn, or alfalfa are blowing with snow. Ice dust whirled like sun devils into the dry air and temporarily blinded me. When it settled I could see thousands of Canada Geese snuggled down, grazing in place, poking through the snow around them, pulling up rootlets, grass, and straw.  At my feet the snow poked up in little mounds as a vole or mouse tunneled through the subnivian zone. Life below the snow is active nearly twenty-four seven, except perhaps in the most severe cold of the predawn hours. Unlike with a lot of humans in winter, this is not a period of inactivity for animals. Few creatures actually hibernate in the Mid-Atlantic. Think of it as of a series of intense naps with active periods of foraging and hunting.

Young Holly, bright and green.

There is a real difference between inactivity (which can affect health negatively - especially for us!) and rest (a restoration of health). Hard winter days can be a good time to observe the difference between inactivity and rest in both nature and people! I still cannot understand how people shutter themselves inside on winter days and do nothing for weeks, if not months. Bernd Heinrich writes about activity level differences in winter animal behavior and explains the  serious health consequences of the human sedentary lifestyle in comparison, resulting for many of us in a shortened life. Doing nothing or very little for long periods of time leads to pre-diabetic resistance, bone mass loss, muscle weakness, and less nutrient absorption in the human gut. Why not a walk everyday?

It's nearly four o'clock and the sun is still high!

I find winter activities among my favorites - snowshoeing, hiking, hunting, birding, and paddling where there's open water. No bugs, less crowds, clean fresh cold air good for the lungs, and always interesting things to see. In a recent PBS program I learned about how cold air was an effective treatment for TB patients - and I can relate - having had asthma all my life with the only real relief coming from being active outdoors in cold seasons. I've come to really love winter because it has literally saved my life.

White-tail Deer crossing.

The whole farm is criss-crossed in deer trails. So many deer! When I entered the woods I disturbed a whole herd that had laid down in the snowy brush. I looked hard for our resident coyote -  his straight loping track, but couldn't find him in the woods. He's been hanging around the muskrat ponds more than the woods lately. Plenty to eat there as the muskrats breed all winter long. I will never understand why people hate coyote so much. They are helping with our over-population of deer, for which the grain farmer is thankful.

Canada goose belly imprint and take-off trail.

Now and then I'll find the carcass of a Canada Goose  that a coyote has carried off to the edge of the field and torn into. I guess some people find that disagreeable but ask the grain farmer what a huge foraging flock of geese will do to a freshly planted field and how having that wild dog around to keep the geese from settling in for too long protects his crop. Once on a winter hike I saw the coyote trotting along the woods edge along the back field and for a second we locked eyes. He stood and looked at me and me at him and that was that. I didn't go running off all "Annie Get Your Gun!" A minute later a huge flock of geese lifted from the far corner of the field where he had gone.

Towhee sunning in the brush.

Winter is a time of constant hunting and foraging for most mammals and birds. It should be a time of activity for us too, but I don't know many people who make the effort to get out and be active when it's cold, which is too bad because it didn't used to be this way. Heinrich states that one in three Americans over fifty are completely sedentary and this lifestyle is having disastrous implications for our health. We're not evolved for inactivity. Like animals in winter, we're meant to be constantly active. We're adapted - like the coyote - to be endurance hunters and gatherers. Instead, we decry the viciousness of the wild hunter while sitting for hours and hours on our sofas in front of computers and TV's killing ourselves.

Thousands of Tundra Swans on the Bay ice.

My hike this day ended back where I had started - at the water's edge. The sounds of ice crunching and grinding ice floes and the hoots and toots of thousands of tundra swans, staging in anticipating of spring's journey north fills the air with a happy noise. The sun was still high late in the afternoon when I started back. Just before I got back to the office I heard a shout, "Peggy! Peggy!" The one other person I know who would be out here today came trotting up to me waving his cellphone. "Look!" John had just seen and photographed a rough-legged hawk on a telephone pole on his walk after work. A very handsome bird, indeed!


Bernd Heinrich's Winter World" The Ingenuity of Animal Survival (2003) is one of my favorites to read in the deep heart of winter. I am always in awe of the tremendous vitality of winter life he explores in this book. 

The Forgotten Plague (The American Experience) describes the history of TB in the U.S. and how cold weather treatments aided in providing patient comfort, even if the cold couldn't cure it. This is a touching film that explains through the living memory of survivors how the cure was finally found through the discovery of a bacteria and its treatment with a simple vaccine. The Adirondacks figure prominently in this story!

Thursday, February 12, 2015


Walking carefully across the wrack line down at the Bay I had the opportunity to watch a pair of coots working across soft muck in search of yummies. I've always admired their patience and persistence on cold winter days as they forage in places most other creatures avoid. They can do this because they have enormous feet. Not webbed feet, mind you - enormous lobed feet.

Coots in boots!

This pair have been calling the cove at Swan Harbor in Havre de Grace, Maryland, home all winter and may be the same pair I've watched in winter's past. They don't seem interested at all in the larger rafts of coots that occasionally come through. Their little conversational chuckles and whines remind me of my Rhode Island Reds at home. They are always commenting on this and that. But when an eagle flies over they'll quickly move into woody cover and float semi-submerged until the hunter has passed.

A continuous conversation between them.

In order to take off from water, the coot has to get a running start. A long running start. That's an easy target for an eagle! Better to sink out of sight or hide in the marsh or against a woody shore.  To forage in muck or across lotus and lily pads, the coot steps out with feet almost as broad as her underside, lobes spread flat like snowshoes. She looks totally out of scale with her tiny head, plump little body, and enormous feet!

Coots in a spring raft.

This weekend is the Great Backyard Bird Count and since I spend more time at Swan Harbor than I seem to spend at home, I'll do a Monday backyard count here as well as at home. I hope this pair of coots-in-big-boots are around to make the list!

The Great Backyard Bird Count!
Join in the fun this weekend! Will a Coot-in-Big-Boots make your list?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

PA: Eagle-Oh-Palooza on Superb Owl Sunday - Bear Islands

It's Superb Owl Sunday and the only competition I'm interested in is Eagle-Oh-Palooza over on the river. Winter is my favorite season for a ton of reasons, but top among them is the raw drama of survival on a wintery riverscape. The Susquehanna River, just ten minutes from home in Pennsylvania, provides the backdrop of an ancient landscape for some of the best wildlife viewing in the region. Even though Conowingo Dam is just ten miles south of here, the public viewing area is often crowded with people (to the exclusion of everything else it seems). I prefer the much less crowded area in and around the Bear Islands. You just have to know your back roads.

Little Chestnut and Piney Island almost touch.

My first adventure was to walk out on the very high Norman Wood Bridge. The absolutely best time to venture out there is early on a Sunday morning when the only traffic is the parade of Amish buggies heading to morning services. Be VERY careful and park well off the road on the Lancaster County side where the ice climbers pull their vehicles over by the icewall. A narrow walkway, not really meant to be a sidewalk for hikers and pedestrians makes crossing to connector trails on each side a harrowing ordeal for some.  I always wear blaze orange so drivers (of both horses and cars)  can see me.

Bear Island Complex, Susquehanna River, PA

The river has carved some of the deepest canyons in the East, impressive - except that they are all underwater! The flooded gorge below me is over 250 feet deep - and even deeper  upriver. Depths of up to 400 feet deep exist in an old canyon at the narrows below Turkey Hill. The Susquehanna has been flowing since long before the last Ice Age (out of eleven) and carried the gritty, roaring meltwater from receding glaciers to the Atlantic for thousands of years after each glacial period. Estimated to be over 250 million years old, this river carved it's valley down through the rising Appalachians, cutting flood plains and isolating islands across its mile wide breadth here at the Bear Island Complex. If you are afraid of heights or easily get dizzy DO NOT attempt to walk out here. But if you do, be prepared to watch for a while - and bundle up. It's frigid but so worth it!

Adult Bald Eagle below a fourth year Bald Eagle.

Since the ban on DDT in the 1970s Bald Eagles have made a tremendous comeback along the east coast from Maine to Florida and beyond. The Susquehanna provides  ideal ice-free fishing locations below its many dams. It's a great opportunity to study the different phases of coloration from juvenile first year birds through adult.On a really cold day you can expect to see large congregations.

Third year bird cowers at the approach of a bigger first year bird.

Third year bald eagles have an almost osprey-like look, complete with an eyestripe. By their fourth year the eyestripe disappears and they appear to a dirty-looking white head. Younger birds are darker and mottled underwing and across their backs. They appear larger than the older birds because of slightly longer feathers and thicker insulating down. A first year bird perched near an adult bird looks noticeably larger. Similar to hawks, eagle also display sexual dimorphism - the female is larger than the male.

Wildcat Island on the Susquehanna.

The first national eagle sanctuary was established here under Teddy Roosevelt, centered on distant (and thus inaccessible) Johnson Island. But not until federal protections under the Migratory Bird Act of 1918 were raptors afforded any legal protection at all, and not very effective protection at that as conservation officers were few and far between.

More eagles than I could accurately count today - everywhere I looked!

By 1940 the first of a series of protective laws was passed specifically for bald and golden eagles. The Bald Eagle Protection Act has since been amended ten times to increase penalties, fines, and even mandatory jail time for commerce in eagle parts, killing, and harassment. Then came DDT and a suite of chemicals developed during war time unleashed on the domestic environment as pest control in water and soil. Rachel Carson noticed the sharp decline of eagles, ospreys, and hawks in the 1950s - and the rest is history. The ban went into effect in the early 1970s and now - it's Eagle-Oh-Palooza!

A first year eagle is harassed into dropping the fish he finally caught.

The dramatic return of our national symbol to the Susquehanna Valley has been nothing short of spectacular, just in my lifetime! To celebrate I love coming out on really cold mornings (Sundays for this location on and near the bridge) when pools of open water are at a premium and eagles gather by the tens of dozens around prime fishing waters. The fishing was on! Today I stopped counting at 50 juvenile eagles and 8 adults! I wonder how many of these young birds were born on these islands? From my perch on the bridge looking down at the forest below I counted six eagle nests as well as a blue heron rookery.

First year juvenile Bald Eagle.

It's a whopping 175' to the river below.  Ice jams are common down there and what looks like shards of puddle ice stacked on the leading edge of a rocky shore, are actually as thick as fat books, clinking and crashing together as the moving water carries floes downstream. Upstream at Harrisburg the ice jams are locked in place - they won't begin to move until it warms up. When ice-out happens there, the flooding starts here. Another impressive sight from the bridge!

A hundred feet up looking down at a very cold river and its colder, deeper channel bank.

My face was pretty much frozen after an hour on the bridge, and traffic was starting to pick up so I moved down river to the Muddy Run Generating Plant. There is a fenced river walk, a little battered from flooding and lack of maintenance, but great for setting up a tripod for a scope or long lens. Gangs of young eagles argued over everything - fish, rocky perches, open water. They wheeled and chased, locks talons, stole scraps, and generally acted like adolescents.

A gang of juvenile eagles congregates near Upper Bear Island over a carcass.

I watched a long while as a third year bird tried over and over again to take a fish. On the fifth dive she grabbed it and held tight. She had a little trouble navigating the talon-filled gauntlet to find her place along a long outcrop. She tried to quickly eat her meal, but was harassed by nearby young-uns to give up her scraps. On the distant shore of an island, a deer carcass was alive with fussing eagles and she flew over to join them. Great fishers they are, but even better scavengers!

The Peavine Island Gang.

Just downstream from my river walk, a family of humans was enjoying a cold morning's fishing foray. They lined the banks with rods in hand, two big guys, two moms, and a group of kids who were more interested in exploring the ice stacks than watching their lines. I heard a shout go up and looked quickly to my left just in time to see a juvenile eagle make off with a fish one of the men had been reeling in. There was a lot of cussing coming from that group! They left after a short while, fishless, and got the family van hopelessly stuck in mud. A power plant security truck went screeching down the road, lights flashing, to go to their rescue. A little too dramatic, but I guess with the water really flowing now it was important to get them unstuck quickly. The eagle sat on a nearby rock and finished off the fish.

Battling over a fish - already dropped and back in the river!

The juvenile eagles that gather here are from all over. Wandering young eagles may spend their winters hundreds of miles from their nest homes. I suppose some of the juveniles I was watching today had come from the Canadian Maritime Provinces and New England. A friend of mine, Mike, a natural resources officer, was recently given a banded eagle that had been found dead on a highway an hour or so west of here. The band number indicated that it had been caught as a first year bird near here in 1986 - an old bird! I wonder how many young it helped raise in these parts over its nearly 30 year lifespan?

Channel edge -from a few inches deep to over two hundred feet down.

Resting Canada Geese in the middle of the torrent.

Although there are very deep channels, most of the river below the bridge is shallow and dangerously rapid, covered in thick ice floes. And eagles aren't the only birds out here resting or feeding in, on, and around the ice. Diving ducks, geese, mergansers, a loon, and dabblers rode the currents around the rocky ledges, eddying out to catch a fish or snag a freshwater clam.

Cabin on Snake Island, Norman Wood Bridge upstream.

Looking upstream from my scoping spot I could see beyond the Norman Wood Bridge three eagle nests within plain view. One very large nest was built  atop a power line tower and eagles were flying back and forth from it with nesting materials. Soon eggs will be laid and a new generation of bald eagles will be raised in the river valley. 

Black Ducks dabbling for freshwater clams.

Blacks ducks are everywhere, and if they don't pay attention, an experienced eagle will easily take one. I could see black duck feathers on a rocky ledge below the river walk and a collection of duck bones compressed into a large pellet cast by an eagle that had perched on the hand rail where I stood. A few half-hearted passes by a third year bird barely caused a flinch in a black duck flock, but the sight of a mature eagle overhead sent them skittering for the shelter of a wooded shore.

Common Mergansers among the ice floes.

Riding ice chunks, this pair was very entertaining!

It was almost 11am when the sirens at the Holtwood Dam sounded. The current quickened and with it came large ice floes dislodged from their traps along the rocky shores. The noise of crashing, grinding ice drowned out all other sounds on the river: the chortling eagles, ha-wonking of Canada geese, and the cries of gulls. To my astonishment along with floating ice came floating eagles! A playful pair of juveniles rode chunks for a few minutes until they crashed into a larger floe, then they alighted and flew upstream to another few chunks and road them down to the same place. They were clearly eagles at play and they made a fitting celebration to end my Eagle-Oh-Palooza Day!

Almost full grown and ready to find a mate!

We're waiting for eggs! Check out the Pennsylvania Game Commission's Eagle Cam live and daily time lapse as we watch the action happening at Codorus State Park thirty miles west: