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.

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