Sunday, March 29, 2015

Setting Aside Time for Crazy

It has been busy. Crazy busy. Things are left undone as priorities shift by the minute. It's especially true for this transition period from a long persistent winter to an emerging spring that is determined to come. Spring peepers are trilling between snow squalls. Geese and swans are pushing north against continuing Arctic fronts. My dissertation chapter deadline has long passed while I struggle to ready a trashy looking yard and trashier garden for the day when I will wake up to temps in the fifties. And then all my bees died in a flash freeze event.  Crazy season.

All that said, it's been a fun few weeks to watch the arrival of Wilson's snipe at Swan Harbor Farm, an assurance that spring is here even though the snowflakes are flying. With their needle-nose plier beaks, these wetland birds are pushing north despite the ice and snow that still blanket our fields. Most people don't know they exist, and those few who've even heard of a snipe think it's just a Boy Scout rite of passage. But they are real and they are hard to spot with their thick jacket of camouflage. To me they mean spring - dammit!  I should have been hurrying to my next meeting but instead I sat along the farm lane and admired them. What's fifteen minutes late when I might only get to see this once this year?

Some of the best crazy-making in early spring are the wild calling of killdeer as small flocks rush in to feed and impress potential mates. It's a little early for nesting and most of these birds are pushing north as well, but the strutting and dancing has begun accompanied by much frantic calling.  I prefer their crazy calling to the incessant beeping and pinging of my phone. I turned it off to listen to the killdeer and missed a call from one of my doctoral advisors. That's how spring goes, folks. 

Courtesy of the PA Game Commission.

The hit of this persistent winter and determined spring party has been the nesting bald eagles just twenty miles  west of where I live in South Central PA. There are a lot of bald eagles raising young right now on the Susquehanna just a few minutes down the road from me, but his Hanover pair was wired up to a live cam this winter and have endured a lot of snow, rain, wind, and very cold temps to finally hatch out two tiny grey balls of rock n' sock 'em sibling rivalry. The PA Game Commission announced that as of yesterday over one million people have logged on to watch and as one those watchers, I can attest to how anxious we've all been! I will admit to staring for hours at this live cam during the hatching period of two days while not really paying attention to paying bills and emailing. Priorities.

Patuxent NWR

In my busy travels for work these past two weeks I was able to catch an hour's hike at Patuxent National Wildlife Refuge near Washington D.C.  It was one of the warmer days  we've had this March though still with a cold breeze - but still, an abundance of spring peepers and a few wood frogs were calling like crazy. The next day it snowed.  I'd like to do a post dedicated just to this fascinating place but will wait for the green and warmth to arrive to do a good hike through and long visit. I felt cheated from my nature experience as I hurried from the trail to get back to work - only to find my car was running very rough and I had to go get help from the refuge maintenance guys.

My house is messy, smells of chicken poop, and covered in feathers that I try daily to sweep up. They belong to the last two of my laying hens, survivors from a raccoon attack that happened early one morning a week ago out in the coop. One is hurt pretty bad, another is lame.  These two were saved simply because I had been walking the dogs at 5am to get ready or an early day at work to drive hours to another meeting or workshop. I forget which. But in any case, it was still dark and the dogs ran to coop to intercept the huge and hungry raccoon that had already taken three birds. I barely made the meeting on time, arriving in southern Maryland just as the speaker began. Crazy. As of yesterday the coop is now predator proofed and these healed hens - well, one with a limp - are headed back out to the barn.  Today I clean. Clean everything. 

Courtesy of Hyperbole and A Half.


Keep up on all the goings on at the Hanover, PA, Codorus State Park live eagle cam:

When things get very crazy like they are right now, I love revisiting my favorite blogs and Hyperbole and A Half is one of these. Although Allis hasn't been very active recently on her great blog that deals with the overwhelming nature of day-to-day life, the archived posts make me smile and laugh.

Friday, March 13, 2015

OH: March 12 Trip Log: Malabar Farm, Northeast Ohio

Another five, six, I've lost count, hours in a windowless state archives building and I'm beyond done for the day. Out here in Ohio doing archival research for my PhD dissertation and with longer days and warmer temps, it's been perfect to escape in mid-afternoon for a hike. My last Trip Log entry for this trip is for Malabar Farm State Park in Northeast Ohio - not entirely an outing since I had planned to visit anyway. The farm is integral to my research in sustainable agriculture and restoration landscape ecology.

Not too far off of I-71 - an easy visit for travelers in NE Ohio.

Louis Bromfield and his family moved here in the 1940s after living in rural France for almost twenty years. He was born near here in Ohio and attended Cornell for agriculture, but left university to pursue his passions to become a writer. He won a Pulitzer with his third book and went on to write thirty more books before his death here in Ohio in 1957. But it's the farm that earned him the most fame. He took a run-down one hundred and fifty acres of eroded, stoney ground, and in less than five years (the family was here for fifteen years) applied restoration strategies to create a world famous pasture/beef/dairy operation. It was a story of bringing back the land - in a big way. The farm attracted thousands of guests a year, all of whom were welcomed by the Bromfield family.

Bromfield applied methods of soil conservation he had observed in Europe when he served during WWI and when he lived there with his family. The 'manure economy' of farmers who rotated their herds across many pastures ensured that soils were maintained for generations over hundreds of years. The careful management of forests ensured that woodland assets such as mushrooms, maple syrup, lumber, and nuts were always abundant. So, no cattle or pigs allowed in the woods - a real change of practice for American farmers who were used to letting cows and pigs roam freely through the woodlot!

Woods are protected from grazing livestock and deer populations heavily controlled to allow forests to thrive.

The farm is actually several farms that Bromfield bought and combined. He began right away to restore the stony, highly eroded soil. For generations this ground had been farmed poorly, mostly in corn, cultivated in rows that ran up and down the hills, and with no crop rotation or contour plowing. These methods simply did not exist in America up until the great Dust Bowl radically changed the way we thought about farming. 

Hilly ground was taken out of corn production and put into pasture use.

Bromfield purchased a small herd of dairy and beef cattle to graze large interconnected pastures that spanned across the wasted hillsides. He planted all kinds of grasses - good for both forage and soil holding qualities. By constantly moving herds - see my previous post on prairie restoration with bison - the soils stopped eroding, the grasses grew lush and high, and the cattle became fat! All within a few years!  Neighboring farmers who had previously teased and mocked his methods now stood in awe. Word spread and farmers from all over the country started stopping by.

The main barn and home site, tucked neatly into a hillside.

My visit today was to both learn more about the methods Bromfield and his farm staff applied to this broken and hurting landscape - as well as to hike the grounds of the park to gain a landscape-scale appreciation of what happened here. The trails were slushy under a foot of snow in some places so I kept to the roads, some paved, most in mud. Later in the season when the ground begins to dry, a hiker can do almost ten miles of interconnected trails. But not today - again, I was soaked up to my knees!

A cave!

The geology here is a complex layered mix of Silurian ocean bottom sandstone overlaid with  thick till and outwash from several glaciers that overspread Ohio over the past several million years. An ice cave can be visited up on the rocky ridge ( I couldn't down to it for the icy trails!). A young couple came stumbling and crawling out of it when I arrived - laughing "It's all ice in there!"  

Sugar house getting ready to boil sap this weekend -mmmmm!

Bromfield documented the transformation of this property primarily in two books Pleasant Valley (1945) and Malabar Farm (1948) but he makes mention of the methods and outcomes in many others including in his autobiography From My Experience (1955).  This 'experiment' became the basis for changing how and why we farm the way we do today in conservation agriculture. Though much work had been done during the Dust Bowl years to conserve soil and restore working lands, it seemed to all come together at Malabar and the farm has remained an agricultural demonstration site under the management of a Friends group and Ohio State Parks. And still people come. By the tens of thousands every year - a sort of pilgrimage site to many.

Cattle are important conservation staff at Malabar!

Today Malabar Farm hosts many sustainable agriculture workshops and conferences while it remains a working farm. Like in Bromfield's day, many area farmers, staff, and volunteers all contribute to making the farm a living example of how to do farming in hilly, highly erodible areas. The cattle are very important and when the pastures open for the season, they'll soon be romping and running on green grasses and dropping their precious cow plops all around.

Visitors Center and meeting rooms - an important education site.

My hike included stopping by the barn to visit with the livestock and the barn cat. There must be a barn cat, I thought. I was greeted by lambs, goats, little ponies, and the most loving, most adorable, most cutest-in-the-world calico barn cat ever. She followed me around the barn, tried to climb my Carharrts, jumped on to my backpack and rode around the barn complex purring into my ear, jumped off for hugs and kisses at a porch rail, and rejoined her best friend (according to a barn worker) a beautiful little Shetland pony for a nap in the fresh straw.

Barn cat was the sweetest kitty I've ever met.

As a working farm, Malabar produces grass-raised beef, cheese from Nubian dairy goats, alfalfa hay, soybeans, feed corn, wheat, and oats. The beef can be purchased here. In addition there is an active weavers group and wool sheep are raised here too. This time of year the sugar house is running on weekends while sap is collected from the maple woods. Tours of the farm and house are given on weekends in early spring but by April the farm will be up and running for visitors all week long through harvest. The trails are open all year for skiing in winter and hiking when the snows melt. I hiked on the roads today which was a little tricky between the normal community traffic and the slippery mud.

Don't let dusty old milk cans fool you - this is still a working farm!

In conservation farming, Malabar is also home to wildlife and an extraordinary list of native plants and trees. The bird, reptile, mammal, and amphibian lists are huge! Water is an important asset here, and when Bromfield purchased the land he noted that all five springs that once flowed into the creek from the various farm properties had been dry for years. After his applied conservation techniques began to secure the soils and his protected forests began to recover, all five springs came back to life and now contribute to thriving pond and wetland system throughout the park. It was one of his proudest accomplishments to make the water flow again. He wrote in From My Experience, his last book before his death from cancer:

I knew in my heart that we as a nation were already much further along the path to destruction that most people knew. What we needed was a new kind of pioneer, not the sort which tore out the forests and burned the prairies and raped the land, but rather pioneers who created new forests and healed and restored the richness of the country God had given us, that richness which, from the moment the first settler landed on the Atlantic coast we had done our best to destroy.
 I go out each morning and see miracles of restoration.  It makes you feel a little like God.


Malabar Farm State Park (note the many events and programs they hold here)

Contour farming is working the land according to its natural slope and aspect, rather than forcing it to conform to straight row plowing, a common and damaging way to farm up until the 1940s.

Wikipage for Louis Bromfield - note the list of books!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

OH: March 11 Trip Log - Western Ohio's Battelle Darby Creek Prairie Restoration

After six solid hours at the Ohio Historical Society in Columbus digging through over-stuffed archive boxes of fat file folders containing thousands of pieces of paper, I called it a day. My head was spinning and I needed air and sun. It was only 3:00pm so I took the time to drive 30 minutes to the till plains of Western Ohio and check out Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park, a whopping 7,000 acre conservation gem of prairie and oak savanna.

Oak savannah.

Ohio's Metropark system is, without a doubt, the most highly respected regional park system in the country. Leaders in ecological restoration, conservation, partnerships, and outdoor/environmental education, for each major region in the state maintains a unique grouping of parks, protected landscapes, and public spaces. Central Ohio Metroparks is comprised of nineteen units that range in size and scope  from historic farms, downtown birding corridors, public gardens, and large swaths of conservation properties. Battelle Darby Creek is a beautiful example of partners in agriculture, conservation, restoration ecology, and public support. I only had a few hours of fading sunlight to enjoy just a fraction of what this park entails. 

The new Battelle Darby Creek Nature Center - built into a glacial till slope.

I stopped at the new nature center first. I really could have stayed the whole time there talking to staff about it's off-the-grid systems and beautiful hillside contoured design, but the sun was casting long shadows so I quickly grabbed a map and flew out the door. On my way out one of the attendants said to join them  at the wet prairie at sunset for short eared owls! You bet! Of course I had to go see Big Darby Creek, a designated Wild and Scenic River. I could hear it long before I saw it churning away through the valley. The snow and ice melt these past few days has brought the river into the bottom woods. It was fast and broad and a little muddy. 

Big Darby Creek muscles its way into the woods.

The park manages a combination of public spaces (picnic and play grounds), prairie remnants, reclaimed agricultural land, forest, and oak savannah. The natural ecosystems that were found here before farmers claimed the prairie in the 1820s consisted of 350 square miles of wet prairie and oak savannah that existed for over 6,000 years prior to settlement. The flat till plains between Big and Little Darby Creeks flourished with immense savannah oaks and prairie plants and animals, many of which are now extinct. But there are clues to what those animals must have been like found in some of the plants here. The honey locust, found in profusion along the creek hillsides is a Pleistocene survivor, and with its  huge bundles of sharp thorns sprouting dagger-like straight up the trunk it appears out of place in today's somewhat subdued environment. It evolved this defense, however, to thwart browsing giant sloths and mastodons which disappeared with the spread of human hunters.

No sloths allowed!

In 1976 Metro Parks began a full scale restoration of the major ecological landscapes found in the till plains region. Farming had eliminated all but small remnants of original habitat and it took some time to develop relationships with farmers who were worried the parks were out to take their land.  Gradually area farmers began to see the value in maintaining functioning prairie habitats, and many were conservationists themselves. Huge swaths of cornfield were negotiated for purchase. Old tile and drain systems were broken to allow the prairie ponds to come back. "It only took a year before the waterfowl returned - ducks, geese, marsh hawks, short eared owl, and occasional sandhill cranes," said a park ranger who joined me for the owl watch, "Everybody, especially the farmers, were thrilled. It was immediate gratification - an almost instant reward for all the effort."

Large prairie oaks dominate the savannah.

Inviting the public to help, native prairie grass and wildflower seeds were collected by hand from the small remnant habitats. Seasonal fire was reintroduced into the landscape, an important ally in prairie restoration, as many savannah and prairie plants have evolved with it. But something was missing. Bison herds that once enriched the prairie with their manure, kneading the ground with their hooves during migrations, and browsing down invasive scrublands, hadn't been found in Ohio since 1803.  It was the missing piece of the restoration that finally came about in 2013 when a small herd of bison was reintroduced to the park. 

A cold blast of snow-fog swirls over the wet prairie ahead of a cold front.

I'd been hiking for about two hours following a popular greenway trail from a wet swampy woods (also under restoration management) through open oak savannah and out on to the great hilly tall grass prairie. A marsh hawk wheeled over the open ponds and red-winged blackbirds konk-a-reed  from prominent perches. It was almost impossible to imagine this all as cornfield. It was so complex and rich. "We are better at farming now, more than ever," explained a Darby Watershed Association member who happened also to be a farmer. He had joined me on the walk, heading out to the owl watch. "We don't need all this land like we once thought. We're more efficient, we have more reliable crops and seed, and with the technology we have today we can be precise and extremely mindful of how and where we grow crops. We can grow more food on less land by using sound conservation practices."

Marsh hawk over a wet prairie pond.

A strange cold mist had descended over the landscape. My companion explained it's a spring thing - one minute it's sixty degrees, the next minute you can't see for the fog and you are shivering. The wind kicked up and the distant wooded hills disappeared in smokey blue.  Then we saw them, coming up out of the ravines. Bison!

Coming up the hill from the creek!

Three cows and a bull moved silently into view, keeping an eye on my companion and I. To prevent human-bison conflicts, the park has fenced a large portion of the valley off from people. I realized we had been walking through a corridor of protective fencing for some time - I'd been too focused on birding to notice! The bison have plenty of room to roam - acres and acres of space across a large swath of hills - and the prairie they move through shows the signs of slow browsing - plenty of manure, shrub cropping, and a few wallows (these are critical wetland and water sources).  The big bull snuffed and snorted and the small group stopped and stared. Close enough, he seemed to say.

Hope for the prairie is a contented bison.

I heard a happy shout from a family coming down greenway trail "There they are! There they are!!" We stood for a long time admiring the bison, now so close I could smell their rich manure and shaggy winter coats. The dad lifted his young daughter on to his shoulders and said "Honey, you are the first Ohio generation to have them back in over two hundred years. Take care of them okay?" The little girl clapped her hands and said "Yes! Yes!" and  I thought I saw her dad wipe away a tear. 

I suppose the real hope for a restoration of the Ohio prairie comes as a bison, following the path people have made for him, on the heels of land deals, working partnerships, hand seeding and autumn burns, putting back what was removed - and most importantly - changing attitudes. But like the cold snow fog that was enveloping the landscape around us, it could all so easily disappear without dedicated stewardship. I wasn't sure what impressed me more - the sight of bison in Ohio or the years of hard work by hundreds of people to have that small herd come over the hill today. 


Central Ohio Metroparks -

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

OH: March 10 Trip Log - Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge, Lake Erie, Ohio

"It was a dark and stormy night." Um, day. It was a dark and stormy day. I'm out here in Ohio to do some PhD research in Columbus and today was my 'play day' to explore!  I've never seen Lake Erie so I stayed the night in Sandusky and birded the lake shore reserves and parks in a light rain. The light really sucked - so did most of my photographs. The highlight was spending most of the day at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge - a Blue Goose gem! I had a bird list of only 30 birds. It was gray, warm, and wet and not much other than waterfowl and raptors were out. But there were surprises!

I finally get to meet Lake Erie - famous  for generating South Central PA's 'lake-effect snows' 

Marblehead Light and Lightkeeper's House.

The lake was frozen over except for an open lead way out beyond the stacked shore ice.  A lone eagle (one of dozens I would see today) watched rafts of sea ducks. It was a sobering scene, dark and foreboding with rain clouds overhead. I quickly made for the shoreline to check out the  ancient limestone  reef on which the light and the town of Port Clinton are built upon.  I had to be careful of icy ledges as I kept one eye on the threatening skies overhead and the other eye on the rich fossil rock under my boots. 

Frozen Lake Erie beneath a threatening sky

Maclurites - a reef snail from Middle Devonian Period.

Receptaculites - an ancient relative of the sand dollar.

The matrix around this Receptaculites is thick with Crinoid stems and 'flowers'

Horn Coral.

The shelf the lighthouse is stands on represents the top layer of limestone that defines a Middle Devonian reef. It is packed with  fossils and had it not been for the rain becoming steadier, I would have switched to my macro lens to capture what paleontologists call "fossil hash." But I was getting wet so I jogged over to a boat shelter and joined a older couple already tucked in out of the rain.  Mike and Linda were Port Clinton residents out for a walk to the Point and were thankful it was 43 degrees above zero and not 43 below. Mike had been a laker's mate, an ore carrier pilot's assistant, assigned to helping the guy who got those big ships through of tight places and into the shipping lanes where the captains would take the helm. He had served on a lot of ships before he was made pilot. He retired in 1995 after forty years of laker service and moved here.

Bald Eagle watching sea ducks.

Mike knew of the Edmund Fitzgerald and had been aboard the Wilfred Sykes loading next to her the night she left port for her last voyage carrying 26,000 tons of ore on November 10, 1975. Standing under the boat shelter listening to Mike describe that night I could only shiver while looking out at Lake Erie. Lake Superior of course is a much bigger lake - really an inland sea - so I can only imagine how angry that body of water must have been and how hellish it must have been for the crew and captain of the Edmund Fitzgerald. "All souls lost, not a soul found," said Mike, "This coming November will mark forty years. Seems like yesterday." Linda was quiet the whole time, except to nod and say "Yes, yes."  For the rest of the day I had Gordon Lightfoot singing "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" stuck in my head.

I realized that the gravel we were standing on was crushed limestone from a quarry nearby. I quickly snatched up some crinoid fossils. Linda suggested I visit the Castalia quarry about fifteen minutes inland to see the full reef, now a park. It sounded like a good way to wait out the  rain that was falling and hope for better light. I was getting cold and a nice warm drive in the car sounded nice.

Wagner Quarry at Castalia - now an Erie Metropark.

Limestone reef - over a hundred feet tall - was mined to make crushed stone aggregate.

Castalia Quarry 1930s.

Wagner Company steam shovel on track - 1930s.
It was warm enough in the car but as soon as I got out at the quarry to do the two mile hike around and into the pit, I realized I would soon be slogging in foot-deep slush, working up a sweat, and most likely start to shiver again. Which I did. The light was getting a bit better however. I finished the hike and changed clothes in the parking lot. (I didn't care who saw what.)

My final destination for the day - Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge!

Another thirty minutes in a warm car and I was pulling to my final destination for the day! I love our National Wildlife Refuge system and everywhere I travel I make a point to visit the refuge closest to where I am working/staying. The lake was just beyond the trees and ponds and I couldn't wait to get out on the trails. But first - the very nice visitor center - the very warm visitor center.

Does this even need a caption? I think not.

A replica of the warming room of the now gone Cedar Point Lodge, circa 1890s - 1920s.

I chatted with the desk ranger for a good while. I'd never been to Ohio. He'd never been to Pennsylvania. We swapped information on refuges - Ottawa for Blackwater, Heinz, and Eastern Neck. Then out to the trails - oh no! A foot of slush and light rain! Hell with it - this is my free day! Out I went!

The whole inshore area once looked like this - the great Black Swamp is now a tiny fraction of what it was.

Mid-Western Fox Squirrel - as big as a large cat!

This is one big squirrel - more orange than than the Delmarva Fox Squirrel.

I learned real fast to stay atop the levees as the trails through the woods were too wet. The levees are part of an old ditch, canal, and pond system that dates back to when the great Black Swamp was drained and logged to make way for farming. In the rush to create farmland in the 1830s-40s, this enormous swamp, the size of the state of Connecticut was destroyed. The Ottawa Indians who lived along Lake Erie's shores and in the high ground of the swamp were removed in the 1840s. When the refuge was established here in 1960, farmland was re-acquired and again flooded in an attempt to 're-grow' the swamp. With regenerating swamplands come the fox squirrels, repopulating the refuge over the last 50 years. 

The last two Ottawa to leave the swamp - Victoria Caderact and cousin.

This landscape has undergone such brutal change. I kept in mind the visitor center display photographs of how the swamp had looked logged out. In the 1840s ditch diggers carved drain tile into the land to dry it out. Levees were built - even the roads you drive on are atop levees. Everything was constructed to keep the water off the land, although with a foot of melting snow, there's water everywhere. Now, with controlled flooding, there are cattail marshes and muskrat push-ups where once a dense five thousand year-old swamp stood. As I made my way across the almost snow-free levees, I thought of the pictures of the Ottawa people who had found not only sustenance here but a great wealth of food and resources from the lake to the forests. Even though the plan is to bring back the swamp, the people will never return.

Muskrat marsh - regenerating swamp in the background.

Muskrat trappers set flagged poles to mark their trap lines.

A marsh with muskrat greatly reduced.

Today muskrat trapping is a vital tool in controlling the damage these 'water rats' can do to a marsh. Without adequate numbers of natural predators to keep populations in check, human trappers are allowed permits to harvest muskrat. The pelts can bring in a little extra cash and the meat isn't too bad. But the real value is in the quality of marsh that is allowed to flourish after a population has been reduced. I met two trappers cutting and flagging poles to mark a new trap line. They were snug in their waterproof hunting bibs. I was shivering again! So I picked up the pace and hiked quickly along a three mile section of paved road. I saw red...

Red osier dogwood

Red-tailed hawk feasting on a gull.

Northern shoveler with his red flank and flashy white breast and rump.

My bird count was low, but there were too many bald eagles and red tailed hawks to count!  Just past the refuge entrance I caught a red-tailed hawk finishing a gull. Fairly close, it kept pulling and pecking at its meal even though I was within fifty feet. I saw eagle nests everywhere, with the head of an eagle just visible over the lip of the nest and a mate perched nearby. Canada geese honked  throughout the ponds, acres and acres of ponds. Northern shovelers were the duck of the day in the drainage ditches. Finally, on my way back to the main entrance, walking fast on the road to keep my heat up (sweating again) I turned a bend near the last pond and thought I heard a familiar but not quite familiar whistling hoot - tundra swans? Hmmm.  Trumpeters! A large flock of trumpeter swans was tipping up in the open waters of a stream. I've been watching for trumpeters all year back home and here in Ohio - where they are found throughout the Central Flyway - I finally had them! 

The regal trumpeter! This pair will mate for life.

Shivering hard again after standing for almost a half hour admiring the swans, I practically jogged back to the car in a light rain. I stopped at the visitor center to say thank you, and was in the car with the heat on full blast - wet with sweat and cold. The two hour drive south to Columbus in a steady rain was warm enough, but it was worth all the chills and cold to have birded the Lake Erie shore.


Black Swamp Conservancy is a group dedicated to bringing some of the Black Swamp back to function ecologically within a predominate agricultural landscape.

Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge