Tuesday, December 26, 2017

PA Wolf's Hollow County Park

January's wolf moon is waxing, so this week I'll devote some day hikes for exploring local wolf lore in South Central PA, starting with Wolf's Hollow County Park in Pennsylvania's Chester County (west of Philadelphia). This land was first granted title for ownership in 1733 and since has changed hands so many times it's hard to keep track. The parcel is now owned by Chester County Parks was opened in 2010, so it's a new addition to a stellar local park system.

With 8 miles of trails, this is a great day hike area with plenty of places to rest, picnic, explore, and generally just dawdle around. The trails are a combination of well-preserved early 19th century roads, wagon trails, and foot paths that run through a young-ish oak woods. There's lots of evidence of the charcoal industry, especially on the Charcoal Trail and Octoraro Ridge Trail. Octoraro Creek runs through the rugged valley below and on this very cold leafless day, I caught glimpses of it through the woods from high up on the ridge.

Young oak woods (under 100 years old) are the predominant forest type.
Settled very early by German farmers, evidence of a stone foundation farmhouse, hand dug well, and livestock exclosures remain on the creek's floodplain.  At the time of the Revolution, the War of Independence against England, these hills and plains would have been smoky with colliers working in the charcoal pits. Charcoal was necessary for the iron industry and remains of many major iron forges are not far from here. 

Charcoal pit still black with carbon soils.
The classic footprint of the collier's pit.
When early German settlers began to farm these rugged hills there certainly were grey wolves (Canis lupis) to contend with but we don't have an idea of what the population would have been nor the number of packs supported by this region's rough terrain in the early 1700s.  German wolf lore was intact, however, and mythologies and fears drove men to clear land around their homes and barns, eliminating habitat for predators as well as the resources relied upon by Pennsylvania's indigenous people. Bounties on wolves persisted through the early 1900s and even with modern understandings of wolf biology and ecology, scientists say that the landscape has been so fragmented and human fears still so keen, that they doubt wild wolves will ever roam Pennsylvania's forests again (1).

Headwaters of the 22-mile-long Octoraro Creek.
The only evidence of canines Bug found was this pile of fox scat which she studied thoroughly.
But never say never. Wolf biologists are tracking the southward range expansion of grey wolves from Canada into the New England States. Maine has recently confirmed a viable population (200 or more animals). As landscapes recover from deforestation and intensive farming, the re-greening of the Northeast has certainly made the reintroduction of other predators like the fisher and marten successful. Coyotes fill the ecological niche created by recovering habitat and the absence of the wolf. They are found in every county of Pennsylvania and are bigger than their western cousins, a cross-breed some suggest, between the grey wolf of the north and the western coyote. Try as we might, however, neither my trusty tracking hound nor I was able to find any evidence of coyote or any other wild dog other than some fox scat along the trail.


Speckled Alder cones - stripped of seeds (Chickadees love these!)

Red Osier Dogwood.
As we searched for wild canines, we found other really beautiful winter sights: the flush of red through wetland woods of Winterberry and Red Osier Dogwood. We spied on winter flocks from thickets of Speckled Alder and Spicebush. I counted twelve different species feeding on bark insects and seeds from a bench rest at the edge of a tiny rivulet. Brown Creeper, White-breasted Nuthatches, Junco, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers, Cardinals. Chickadees, White-Throated Sparrow, Carolina Wrens (so many wrens on this Wren Day, the Feast of St. Stephen!) - among others. A Bald Eagle soared overhead and an American Kestrel balanced on an old fence wire watching a field for prey.

Well-preserved early 19th century roads are the pathway for many trails.

Field stone walls were built to keep livestock out of areas where crops were growing.

Field stone walls are testament to the labors of many early farmers who cleared land of stones in order to grow crops, orchards, and hay. In the manure economy of the early German settlements, cow and horse manure was a valuable commodity and bedding from stables and barns would have built up many farm gardens. The remains of a farm garden wall surround the foundation of a German-built stone farm house, with a hand-dug stone-lined well out back. The wall surrounds the homestead completely in a U-shape starting and ending at the creek, while the remains of a bank barn foundation are just a short way up the old road outside the wall.

Remains of a German-built stone farmhouse foundation. The upper section would have been log.

Hand-dug fieldstone-lined well.
German wolf lore is still at work in South Central Pennsylvania and you need not go too far afield to hear a German story of the Black Death, the plagues of the Middle Ages, that eliminated half the German population. As land was abandoned by the death or migration of tenant farmers unable to pay rents, the forests returned and according to one Amish farmer near where I live, the idea of "wilderness wastelands" was conceived to mean "full of wolves." Aberth (2013) explains how the terrors of the plague branded the wolf an evil actor in story and song forever in the minds of Germanic, Iberian, and English country folk. (2) Never mind the wolf was the first animal to be domesticated by man, represented now by a hundred or more individual breeds of domestic dog. The hunting dogs like my coonhound Bug are known for their wolf-like ability to track and stalk. She let me know she was on the trail of something worth chasing as we left the Charcoal Trail for an open meadow. Will I find a wolf tree here?

A tree with sharp teeth! Sweet Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
Wolf trees can be of any species that has grown spread out, hefty, and strong without competition in a pasture or edge-of-field. These are usually oaks in PA, but today we found a wolf tree with fangs! Bug nearly began to climb a Sweet Locust in pursuit of something living in a limb hollow when I realized she would impale herself on its seven-inch-long spikes! Ouch! Aberth (pg. 184-185) explains how farmers and game managers of the Late Middle Ages used locust spikes hidden in carcasses that, when consumed by a wolf, would puncture its throat, stomach or intestines. I wondered if German settlers employed such predator eradication methods here?

I quickly pulled her off the trail but not before she let out a series of LOUD bays and yelps letting the whole valley know that she was doing her job. We stepped way back from the Sweet Locust and I admired its dangling seed pods that rattled in the wind. The German farmer's cattle would have loved the sweet pods as they fell into the pasture below and the cow plops would have planted many more. The wood is tough stuff, however, and farmers readily harvested trees big enough to supply tool handles, door and window lintels, and insect-proof floor joists. Leaving a mature "nurse tree" to provide more trees in the pasture was a sound practice of ensuring a future of good, hard wood.

Young oaks suffering from an attack of cankers.
We followed the Fenceline Trail around groomed pastures and fields. Looking into the woods I spotted some young oaks struggling with a plague of disfiguring oak canker. These fungal infections look as if the bark has exploded outward like hit by a bullet or flying shrapnel. The trees won't survive, but are struggling, misshapen for now.  I found a few old Hickories that I would maybe consider wolf trees, but an old White Oak took the prize for growing one-sided toward the sunny field. I tried to give it the should-height hug but needed another person to complete the ring, so I figured this tree was at or just over a hundred years old.

Half a wolf tree. White Oak.

Skim ice forming on a catchment pond.

It was getting pretty cold by mile 7 so we decided to skip the final mile and cut down an access trail to the small parking lot. Even with her "coat" on, Bug was shivering. Coonhounds are slim by nature and have very little fat to insulate them. Without the luxurious pelt of her wolf ancestors, Bug really does need the extra care in winter. As she shivered, I knew it was time to call it a day and warm up the car!

The old Schoff dam was breached many years ago.

We wound around the old Schoff dam and did a quick sniff-about in the wetland below. Some more fox scat and a quick splash in the tiny stream and Bug was ready to pull me up the hill to the car where she knew heat and chicken jerky awaited! We finished our day hike at 7 miles not having completed a one-mile loop trail south of the old dam, but we'll leave that to start with on our next venture out to Wolf's Hollow.


(1) Jared Beerman's study and survey on Pennsylvania habitat for grey wolf survival paints a dim picture of any future wolves living in PA, but if it were a perfect world, the Commonwealth could support up to a dozen packs.  http://www.gis.smumn.edu/GradProjects/BeermanJ.pdf

(2) John Aberth. An Environmental History of the Middle Ages: The Crucible of Nature (New York, Routledge Publishers, 2013). 

Wolf's Hollow County Park (Chester County, PA) website contains some background history and a great trail map to print out, but I found the map box well stocked with copies on the back of the parking lot kiosk. http://chesco.org/1748/Wolfs-Hollow-Park

Monday, December 18, 2017

PA: Holtwood Oldfields and Coventina Rising

On this Sunday's walk with Bug the coonhound, we wandered the River Hills on the Lancaster County side of the Susquehanna. It was a short few miles to stretch our legs. This area has been heavily altered over the past two centuries. It isn't hard to go a mile in any direction and find spoils heaps from dredging behind the Holtwood Dam, power line right-of-ways cut brutally through the forest, borrow pits, and all sorts of water engineering from the dam itself to reservoirs and mill races. Now we are contending with new buried pipelines and expansions of natural gas pressure stations, a new natural gas plant, and local protests. In winter this area can look much more brutalized and isn't exactly a wilderness escape, but it can often yield surprising things. The temperature today was a balmy 48' F when we started out and when we finished (at a trot) it had dropped to a chilly 32'F in just an hour at mid-day.

Fog rolls over the hill - brrr!
The clues for this drop in air temperature hung over the river as we crested a hill along a stretch of trail that ramble through an oldfields section of the Holtwood Preserve.  A slight warm breeze earlier in the walk should have tipped me off, but coming over that hill, I was awestruck and not in a very scientific frame of mind, as a dark wall of river fog rolled up from the valley. Within minutes I was shivering in the cold winter fog as the light faded to dusk. Even the barred owls were fooled into hollering in the low light. This is the stuff of spooky stories, I thought, not very Christmassy!

Milkweed pod husks

I'd been snapping pictures of some of winter's bleakness - skeletal remains of a deer, crackling dry milkweed pod husks, patches of snow that remain from our December snow squalls - the kinds of vistas and visuals that would have interested Jamie Wyeth - so I was in that kind of mental space. I looked up from my snaps to see an Amish family with their English friends moving quickly through the field, having come up from the river. We exchanged our greetings and Amish Dad said "Getting really cold really fast down there! The woods should be warmer!"

Wyeth-looking snow patches
As I looked beyond them I could see the wall of fog rolling towards us. They drew their jackets and blankets tighter and hurried into the woods. I just sort of stood there staring. As the fog shrouded the oldfields, the temperature plummeted and dew formed on my binoculars, camera, even on Bug's black coat! Brrr! I immediately thought of the fog-rise of Celtic goddess Conventina, the keeper of watersheds and rivers, who - according to Roman mythologies I encountered while hiking Hadrian's Wall - would make her energy and power keenly felt in sudden, disorienting marine fogs and unexpected squalls. As the fog thickened, even Bug, ever onward the intrepid tracker hound, wanted to go back and follow the Amish family into the woods.

Skeletal remains of Common Mullein

Of course (she says confidently) I knew what was really going on. The great lake behind the dam at Holtwood had undergone its seasonal conversion. Warm and cold water layers had flipped, exposing the warmish air to cold water surface temperatures. The warm breeze I'd felt earlier, swooping in to the river valley was cooled to its dew point and a great cloud of fog had formed.  The lake inversion fog, called marine fogs along the coast, can be fast-forming and fast-moving. Within minutes the great cloud had enveloped the entire river hill and just as quickly, it rose and hovered a hundred feet over the valley, blocking the sun and locking in the the chill. It was cold! We didn't turn around but jogged into the wooded valley, towards the river. We kept jogging till we reached the old Holtwood Road, slipping and sliding down a steep bit of trail.

Mullein spike laid low

Jogging uphill to the Holtwood Arboretum certainly helped warm me up while Bug found a whole new class of roadside smells to stop and decipher. Scent-filled embankment slides of whitetailed deer, a squashed pile of horse poo, and the remains of a squirrel thrilled her coonhound nose. The few houses we passed were busy stoking fresh fires as pellet stoves and wood stoves scented the air with wood smoke.  We met up with the Amish family coming the other way. We stopped and chatted a bit, all of us a little warmer for our efforts to move faster. "Seems to me this is late for the river fog," said the elder woman, "These fogs usually start in late October and early November when the pond flips. But times are changing." Yes, they are, I agreed.

"English" and Amish families bundle up and move fast into the woods.

Amish farm women are great diarists and have for generations kept detailed records of seasonal changes. If anyone is looking for a great climate change history  project, as I mentioned in a recent NOAA workshop for climate data visualization, you can't beat farmers journals. I've seen an Amish woman's journal that goes back six generations and have often wondered if they might let me photocopy it. I'd need to find a translator, however, as it's in German.

Bug on a scent between fields

Our fast hike ended back at the car within the hour that we started. The inversion fog had lifted but the cold was bone deep. I blasted the heat in the car for ole' Bug who sat shivering. We stopped at the local chicken place to get her Sunday tenders treat and while standing in line to pay, a welder at the new gas plant - another sore spot in our much-abused energy landscape - remarked that the cold fog had come on so suddenly at the plant that they had to stop work for a few minutes until they could see. "It was downright spooky!" he said.  Coventina, the Goddess of Watersheds pulled a fast one today!

Cold fog lifting, there's new ice on the river.


Coventina can be found in museum collections along Hadrian's Wall. I found her in Carlisle and Wallsend. For some reason, she's associated with witchcraft, but I think she represents a beautiful Druid mythology that got mixed up rather unfairly in Roman and Christian assimilations. As the goddess of watersheds, she has a very scientific sensibility to me. On our summer's Hadrian's Wall hike we crossed the oldfields containing the standing stone that marks Coventina's Well near Carrawburgh.  See Wikipeadia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coventina
 Image result for coventina

Monday, December 4, 2017

DE: Bombay Hook, Prime Hook and the Morality of Conservation

I traveled to Delaware for a weekend stay with family and to attend a data workshop at the University of Delaware, Lewes, on Saturday. I had a few chances to visit both Bombay Hook and Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuges, favorite stop-over and wintering grounds of migratory waterfowl and other northern birds. I also had the opportunity to sort through some burning questions I have about the current state of conservation funding and support.

Short-eared owl glides over marshes at Port Mahon, DE

The coastal marshes of the lower Delaware River have attained rock-star status among birders from all over the country. But wintering birds are what bring in hardcore birders from around the world. We're lucky to have two excellent National Wildlife Refuges at Bombay Hook and Prime Hook just a forty-five minute drive apart. In between them as well as north and south of the federal lands are state-owned properties that connect conservation landscapes in a nearly continuous range of protection from the C&D Canal to the wild tip of ocean/river coast land at Henolopen State Park.

Snow geese abound both on water and inland.
Grandson Aiden spies a Great-Blue Heron fishing a freshwater pond.
Late November through March is owling season for us - we are, as a family, dedicated birders - and owls present a great challenge when the cold weather comes and the leaves are off the trees. We try to see all the owls that come to the Mid-Atlantic Region in winter, including our year-round resident owls. It's a challenge we've taken since I worked in raptor rehabilitation back in the 80s and 90s. I'm really glad the seasonal challenge now extends to a third generation.

Immature Coopers Hawk
Coopers Hawk
We watched Short-Eared Owls from the arctic glide moth-like over the great Delaware marshes and kept our eyes open for the many snowy owls that have been reported on this year's irruption migration. Marsh Hawks (Northern Harriers) worked the same marshes during the day and I was exceedingly distracted at the workshop by watching them coast over the marshes just outside the conference room! Though the light was low and a cloud cover made it difficult to capture the owls with a borrowed 600mm lens, I had enough raptor action on both days to feel really good about the wild spaces and places along this old river.

Red-Tailed Hawk
The whole while I was attending the NOAA workshop and visiting all the marshes with family, however, I couldn't help shake my concern for current attacks on our national public conservation lands. Severe cuts to Dept. of Interior agencies budgets are underway and are having immediate impacts on the staffing, enforcement, and maintenance of NWR lands, parks, and forests. After the workshop, my daughter and I stopped in at the Bombay Hook Visitor Center and spoke to two volunteers there who have traveled the country in their retirement volunteering for national parks, NWRs, and National Forests. "This year has been terrible," they claimed. They have been worried for the park system for many years, but it wasn't until they began accepting volunteer positions at NWR sites across the country that the impact of budget cuts was made starkly real to them.

Avocets, Bombay Hook NWR
Present White House administration ( I can't bring myself to name him) promises the most severe cuts to federal lands agencies in U.S. history - and that's not just his usual bluster and bravado. A proposed 12 percent cut in Department of Interior budgets translates to a loss of 4,000 law enforcement, interpretive, and infrastructure-related jobs.  The new Secretary of Interior Zinke promises that privatization of parks and federal lands will create new streams of funding and that increases in entry fees will help make up for lost federal dollars. Welcome to Disney-esque National Parks, the commercialization of our heritage and natural legacies. What is not stated -but demonstrated - starting with today's announcement that Bear Ears and National Monument will be severely reduced, is opening the way for drilling, mining, roads, and more (surprise!) pipelines.

Great Blue Heron hunting on the incoming tide.
I believe birds are like emissaries from a wild world that humans can only imagine. We know so very little about their lives and the day-to-day existence that defines their place in a greater ecological community - especially the places these northern birds come from. We do, however, impact their world in so many ways - ways that we can hardly wrap our heads around. There isn't a place or space we haven't had a negative impact upon around the globe. Yet they come, every winter, and bring wonder and awe to our world. The political wrestling taking place in Washington D.C. affects their survival on the North Slope of Alaska as it does here on the Delaware River shore, and the thirty-thousand snow geese I saw on Sunday have no idea.

Hooded Merganser displaying for a female.
Conservation is about us. The birds don't care that we are battling in legislative halls over privatization and the expansion of extractive oil and gas industries. We don't matter much to them. But when when conservation policy looses against the might of industrial lobbying, under the guise of "rights" and corporate power plays (money, money, money), it becomes a moral argument. Never mind lemming populations in the Alaskan breeding ranges of the Snowy Owl have plummeted 90% in the last decade. We don't know why nor do oil companies care. If we don't know and we don't care, all the easier to make conservation landscapes about the almighty dollar. How immoral is that?

Family on a morning walk at Bombay Hook.

As  I write this blog post there is a crowd gathering in D.C. protesting the actions taken by current White House Administration, a real estate developer, on the recommendations of Secretary Zinke, a friend of Big Oil and Gas. First Nations people, conservationists, federal lands employees, and people who care about our wild and legacy landscapes are marching to express their disappointment and anger. I have to admit that over the weekend, walking with my daughter and grandson out at Bombay Hook on a frosty, foggy morning, I was angry at the thought that this "Great Idea" of American conservation is under attack threatened with death by a thousand cuts and these dramatic, attention-getting declarations. It is war declared on our public lands. A great swirling flock of grackles undulated in coordinated flight overhead as a hawk pursued its morning meal. It was beautiful, loud, and stunning to watch. My anger transformed into pure emotion - no naming it - just jaw-dropping awe. The intercession of emissaries.

Immature Great Blue at sunset.

Hairy Woodpecker at dawn.
Present White House Administration is dedicated to two things: undoing the conservation efforts of his predecessor - a particular and peculiar obsession for an elderly man of privilege unable to manage his own willfulness and insecurity - and rewarding those people and industries "loyal" to him. The birds don't care. But the people who protect the birds and the land that they depend upon for wintering over do. As the volunteers in the NWR visitor center said to me, "it's demoralizing and sad." The word demoralizing stuck with me, since the idea of conservation is a set of moral principles upon which wildlands are protected for wildlife and future human generations. Gifford Pinchot and Teddy Roosevelt set that stage long ago and I wonder if they are spinning in their graves today.

Pintail drake.
Greenwing Teal drake.
Emma Maris writes in her essay, "Humility in the Anthropocene," that as a moral principle, the idea of conservation is at core a practice based in humility. "All that is our relationship with the rest of nature. To be truly humble is to put other species first, and our relationship with them second. We must not be too proud of our humility that we come to value it above other species. A  truly biocentric ethic puts the sea turtle's existence above the condition of the human sol." (1) And that is what the bluster lacks in a morally deficient White House - the humility to put others first - even if those others are seasonal visitors from the Arctic and non-human.

Bombay Hook NWR, established in 1937.
Delaware River from Port Mahon, with super moon rise.
Our ideas of conservation management have changed as our understandings of natural process have changed. We no longer brand fire as a bad thing. My daughter witnessed the control burning of grasslands at Bombay Hook last week and said it was frightening as well as scientifically necessary. They burn to benefit the native birds, mammals, and insects that depend upon the shortgrass coastal grasslands while eliminating invasive species that threaten to obliterate valued, biodiverse ecosystem.  Can our moral commitments change along with our scientific understandings to face the new challenges of corruption and poor policy? Those protesting in front of tonight's empty White House think so. I'd like to join them and lay a little char to the ground I'm standing for.


Emma Marris' essay appears in After Preservation ( 2015), an edited volume of essays on the future of conservation by Ben A. Minteer and Stephen J. Pyne, environmental ethics philosophers.

What is environmental ethics? Stanford's online encyclopedia of philosophy puts its nicely -
"Environmental ethics is the discipline in philosophy that studies the moral relationship of human beings to, and also the value and moral status of, the environment and its non-human contents to include ... the preservation of biodiversity as an ethical goal." https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-environmental/