Monday, February 5, 2018

DE Redden State Forest: Georgetown Tract, 5 Mile Loop

Returning from the annual Maryland Association of Outdoor and Environmental Education conference in Ocean City, I decided to hike the Georgetown Tract of Redden State Forest in Sussex County, Delaware, part of a multi-tract holding of state lands in the area and the largest. In keeping with this year's theme of Big Tree encounters I wasn't disappointed!

Loblolly, Shortleaf, and Virginia Pines.
A sand road double-loops around the forest but first-time hikers be warned - there are no trail markers of any kind except for the educational trail entrances along the loop road. I took a screen shot of the trail system on my phone and checked it at all intersections. I made a 5-mile figure-8 that included the educational trail. Keep in mind that this is a working forest and there are all sorts of management regimes at play from thinning to selective harvest to clear-cutting. It is an education to see the many ways a forest can be managed for lumber, habitat enhancement, or to protect biological treasures.

Pitch Pine, Pinus ridiga

The educational trail section seemed to harbor all the big tree species and from this foot path I was able to spot enormous Pitch, Virginia, and Loblolly Pines, sometimes all in one view. The weather was very grey and photography was a challenge with poor light. The dark trees back-lit by bright but cloudy skies made it hard to distinguish species. I do want to go back when things are blooming and budding as there was so much along this trail in the wet woodlands and slightly higher sandy hummocks that warrant another look.

Boardwalk over wet areas on the educational trail.
Big Tree Champion marked with a tiny ribbon and nail - Pitch Pine, 93'

Bird life was minimal with only a few White-throated Sparrows and Chickadees working the thickets along the road edge. Although I heard Pileated Woodpeckers calling throughout the forest, it was easier to find evidence of their being here by the many de-barked dead pines as they search in winter for beetle grubs. It was cold and dark, so if I was a bird, I'd stay fluffed up and snoozing in some protected hiding place in a Holly or thicket. So I gave the birding a pass. As dark and foreboding as the forest seemed today it's interesting to remember that this, like so much of our Mid-Atantic forested landscapes, was once open farm fields.

Pitch pine cone with a sharp spike per seed scale.

The main 250 acres of state forest complex that holds the old lodge, former stables (educational center), and ranger's office (an 1800s farmhouse in the classic Delaware "Dutch" style) was once a working farm. As I walked through the surrounding woodland I observed all the different ways the forest is managed such as pine plantation for lumber production so densely planted that no understory can grow in its shade...

Pine plantation for lumber, a monoculture.

 ... to selective harvest tracts for loblolly. This tract has a great understory so it will be very birdy come spring migration time in a few months. Deadfall is an important aspect of maintaining a rich insect and predator population, so old limbs and fallen trunks are left in place. Warblers, woodpeckers, and other insect-eating birds help keep insect pests in check.  Soils are enriched by rotting deadfall and wind-thrown trees that help create water catchments in root holes.  Selective harvest forests can be wildlife havens and its clear the foresters here manage for just that. As beautiful pineland habitat, Redden State Forest is on Delaware Audubon's Birding Trail for its rich southern forest bird populations. I can't wait to come back in a few months to stalk Summer Tanagers, Worm-Eating Warblers, Red-Headed Woodpeckers, and Vesper & Grasshopper Sparrows.

Selective harvest tract of Loblolly Pine.
Water basins form in the root hollows of toppled trees.

There are areas that are managed as grasslands where clear-cutting has helped create openings. These openings may serve as future woodland nurseries if replanted or may be kept open as fire breaks or habitat for open land and edge species like white tail deer. I heard a deer go crashing through the woods as I rounded a bend to this open area but I never caught sight of it. If the weather hadn't been so threatening, I would have stayed a while at this meadow to watch for hawks hunting from the young pine woods across the field.

Open grassland from a clear cut.

The decrease in populations of Bobwhite Quail over much of its former range is thought to be the result of the loss of persistent openings such as this, so its always encouraging to see meadow and field being protected for grassland species. Historically, the pine woods of the lower Delmarva region were highly valued. Shortleaf Pine was the most prized wood for furniture, home, and ship building and it didn't take long for lumbering interests to clear the sandy southern counties right up into the 1980s. In many southern states the Shortleaf is receiving special restoration attention, including in Delaware. In 2007 the Shortleaf Pine Initiative began and in twenty-two states multiple agencies and private landowners are working now to re-establish Shortleaf Open Woodland and Savanna.

Open woodlands of mixed pine and hardwood.

A flash of black and white rocketed through a beautiful mixed stand of Pitch Pine, oak, and gum. I knew in an instant that my presence had flushed a large Pileated Woodpecker and only a few hundred feet further along the Educational Trail, I found his project tree. The bright orange inner bark of a dead pine revealed he'd been at work for a few days. Large chunks of pine bark lay scattered about and hunks of inner wood on the standing trunk were blown out by his powerful hammering.  The undersides of the bark pieces showed bark beetle holes and the inner wood showed the tunnels eaten away by beetle grubs.  Standing dead timber is just as important for wildlife as standing live is to our lumber industry. Soon, this beetle grub buffet will host woodpecker cavities for nesting and after that any number of cavity nesters will take over the woodpecker homes. A fine tree indeed.

Pileated Woodpecker project tree.

The big Pitch Pines, black and almost non-photogenic against the darkening skies had captured my attention for the day however. Their massive trunks and wavy, unkempt tops grew this way and that. The wind was picking up and rain drops began to fall. The pine woods began to sing. Donald Peattie in his 1948 Natural History of Trees of Eastern North America writes poetically of this tree -

As long as our forests stand, as long as the trees march down to the sea or climb the wind-swept ridges, its dark plumy crown, its grand, rugged trunks, the strong, sweet, pitchy odor of its groves and the heavy chant of the wind in them will stand for something that is wild and untamable, and disdains even to be useful for man. (23)

Pitch Pine.

Take a screen shot or pic of this map to navigate the trails for the Headquarters (Georgetown) Tract.

Delaware Audubon's Birding Trail contains Redden State Forest and many other pine land habitats to explore.

Shortleaf Pine Restoration Initiative is a multi-partner project to restore this legacy pineland landscape and the many species of birds, mammals, and reptiles that depend upon it.

Peattie, Donald. (1948). A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. (New York, New York, Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Delaware Forest Service.

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