Saturday, December 28, 2013

Forest Communities

Forests are much more than a collection of trees. Forests are landscapes of interdependency where roots interweave below the woodland floor and branches mesh overhead. The trees are the most obvious members of the community but look closer to see a complex and complete cycle of life and death and rebirth hiding in plain sight. I'll add to this page as I collect more forest-scapes.
Check back now and then!

Loblolly forest on the Delmarva.
Blackbird State Forest, DE

Sweet gum stand in a forest wetlands.
Cecil County, MD
Rich oak woodlands full of turkey and squirrel!
York County, PA
1940s soil conservation hedge, overgrown osage orange, now a linear woodland.
York County, PA

Fire-dependent pinelands.
Pine Barrens, NJ
Ravine forests of the Susquehanna River valleys.
Windfall of larger trees on steep slopes opens holes in the canopy for riotous growth.
York County, PA


Snow-covered old fields and succession woodland.
Adams County, PA

A vernal pool in a majestic beech and sweet gum stand.
Cecil County, MD

A dark hemlock stand.
The Hemlocks Natural Area, Cumberland County, PA

Friday, December 27, 2013

Industrial Strength Wildlands

The Lower Delaware River carves deeply into the shoreline from New Castle to Delaware City, even deeper, says local photographer Mikki Wilson-Bayard over the past decade. A lifelong resident and nature buff, Mikki has documented the ever-worsening erosion into Delaware's shoreline due to increasing frequency and intensity of coastal storms. We were walking historic New Castle's Battery Park through the post-industrial marshes in search of the snowy owls that have taken up winter quarters in this industrial area. One large snowy appeared suddenly and strafed the mudflats, creating quite an uproar with a hundred Canada geese resting on the flats. It flapped powerfully over the phragmites to perch on a factory building. A life bird for Mikke, we both cheered and did the obligatory dance!

Local birder and landscape photographer Mikki Wilson-Bayard.

This section of Delaware River shoreline is a mix of quaint historic towns, recovering wetlands, rotting wharves, and manufacturing plants. The oil refinery at Delaware City to the south marks the end of the down-river industrial zone that begins in New Jersey and ends within sight of our walk for winter birds. Beyond the refinery, the river widens and on both the New Jersey and Delaware shore, is protected by an immense system of National Wildlife Refuges. Invasive plants dominate the marshes and shrubby parklands. But the birds didn't seem to mind. We quickly identified over fifteen species before leaving the park for the trail, then added another dozen species shortly after we entered the marsh trail. Amidst the relics of an industrial past, the marsh sheltered great blue heron, mallards, coots, geese, a sharp-shinned hawk, and a marsh hawk (Northern harrier).

Several great blue herons sheltered in the marsh.

Two ring-billed gulls shelter inside a watchful flock of Canada geese.
A large male snowy owl powered down the shore, harassing this large resting flock,
keeping everyone on alert!

Shoreline erosion here is dramatic and sobering. Mikki talked about her project to document the loss of shoreline in the New Castle area. Rip-rap seawalls are being installed south of town. "There is no question this has everything to do with sea level rise," she said, "If anyone wants to dispute that, then they obviously don't live anywhere near the coast!"  The State of Delaware is taking climate change very seriously, and is wasting no time in debates or denial.

For urban families, parks like The Battery are important. Access to wildlife, the river, and open space is critical for industrial neighborhoods. The shoreline trail winds lazily through a post-industrial landscape overtaken by shrubby forest, vast marshes, and tidal guts. Relict pipelines, wharf cribs, piers, and odd collections of cement block and tires are part of what is now an enormous shoreline preservation project called "Living Shorelines" laid out and designed to soften the impact of incoming waves and provide valuable habitat for native mussels.

The view from Battery Park south to Delaware City to the massive refineries there.
In between, an equally massive shoreline restoration effort is underway.

Battery Park in historic New Castle affords urban families a beautiful riverside
experience in a landscape undergoing many changes.

As we walked along we discussed the merits of restoration in a highly impacted area. The viewshed certainly wasn't pristine, and it seemed that native and non-native flora competed for space with every step, with mostly non-native invasives winning. But we both agreed that the bigger picture was the shoreline itself, abused and battered over a century of industrial use, but resilient in a way that the wharves and factories hadn't been. The efforts of conservationists, many of them college students alongside construction workers, demonstrated a common concern for the larger problems climate change is bringing to the region.

What we were witnessing on this cold windy day in December was a transformation and a preparation to enhance and protect this vulnerable shore. Though the newly built rip-rap berms looked rough and out of place now, come summer students and workers will overlay the structure with soft fiber matting and plant native marsh grasses and mussels. With the refinery in sight, a post-carbon economy seemed out of the question for now, but where former industry had once captured and dominated the marshlands, there is now at least marsh and the possibility that with care and attention, this stretch of shoreline will recover.

A nice video from Rutgers explains the Living Shorelines concept:

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Susquehannock State Park

Perched high atop the plateau that overlooks the Lower Susquehanna River, Susquehannock is one of the smallest of the Pennsylvania State Parks system. The park covers just over 220 acres of forest yet maintains a commanding view over the 400' cliff that drops down into the oldest river in the East, making it a favorite for locals and visitors to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Susquehannock State Park occupies the high plateau on the Lancaster cliffs (left).
The Bear Island Complex, viewed here from the Norman Wood Bridge connecting
York and Lancaster Counties, is accessible only from the York shore (right)
and only by kayak, canoe, and shallow draft motor boats after ice-out!

The overlook is the main attraction here and is worth several visits throughout the year to observe the ever changing nature of the Bear Island Complex below. Bald eagles are common year-round and in the fall many migrating hawks soar at eye level following the river south. Winters can be brutal and from the overlook it is possible to hear ice cracking and booming on the river below.

Back from the cliffs, the park offers some rugged hill and valley trails that go in two directions: up or down. The aspect of hillsides to the sun's ray makes for some dramatic forest types with hemlock and rhododendron claiming the north slopes, and white oaks and beech trees claiming the southern exposure. White pines and red oaks top the rocky ridges, and tulip trees (Liriodendron tulipifera), giants in comparison to all others, grow massively on the bottoms.

A fresh snow defines the ramrod straight boles of Liriodendron tulipifera that
cover the valley bottoms. Healthy understory shrubs and young trees shelter beneath these
giants in the rich soils here.  
The tulip tree is named for the four-lobed leaf that resembles a tulip blossom. In the Mid-Atlantic you may hear the name 'tulip poplar' as well, but the tree is neither a tulip nor a poplar. It is an Appalachian  native, found throughout the temperate eastern states, the sole North American survivor of the Pleistocene glaciation that wiped out many related species, extinct relatives whose fossilized leaf impressions and seeds are common in late Cretaceous and early Tertiary beds around the world. I once found a tulip tree leaf impression in the thin red shales of the Beartooth Mountains in Wyoming, a reminder of the rich forests that once covered a landscape now clothed in grasslands. For our area, the abundant tulip tree is a living link with pre-glacial times.

Among the tallest trees in the Mid-Atlantic forest, the tulip tree
(also called tulip poplar by locals) can easily reach 100' and higher.

Today I was the only person in the park, along with my two active coonhounds. The trails were blanketed with several inches of fresh powder put down by a fast-moving Canadian Clipper system that swept through Pennsylvania during the early morning. The air was still and quiet. Only a few tap-tappings of a probing woodpecker could be heard. The old Landis place, preserved by the park service, stands shuttered at the trail head. It serves as a reminder that these woods were once fields part of a community of hill farmers who made their livings off the wealth of the land.

The Landis House, a classic Lancaster plastered fieldstone farmhouse
awaits restoration funding to provide stabilization and preservation.

The old house is itself a lesson in the land, since all the materials needed by its builder James Buchanan Long were procured in 1850 from the hills surrounding the site. Slate roofing sourced from across the river at the Delta-Cardiff slate quarries, remains in excellent condition. It is said that a well-laid roof of slate should last two hundred years or more. Chestnut joists and rafters, some with bark still intact, are stark reminders of a long-lost forest monarch, although throughout the park stump sprouting is common. Clay for the chimneys, glass for the windows, iron for the latches and hinges, all came from local clay and sand banks, processed at small kilns and foundries within an hour's wagon ride from here. Hiking along the rugged trails, numerous cellar holes and stone walls are almost completely reclaimed by nature. For kids, this is an exciting archeological adventure. Mapping, sketching, and journaling about these old ruins can be great fun!

Winter is a lovely time to look for bracket fungi.
Bjerkandra adusta (top) and Pycnoporellus alboluteus (bottom)
are common in hardwood forests.

A Natural View of the Mid-Atlantic

I've been a naturalist all my life, and while having spent much time tumbling around snowy mountain farms and forests of New England and mucking through swamps in the Southeast, I find that here in the Mid-Atlantic we have a wonderful blend of natural history that is all its own, yet deeply interconnected with north and south in ways that are surprising and rich. I hope this blog will help aspiring naturalists at home or new to the Mid-Atlantic discover the beautiful natural complexity that our region offers.

Source: Wikipedia
The purpose of this blog is to document, highlight, interpret, and celebrate the wild and varied natural history that can be found in the six states described as the Mid-Atlantic: Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Virginia, West Virginia, and New York. Depending on the source New York is often excluded and elsewhere Virginia is left out. Here, however, I include both NY and VA as sharing our region's distinct seasonality and biogeoregional similarities. This is a well-populated region, with some estimates suggesting that over 28 million people live here. A drive up I-95 from Washington D.C. to New York City may create the impression that not much nature survives the crush of humans living, working, and doing business in the Mid-Atlantic. But don't let the view from a car discourage you. This blog will point to some great places to visit and explore, even some in the midst of the human-altered landscape, that will change that impression quickly!

Mullica River, Pine Barrens, New Jersey.
Just a short drive from Philadelphia, Trenton, Wilmington,
and a nice day trip from Washington D.C. and New York.

I hope you have the opportunity to take a daytrip or a long weekend away to discover the interior as well as the far reaches of our region. Having a few kids along will only enhance the 'Wow!' factor and you'll soon discover that nature close to home has all the magic and intrigue of an exotic trip to a far-away place, while still being home for dinner and homework! This blog will include ideas for solo trips, adventures for families with children, trips and gathering for seniors, and even for the thirty-minute-lunch-break naturalist. Please share your adventures here with a comment or two. We can all learn from each other as surely as nature teaches us all.

The Appalachian Trail runs through the Mid-Atlantic and offers hundreds of jump-off points.

One of the unique characteristics of nature in the Mid-Atlantic is its adaptability to human impact. Understanding that there are trade-offs is an important idea to appreciate the conservation issues concerning species that have returned to heavily altered landscapes. There are opinions and encounters that may go against the grain of some. I recently spoke with an Old Order Mennonite chicken farmer on whose property a pair of bald eagles has nested for several years now. Though the road in front of the farm is packed with birdwatchers whom he welcomes, he deals with the eagle's predation on his free-range flocks year-round. Protected by law, the eagles have raised several many young  on the bounty the farm affords them. Meanwhile, the farmer is powerless though he wishes he could remove the eagles from his land. As a farmer I get it.

The 'Old Order Eagles' in New Holland, PA
There are trade-offs in heavily settled landscapes when nature returns.
Understanding this helps build appreciation for complex conservation issues.

This blog will serve several purposes:
  • To explore the nature of the Mid-Atlantic as close-to-home and accessible
  • To provide resources and learning opportunities for the aspiring naturalist
  • To describe species natural history at the intersection of human history and landscapes
  • To encourage participation in natural cycles and processes, not just simple observation
I hope you enjoy this blog as it unfolds. I will update posts as I collect good shots of featured landscapes, plants, animals, fungi. Check back often. And if you have a great picture or adventure you'd like to share, I'm happy to place it with proper credit of course!

I hike, fish, beekeep, plant a few things in the ground, build furniture, paint and write. Natural history permeates everything I do, at home and at work (agriculture education consultant). It's too good here in the Mid-Atlantic not to share! Let me know what you think.