Thursday, October 29, 2015

PA: Middle Creek WMA, Lancaster Co. - Hiking the Furnace Hills

Pennsylvania has a long tradition of conservation and outdoor recreation. The PA Game Commission is one of the Commonwealth's agencies that works hard to balance the opportunities for hunting, fishing, hiking, and nature appreciation with the need for land management for wildlife. It's a delicate balance, for sure, considering how emotion-packed some of the user group issues can be. But if you know the fall hunting seasons (area closures), peak birding periods in winter (traffic-clogged roads), and wear your blaze orange in both of these seasons, hiking the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in northern Lancaster County, is a great day hike.

Check out the Visitor Center first for trail maps and beautiful displays.

I explored the Furnace Hill trail system, the Middle Creek WMA's segment of a long arc of ore-rich ridges of red sandstone. A combination of trails starting at the Visitor Center forms a nice 5 mile loop: Conservation Trail, Elders Trail, Middle Creek Trail, and a road walk back to the Visitor's Center that offers several nice views of the lake.  Other loops can be made using a section of the Horseshoe Trail, built in 1935, that passes across the ridges. Horseshoe Trail connects the AT north of Hershey to Valley Forge National Park near Philadelphia and is known as one of the premier long-distance equestrian trails in the East.

A cold front was passing over in the morning hours making for dramatic Furnace Hills views.

I started off on the Conservation Trail at the corner of the parking area. It features a large swath of restored grasslands and meadowlands and beautiful views of the valley. Sparrows were everywhere! White-throateds dominated the meadows and chipping sparrows captained the wind-driven edges of sumac and young maple. A brisk northern wind whipped leaves from the tulip poplar and beech trees in a fantastic yellow leaf fall for most of the day. After a  few hard freezes the only flowering plants remaining out on the meadows  are the purple asters and despite the chilly morning the cold-hardy bumble bees were busy foraging. 

Owl zone! 

The Furnace Hills are part of a large complex of iron-rich landscapes in the Pennsylvania Appalachian foothills that were critical to the Colonial iron industry. Many of the trails through this region are actually surviving Colonial roads that connected mining sites to charcoal pits (an important furnace fuel) to furnaces to industrial pikes and highways. It's important to remember that what may look wild and natural today was once an industrial landscape where few trees stood. The forests that now blanket the Furnace Hills are second and third generation woodlands.

Tulip poplar dominates the hillsides and creek valleys.

Walking along the old roads (i.e. trails) I met up with dozens of other hikers in family groups and small Sunday hiking clubs. Everyone was chatting away in German. "Guten Morgen!" was the happy greeting. It wasn't until I returned to the Visitor Center in the afternoon that I heard any English at all.   Old Order and Mennonite  are incredible birders and naturalists! Whenever I have the opportunity to practice my German I learn something from them. Today I learned that the barred eulen are getting active down in the low woods and to listen for one in particular that is a real show stopper.  Fall through winter is what we call the owling season when most resident species are courting and many northern migrants can be observed through the rural countryside of Pennsylvania. Resident owls include the great horned, screech, barred, northern saw-whet, and barn owls. By late fall and winter we can add northern species like short-eared, long-eared (though these do breed in north central PA), and snowy owls.

Clearly, the barred eulen who lives here disapproves of hikers on his boardwalk! 

The barred owl action began almost as soon as I set foot on the boardwalk that traverses the wet woods between the two ridges I would hike today. I saw him/her only once, a shadow shifting through a bright yellow curtain of foliage, an eulen shape quiet in flight but not in voice! How so much noise can come from a football-sized feathered creature I do not understand, but the owl's caterwauling and barking kept up all the way through the woods and ended when I stepped off the walkway. I waited for other hikers to come by to see if the performance would continue and sure enough a young Mennonite family ventured across the boardwalk escorted the whole way by the hollering eulen. The young children giggled with delight as their dad tried to mimic the owl which only seemed to agitate it even more.

An old iron furnace road showing managed shrub edges for habitat.

Out of the low woods I followed an old gravel road to the Elder Trail start.  Tiny peeps and chirps of early forming winter flocks of chickadees and tufted titmice drifted in and out of the edge habitat on either side. PGC maintains healthy edge zones for wildlife by cutting back the mature trees up to ten feet from the road edge. Though interior trails are not given such treatment, it was nice to have such a broad view through this forest. Numerous horse-drawn carts and buggies rattled along loaded with binocular-wielding birders and picnickers on their way to Sunday afternoon gatherings. The Elder Trail branched off on a two-track road that climbed to the summit of a ridge.

A trotting cart and horse canter up the Laural Road.

The names of the old furnaces are still found throughout the region. In some places the Colonial and Post-Colonial furnaces themselves survive. Upper and Lower Valley Forges, Coventry Forge, Warwick Furnace, Hopewell Furnace, Joanna Furnace, Elizabeth Furnace, Upper and Lower Hopewell Forges, Speedwell Forge, Cornwall Furnace, Colebrook Furnace, Manada Furnace can be found as place names. Cornwall and Hopewell Furnaces are restored historic sites that feature preserved iron worker villages and their original furnaces. Speedwell Forge survives as a restored red stone iron masters house and is a fine B&B. An industrial archeologist has determined that along the arc of iron-rich hills that sweeps from west of the Susquehanna River east to Philadelphia, over 40 forges and furnaces were in production from 1750 through 1820. As forge and furnace technology improved larger furnaces and plants replaced these and following the Civil War the large steel-making plant at Steelton was in full production while all others closed.

A Mennonite hiker shared some great local history information about this old iron road, now the Elder Trail.

I crossed the intersection of the Elder Trail and Horseshoe Trail and headed downhill along an old iron road. I met a Mennonite hiker coming up. He was a font of iron furnace and forge history - most of it shared in German. He drew on my trail map where, outside the WMA, I could find the remains of several Lebanon County foundries and furnaces to the north. He pulled a small point and shoot camera from his pack and showed me a recent find in the woods, the remains of what he called the New Market Furnace. I'll have to check that out, I told him. "Gut! Gut!" he said, "Before natur vernichten!" (Before nature consumes them!)

Horseshoe Trail and Elder Trail intersection on the top of the Furnace Hills Ridge.

Horseshoe Trail heads west along the Furnace Hills ridge on an old furnace road.

I'm not sure why the encounter with the solo hiker in black pants and suspenders slowed me way down. He went on his way up the hill in strong strides. I went on my way downhill. But he went up a lot faster up than I went down. I found myself almost inching along the old road. I wanted to see the landscape the way he did - full of hints and clues to its industrial past. The northwest wind played tricks. The bumping of limbs against trunks and branches against limbs became the thump and rattle of axles and wheels on these rocky wagon roads. Leaning trees squeaking against the boles of others became the sound of high-sided buckboards holding heavy loads of charcoal. The wind created so many voices in the forest that in my lazy stroll down the valley  it wasn't just me hiking, it was we - a friendly ghost kind of hike.

"Fedora" Mennonite family.

I explored an old cabin foundation, the chimney still standing and its mortar  showing clearly the impressions of log walls. I dabbled in a hand-dug well and spooked a large green frog from his yellow blanket of poplar leaves. Red sandstones and conglomerates  were easily quarried from these hills. Driving around the area you can see how beautiful redstone foundations of large German barns and handsome village homes. I stayed at the foundation for some time running my hands over the stone and tracing the deep impressions of the cut-end of logs in the mortar.  Deer moved quickly across the trail and what I thought might be a bear in the distance scramble up a slope - though by now my imagination was so active I well may have dreamed the bear. They are here, however, and from the many large boulders overturned along the trail, a bruin had in the past week or so come through looking for grubs, bugs, ants, and worms.

Chimney still contains log end impressions in its sides.

Autumn woods, especially on blustery days such as this, do play on the imagination. How many "sightings" of panthers and bears turn out to be feral cats and black dogs out exploring? How the mind wants to see wild things! We crave the thrill of seeing something rare or secretive exposed and when our minds create these sometimes fanciful and wild artifacts out of shadows and semi-stories, we feel the goosebumps raise and we shiver a little.

Black Oak on the dry ridge top.

Compared to what settlers may have found running wild in this landscape 350 years ago (and subsequently destroyed) we are only just beginning to see the return of species that our grandparents would never have dreamed of seeing out their farmhouse windows or while on their Sunday walks along the stream. Coyotes big as wolves (the Pennsylvania wolf sanctuary is not far from here), lumbering black bears, a bobcat. I've seen these animals in the Furnace Hills - some for real, others in my imagination -wishing they were as common as the squirrels and as loud as the barred owl. I want them back. I wish them back. As I neared the bottom of the valley within earshot of the creek I stopped short when I saw the bear. It shaped shifted into a black-clad Amish teenager walking along with his German short-haired pointer. I laughed (but shivered again!) and we said "Guten Nachmittag!"

Middle Creek Trail follows an old trolley grade.

The hairpin turn from Elder to Middle Creek Trail is easy to miss. I was still laughing at my imaginary bear when I realized I'd missed the hidden connector and wound up in a parking lot at the bottom of the valley. I retraced my steps until I found the trail, an old trolley grade. At a narrow wooden bridge that sits atop the trolley line bridge abutments I met two young Mennonite hikers exploring some ruins. They asked if I would take their picture with their point-and-shoot camera at standing in front of the old bridge.  "Opa remembers the obus that came through here. He will enjoy this photo. Danke!"  The trolley line ran through nine rural villages and connected many area farmers with markets in Ephrata and Lebanon.  Though it was only 22 miles long the trip from end-to-end took almost two hours! The trolley grade turned trail, however, is only a mile and a half to its terminus and soon I was hiking along on the main road for a final mile back to the Visitor Center.

Views of the lake with happy honking of newly arrived Canada Geese!

I took my late lunch on the tailgate of the car and looked out across the valley. Formations of Canada Geese were swirling around the lake calling to those hundreds already on the ground. Goose greetings were as happy as those of the  German-speaking hikers I'd met on the trail. Looking to the hills I tried to imagine the iron industry here and how it consumed the forests creating ecological wastelands in its hundred-year long wake. Danke! to the PGC and generations of conservation workers for restoring the view, the woods, and the hope that the wild is working its way back home.  


Time your visit carefully during fall migration as this place can fill up fast with birders and tourists, their cars lining the roads and filling every available parking space. Sunday mornings are the best time during peak migration to plan a hike here. Plenty of parking at the Visitor Center before 10, bathroom, and well-stock map racks! Save a little time to wander the museum. 

If you are coming from far away and want to stay right in the WMA, you can't go wrong with a few nights here!

Don't forget that this is a popular hunting area. Areas are well posted when they are closed for hunts. But always pack a blaze-orange vest or cap just to be safe. "Hunters wear orange and so should you!"

Friday, October 23, 2015

PA: Nixon County Park, York Co. - I'd Rather Walk

Autumn hillside, Nixon County Park, York County, PA.

I used to drive the lead Jeep in long caravans of 4WDs full of tourists visiting the South Carolina coast. We rolled over dunes, roared up barren beaches, and snaked through jungle-like lowcountry forests bedecked in curtains of Spanish moss. The sea island park I worked for made almost all of its money on these tours, so they were important if we wanted to take home a paycheck. As one of my first professional jobs in my early twenties, it's when I really began to dislike tourism. I still do.

Ruby-crowned kinglet, female.

I understand that many natural areas around the world wouldn't be what they are today without the money tourism generates. But the kinds of people who paid a hundred dollars or more for a Jeep tour to look for 'gators weren't the kinds of people I felt any connection to. And they certainly didn't spend enough time to develop any relationship to the landscape. There are different kinds of tourism of course, but I have my particular 'beef' with ecotourism. But after a recent trip to Acadia National Park with its packed tour buses with camera-wielding out-of-towners clogging roads and parking lots, I had to re-examine my dislike for all thing touristy in nature.

UK birders on a morning hike, York County, PA.

Near where I live there is a large Amish Market placed just off a busy interstate. Like in Acadia National Park, the buses can quickly clog the parking area and the sheer numbers of people can overwhelm the vendors and the space inside. I shop here frequently and have often wondered how the Amish bakers, butchers, cheese-makers, and produce sellers handle it.  I asked Susan at the bakery about the tourist hoards. She said "Yes, sometimes I feel like the attraction, and they don't necessarily buy much of what we sell. We rely on our local folks like yourself to sustain our business."

Savannah Sparrow.

I make a terrible tourist. I am not into resorts and I don't enjoy manufactured or fake landscapes. I don't feel the need to be entertained by guides or hired locals, and sure as heck wouldn't pay money for a tour when there is a perfectly good trail system nearby!  I just get out of the car and walk. There's something about the earth underfoot that can tell you more about a place than any guide. Having the freedom to stop along the trail and simply listen or look speaks volumes about the forest, farms, neighborhoods, waters, and people you meet along the way.  But my distaste for tourism runs deep and I credit those first few years on that beautiful sea island in South Carolina with stoking it. 

Overgrown farm road in York County, PA.

The people who paid over a hundred dollars to explore our remote sea island for a two hour Jeep tour had the money to do so, and this leaves travelers without such means to find places and experiences that are affordable and accessible. More affordable or free and accessible places tend to be better patrolled and policed: a good thing for the benefit of those environments. But those out-of-the-way places that cost a lot of money to visit? They are probably out of range of local natural resource authorities as well.  I used to collect those funds. Off-road enthusiasts paid the park hundreds of dollars in back country fees and private tour groups with their own 4WD expedition vans paid three times as much. Tour guides walked out with pamphlets that explained back country rules after they signed a piece of paper to promise they wouldn't harass wildlife.

Monkshood in October.

As leaders of our own tours, we were expected to demonstrate proper back-country travel protocol but I frequently observed permit holders busting over dunes for some 'air time' and once watched an expedition van loaded with "nature" photographers racing a flock of black skimmers up the beach - straight through a nesting area! There was nothing I could do except radio our HQ and hope the one back country ranger (usually on another island) could come by to investigate.  When a region depends on ecotourism to expose rare and fragile environments as economic privilege, the ecosystems suffers first and foremost. Additionally, the influx of ecotourism dollars rarely stems profitable  illegal activities such as poaching, logging, fishing, and resource extraction.   

A healthy young crop of chestnut oak forms a colorful understory.

Before I left my position as rookie ranger in South Carolina I asked permission to walk the island rather than drive it. My supervisor was intrigued. "Walk it?" he asked. "That's eighteen miles up and eighteen miles back." It took me three days. After working on the island for several years, I had never known the island as I did that week hiking it. What I experienced would fill a book. Two hours by Jeep failed to reveal the dozens alligator nests, osprey, eagles, owls, red-bellied mudsnakes, and glass lizards that lived just yards from the vehicle trail. I counted fifty sea turtle nests in places we hadn't even considered good nesting sand, far from the egg poacher's trails. I added ten new birds to  my life list. I watched dolphins cooperatively herd schools of small fish into mud cuts on the back island edge and sat for an hour counting clapper and king rails in a low tide marsh. I caught sight of my first American bittern staring at me from only yards away. I learned to "see" hawks and owls by the chatter of other birds. I began to understand landscape as an immersive experience. 

Nixon Park, York County, PA.

Shortly after my island walk we moved to Maryland where I began my teaching career and continued to work in natural resource education and law enforcement. I made it a point to never spend a full day in the classroom, taking classes outside for hikes in the woods or just around campus. With my park assignments I left the truck and patrol car parked and did most of my shifts on foot, though I worked with rangers who never left their vehicles unless they were writing a ticket or answering nature's call. I hiked with my young children on the AT or local park trails, fly-fished, rode bikes, bird-watched, camped. I never felt the need to travel to resorts or vacation-lands when there was so much to explore close to home.  And when I travel for work now, attending this conference or that meeting, I still make time to walk the landscape and to get to know it from the ground up. I'm a bit feral when it comes to striking out to the woods, mountains, rivers, and  I could easily go completely wild.

An October morning over the foothills of central York County, PA.

I often wonder how much more scientifically and culturally literate we could become as a society of pedestrians who chose to walk or hike compared to touring from inside a tour bus or SUV. I know that freedom from extravagant costs of exclusive resorts and access to privileged locations opens me up to actually putting my money thoughtfully into the pockets of those who work and live in the landscapes I want to explore. My guides are often the folks I meet along the way. Today while hiking at a local park in York County I met up with two nice folks from the UK who had just visited the busy Amish Market and were doing a little birding. I was happy to serve as their 'local guide' and direct them to a nearby hawk watch, the AT, and some great local eateries. (We friended each other on Facebook so that when I get to the UK they can return the local favor!)  "How beautiful to just spend this time and walk," Bryan said as he and his wife Kim topped a ridge trail to look over the view. "We find that in America you imagine more sightings of wild beasts and tend not to see the real ones." 

Bug and Annie hike with their noses.

The idea of being a tourist places me immediately outside an intimate experience of the land and the people who live on it. It's a temporary experience I need only endure for the scheduled time slot. Walking instead unhitches me from an agenda framed by the constraints of the short-term visitor and frees me to look for those things I would otherwise miss. Better yet, walking with my coonhounds engages a whole new world of scent and track that I would have missed completely had not they strained against their harnesses to follow some trail or sniff some sign. 


Debates over the pros and cons of ecotourism are held at all levels of conservation, biological science, economic development, and cultural preservation. But I think that a walk in the woods (not a movie about a walk in the woods) even and especially close to home can certainly be a personal trek well-grounded to the wilds of our own perception. Beyond the itinerary of a highly structured day or week as a visitor with limited time in a new place, pretending (even for just an hour or two) that your feet are striding on home ground can make all the difference, and for that experience alone I'd rather walk.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

PA: Waggoner's Gap, Cumberland Co. - Birding the Ridge

My favorite time of the year is now. The Appalachian Mountains are nearly at peak color and the migration season for birds is in full swing. I live just an hour from the famous Kittatinny Ridge that defines the top of the long hogbacked Blue Mountain  that runs 187 miles through Pennsylvania. The mountain is part of the Valley and Ridge region of the Appalachian Range and it rises steeply - almost suddenly - from the drop-faulted Great Valley region. It a barrier of sorts, though a very permeable one, to millions of raptors that come streaming south out of Canada and New England. The birds sail on the winds that carry them effortlessly southward against the north-facing slope of this wall of Tuscarora quartzite.

Entrance to Hawk Watch off of Rt. 74 (Waggoner's Gap Road) that passes through the high wind gap.

You simply cannot live in Pennsylvania and not be aware of the geology and geography of this huge state. What's more, the Pennsylvania naturalist is most aware of how geology and geography affect what kinds of plants and animals are found here, and how the changing seasons interact with landscape and wildlife. The mountains and river valleys determine how and why the winds funnel migratory species the way they do and if we can read these patterns correctly we can be in just the right place at the just right time for some spectacular encounters. Pennsylvania's many hawk watch lookouts are where to be when the winds blow just right - like today!

Blue Mountain rises like a sheer wall from the farming valley below.

Thanks in large part to conservation activist Rosalie Edge (1877-1962) the annual hawk slaughters that occurred along the Ridge (most horrifically at Hawk Mountain Lookout in the early 1900s) had been stopped by mid-century and hawk watching took its place. Now there are over a dozen well-attended lookouts along the Kittatinny Ridge from the  Delaware Water Gap to the Maryland Line. Waggoner's Gap is one of these and like the others it is staffed by volunteer spotters through the fall migratory period to count and record species and numbers of raptors. Blue Mountain funnels millions of accipiters, buteos, eagles, harriers. osprey and falcons on through great Appalachian Mountain chain that will carry them to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some birds will cross the open Gulf while others will join millions more funneling into Mexico and on to Central America.

Facing north to spot hawks coursing along the ridge.

The counts are very official, following protocol for identification and counting - and also very fun. The north wind made it feel more like an early winter day but it was just the "push" the migrating hawks needed to make hundreds of miles by sundown. The day's count from our lookout will be combined with counts from all the others along the ridge to add important data to a long history of hawk watching counts. This information will help ornithologists and conservationists to gauge how populations of raptors are faring. With solid conservation policy in place we know from these counts (which have been going on since the 1940s) that hawks and all their cousins are in pretty good shape along the Eastern Flyways. This is great news considering how some species like osprey and eagle were affected by DDT in the 50s and 60s.

Pennsylvania Audubon has done a great job with public education and signage. Well done!

When I found my place among the dozens of hawk watchers at the ridge, I learned very quickly what the landmarks were. "Over the red maple!" "Just above the oak!" "Look to the right of the mid-slope pine!" "There - above the big dip!" "Moving from the little dip to the big dip!" Hawks came in singles and in groups. Bald eagles were high above following the highest lift of the wind wave, while accipiters like Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks moved just at tree height - sometimes just over my head!

Trail blazes mark the way to the top of the ridge.

Just a note for folks new to hawk watching: The trails here are a jumble of sharp quartzite blocks and I suggest hiking poles for steadying your walk up. Plan on spending several hours if a hawk watch is underway, but it may not be a great destination for young children who could get pretty bored if they cant use binocs or a scope.  You won't have any trouble figuring out where to look with the spotters making their calls, though. Everyone pitches in, even the non-birders were calling out 'Bird!" so that spotters and more expert watchers can identify them.


Every notable Kittatinny Ridge lookout that I have ever visited, including lookouts along the Atlantic coast, have an Owl-On-A-Pole decoy. What self-respecting hawk wouldn't love the opportunity to take a swipe at an owl? Sometimes a very close encounter can be had - as happened today when a Cooper's Hawk took two dives at the owl while I was sitting only a few yards away!

Cooper's Hawk.

Throughout the morning Red-shouldered Hawks surfed the crest of the wind wave along the north slope and Red Tailed Hawks took up the space between the very high eagles and the sharpies at eye level. We caught sight of two Peregrines power-flapping across the valley. A pair of Harriers was observed making a move through the gap right behind us. I gave up trying to record all my sightings and concentrated instead on watching and photographing everything I could.

Bald Eagle, Third Year.

What may not be so obvious to the new hawk watcher is the person sitting near the spotters obviously not watching for hawks. Instead, they are hunched over a check sheet with one or more click-counters in hand listening to the spotters confirmations of species. The counter this morning was very focused on his work and I didn't see him look up until there was a few minutes lull in the action.

Red Shouldered Hawk.

If possible, the spotter will identify the raptor by sex, age, color morphology, and quantities (if in a kettle or flying with a scattered group). The counter will mark a chart on a clipboard and sometimes call out the current  total for certain species. "Up to ten Balds!" "That's our third Peregrine!" Many bird clubs and nature centers will post their totals for the day/week/month and season on their websites or at the kiosks leading to the lookout. You can check the day totals against other sites on   When you click on Waggoner's Gap you can see too that spotters count a lot more than just hawks! In my few hours on the ridge I heard spotters call "Monarch!" "Cans! (Canada Geese) 100!"and "Is that a duck?"

Bald Eagle.

 Our raptor conservation partners in the south are watching too! Last year, spotters in Panama had a record 2 million raptors pass overhead in one day. One of the ladies on the lookout today had been there. Jean described the spectacle as "just rivers of hawks, vultures, eagles, falcons flowing over our heads like water." She recommended I look at a video (noted below) that she brought up on her smart phone. I really couldn't believe what I was seeing!And as of this weekend the Florida Keys hawk watch station recorded an all time high for peregrine falcons for one day at 1600!

Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Before I left my rocky perch to stretch my legs on the Songbird Trail, I checked with the counter to confirm what I thought might be our highest count hawk for the day. He nodded yes, the sharp-shinned hawk was topping the list. This very small, feisty little hawk is the size of a Blue Jay. Coming by the hundreds of thousands through the mountain chain from the vast forested landscapes of New England and Canada (it breeds in PA too!) I saw about about a dozen before I had to get up and stretch.

Cooper's Hawk attacking Owl-On-A-Pole.

The best look at a hawk I had was the Cooper's Hawk that took a dive at the owl decoy. I was lucky enough to fire off a dozen pictures with my 400mm lens even before those around me could find the bird in their viewfinders. This bird was missing two of its primaries and I saw in the pictures later at home that the replacements had just broken the quill sheath and were popping out. This hawk will do just fine on its way south.

The Cumberland Valley.

The Songbird Trail looped around the Hawk Watch Lookout and meandered through a dry red oak and pine forest studded with patches of witch hazel in full bloom. This is the last of the blooming plants of the season, a small tree found near water or in hollows. The trail climbed the boulder path to a secluded overlook that looked south across the Cumberland Valley.  It appears all farms and woodlots far below, but the valley has a long military history in Pennsylvania. Not far away is the town of Carlisle, home of the Carlisle Army Barracks. The U.S. Army War College Library and the U.S. Army Military History Institute occupy a large campus in town. This valley was an important passage too for both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil Way, slaves escaping to freedom, and for waves of settlers heading further west.

Witch Hazel blossom.

The geologic history of the valley is much more complex and involves a system of fractures, faults, and limestone karst topography. It is not unusual for a stream to disappear underground and reappear miles away. South Mountain frames the southern boundary of the valley and here it is the northernmost tip of the famous Blue Ridge that extends all the way to Georgia. The hogback ridge on which I sat and ate my lunch, high above the Cumberland Valley, is still actively eroding. A small ledge of rock just a few yards from where I sat suddenly dislodged and splintered in half.

Tuscarora Quartzite lifted facing southeast - a classic 'hogback' ridge.

I continued down the trail to finish my hike at the parking area and the sharp features of the hogback softened as a wide lump of collapsed overhanging shelf. Lichen-covered and studded with small maples, the footing here was precarious as I stepped from shifting rock to tilting ledge. Where leaves were caught and decaying, pockets of soil had formed and supported small stands of young birch, a fast-growing pioneer.  Though the day was a little chilly for people, I had to remind myself that any good Timber Rattlesnake would be enjoying the warm sun above his den on such a comfortable ridgeline. The large Tuscarora State Forest  just west of here contains some of the healthiest populations of timber rattlers in the state, and though I really wanted to find one, I didn't.  As I neared the parking area I heard for the last time that day a spotter call out "Red Tailed Hawk above the oak!"

A collapsed section of hogback ridge - left slope faces north, right slope faces south.


See what "rivers of raptors" looked like on one November day in Panama, 2014.

Bird the Ridge! contains a wealth of information by site, region, day, and species - even down to the hour. Really take some time to explore this site to find the nearest hawk watch to you.

Friday, October 9, 2015


October is a fine and dangerous time in America, a wonderful time to begin anything at all.
- Thomas Merton

The first full week of October is drawing to a close and I am finally free from some pressing work at the office and a tight writing schedule at home - at last for a short time. Time to go out and see October.  In a way, my break out from weeks of sit-down-indoor-work was kind of like hibernating for two months. Then all of a sudden, it's October!

Variegated Fritillary.

We dodged a bullet last week when Hurricane Joaquin veered north and east, away from the Mid-Atlantic coast. The Southeast, however, was inundated days before the hurricane even began to move out of the Caribbean. Huge rain trains streamed over the South Carolina coast and into the midlands causing the most severe flooding in the state's history. Here, however, we had several days of moderate to heavy rainfall and no real flooding except on the Eastern Shore and Atlantic Coast in MD, DE, and NJ.  But we really needed the rain here and the ponds on the farm filled right up!

American Painted Lady Butterfly.

October in the Mid-Atlantic means huge migratory flocks of songbirds at night and great kettles of hawks, vultures, and eagles streaming over the mountains. I was able to keep up with all the action in my sequestration by peeking at Facebook. All of our local, regional, and national bird and wildlife organizations keep very active pages and members load the most amazing photographs and video. But Facebook can only satisfy this migratory maniac for so long! Out! Out!

Palm Warbler in fall attire.

The shimmering pond, ringed with cattail and willow, was just what I needed. Just me and the solitude and beauty of the season. Very different from a loud, often gossipy, and incredibly distracting work environment. I'd rather have the open outdoors alone than an open office full of people. Out here for the first time in many weeks I felt the stress and screen-fog melt away.

Buckeye Butterfly.

I wish there was a way to post the scent of this walk around the pond. The pungent beehive smell of a nearby honey bee nest (I think in one of the wood duck boxes?) permeated the banks of flowers and grasses as the bees worked hard to collect late season nectar. Autumn butterflies, wasps, beetles, bee-mimic flies, and dragonflies blanketed the whole scene, sweet with the blossom smell of asters.

Monarch Butterfly.

The most common butterflies today were the Buckeye and the migratory Monarch.  Monarchs were traveling from across the wide soybean fields in lazy-flapping pairs and triples to congregate here at the pond, possibly their last stop to feed before leaving the head of the Chesapeake along their flyway to the southern states. There were hundreds!  And then the late season dragonflies! As red as an October sunset...

Ruby Meadowhawk.


O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow's wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes' sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes' sake along the wall.

Robert Frost