Sunday, January 28, 2018

2018 Big-Tree-A-Week Catching Up

With winter conference season in full swing, my New Year's Resolution to find a Big Tree every week has already suffered from not having the time to go out. But this weekend made up for my two weekends lost so far by making an afternoon of a search to easily accessible/ short walk Big Trees in the Contested Borderlands along the Mason-Dixon Line.

American Sycamore, Planatus occidentalis
At the head-of-the-Chesapeake stands this 117' American Sycamore - literally a hundred yards from my office (when I'm not on the road) at Swan Harbor Farm County Park in Harford County, MD. As a half-day youth birding event ended, I locked up the office to go on my "three hour tour" for Big Trees.  I started by walking two minutes to the east. Voila!

Trunk and crown - a regal old soul!

This particular tree was measured by an old conservation friend of mine, Charles Day, many years ago. Charles introduced me to the work of Aldo Leopold back when I was a rookie ranger in another park north of here. He came through our park to do some measuring for nominations in 1986 and shared his copy of A Sand Count Almanac (1949) with me. Looking up into the crown of this gorgeous white tree reminded me of the Land Ethic, Charles, and the challenging history of the borderlands, which this old tree-soul would have certainly witnessed. Estimated to be around 350 years old, this tree was youngster when Thomas Cresap triggered a regional war between Pennsylvania and Maryland settlers. The furthest south of my Big Tree finds today, it stands at the mouth of the Susquehanna River, where only a few miles upstream much blood was spilled in the early 1700s.

My four Big Trees are red-starred - map source: KMusser PSU

Cresap was a scoundrel, gang leader, land swindler, and to some (including me), a terrorist. This tree did not grow in the contested borderlands but being just south of that area the people who lived in Havre de Garce would have been very worried about the violence spreading down river after Maryland gave illegal title to Cresap for 500 acres of prime western Susquehanna land in Peach Bottom (where I live now). It's strange, but even today Peach Bottom can sometimes have a feeling of disunion and foreboding about it. It doesn't help that for the past 12 months, confederate battle flags seem to have blossomed like tulips on both sides of the PA/MD border adding to the ongoing political and racial tensions that began in Cresap's time.

Eastern White Pine, Pinus strobus

My next Big Tree involved a twenty minute drive and a short steep walk up through the Harford Bowmen archery range at Susquehanna State Park. The park gets one red star on my map because this tree and the next, a black walnut, are not too far apart as the crow flies. I am wishing I had something to place in front of these trees as I take their pictures, because this double-stem white pine was enormous at its base. Next time I'll bring my red MountainSmith waist pack, but the kiosk and park property sign do bring some sense of scale. The enormous double trunk stems do not compete much with each other for sunlight and they send their limbs beautifully in opposite directions leaving the inside of the V open and airy. But where there are cross-over limbs the sound of wind through that V was like listening to a viola!

Like listening to a wind-instrument standing at the base of the V

This big pine measures 165 inches around at breast-height, just before the trunk branches off - almost 14' around! That's one big wind-instrument! White pines can easily live to 200 years old and it is fun to imagine some browsing deer nibbling off the highest terminal bud of this tree when it was just a sapling. The absence of the main terminal bud forced the adjoining lateral buds to branch, creating this magnificent double-trunk. The old trick of counting branch whorls to gauge the age of the pine clearly doesn't work. Without a core sample, I estimate this old soul to be about 250-275 years old. White pines like it high and cool in these Mid-Atlantic parts, so they are commonly found on ridge tops and higher hillsides that get cooler temps in summer. They were pushed south ahead of the last  ice age and have reclaimed all that ice-covered landscape to north, while in the south the range extends only down through the Appalachian Highlands and just along the coast to North Carolina.

Black Walnut, Juglans niger

A few minutes drive north along the river to the picnic area and I found my next Big Tree in Susquehanna State Park. There are a lot of Big Trees in this park but will require a day of hiking next time. Today I only had a few hours. I was happy to see a picnic table for scale and Lo! this tree has a very nice sign to denote its Big Tree status. According to the stats, this Black Walnut has a circumference of 139 inches - almost 12 feet around. It was said that Mr. Cresap cleaved some guy's skull with a walnut-handled axe in this area, so I kept my eye on the woods for his descendants and as I studied the forest edge for possible terrorists I saw this guy...

Red-Shouldered Hawk

...who kept a wary eye on me. There is a large stick-built nest in a tree a few hundred yards down from the Black Walnut and since I studied red-shouldered hawks in nests some time ago when we did fledgling banding in SC, I think I'll come back to this spot just around bud-burst time in late March and see of this isn't a RSH nest. There's just too much to see here and it seems almost a crime not to spend more than an hour walking around the picnic area.

Trunk and crown of State Champion Black Walnut

My next and last stop for my contested borderlands Big Tree romp was upriver, just north of where I live and centrally located in Cresap's zone of terror.  As peaceful as this land is today, the grounds of the Indian Steps Museum in York County were ground zero for Cresap's Army of thugs to make war on Pennsylvania settlers and native folk. Just upriver in Long Level is where he and his gang built a fort. This PA state champion American Holly looks as if time and age are taking a toll. The weather started to turn cloudy so my picture seemed kind of sad when I got home to review these shots.

American Holly, Ilex opaca
With a nice ring of post and chain around its base and a fancy early 20th century brass plaque, I'm sure that another contender has now taken its place as state champ, maybe the big holly at Longwood Gardens may now have the title.  Check out the newspaper clipping and stats for this declining big tree here:

Trees have lifespans and though it would be great to imagine them being here to witness all of the human history on this land - the old ones are the exception and a few centuries is the best they can do. Almost 8 feet around, this American Holly is pretty big for its species. There's a trick for gauging the age of slow-growing trees if you have the circumference at breast height (CBH) which always found on the Big Tree data sites.

Take the circumference in inches (90 in.) and multiply by 2.54 to convert to centimeters (228 cm). Tree biologists and foresters have done the math on this one, so trust them - that the slow growing Holly growth rate is about 1.25cm per year. Divide 228 by 1.25 and we can estimate that this tree is approximately 180 years old. You can do this for most tree species if you know their growth rate/year which may be as easy as a Google search, but know that there are many variables and any calculation is simply an estimation.

This Holly was a sapling in the 1830s - about 60 years after the Mason-Dixon Line had been established to bring Cresap's War to an end.  Cresap was captured and tried, then sent packing to western Maryland where he continued to stir up trouble with his self-styled militia group. This tree never met Cresap or his men but has witnessed a lot since then including the night movements of former slaves into Pennsylvania along the "River of Freedom" from the 1830s through the 1850s and the movement of Union troops to Wrightsville where citizens burned their own bridge to prevent confederate troops from invading their river town if the Battle of Gettysburg had ended differently.

A riverside Sycamore, battered and shaped by ice.
Meanwhile on the river, the ice is crashing and tinkling as ice out begins. Time flows on and we and the trees come and go...


Pennsylvania Big Trees
Maryland Big Trees

Thomas Cresap is a conflicted character all by himself and while not even considering events and effects of his tactics to grab land for Maryland, no historian has yet been sure enough to label him anything but slightly mad and always angry about something or someone to the point of violence. He's portrayed as either a patriot or political terrorist, a gang-leading thug or a man of liberty.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

MD Elk Neck State Forest: Planting a Biological Garden

This week's extreme cold kept most birds hunkered down except for around my feeders at home and any open water remaining on the Susquehanna so I ventured out to study the forests at the edge of transition. Bundled up against the cold wind I headed over to Elk Neck State Forest in Cecil County, Maryland. Off of Old Elk Neck Road a few miles south of Rt. 40, a new arboretum has gone in and I heard that I could see a very impressive red cedar (Juniperius virginianis) that I could add to my 2018 Big Tree Hunt. But first...

A Maryland Big Tree Champ: White Oak at the Brick Meeting House, Cecil County
On my way to Elk Neck, I stopped the historic Calvert Brick Meeting House, a Friends (Quaker) meeting near Rising Sun, MD, to check out a huge White Oak, Maryland's State Tree. I could really study the architecture of this magnificent oak with a confirmed spread of 130 feet! At 96 feet high and bare of leaves I could really see how the big limbs counter-balanced each other. While I stood gaping at it, I also counted ten species of birds that visited to search for food or hunker on the lee side out of the wind.

Can't wait to revisit this old oak when the leaves come on!

The meeting house just behind has been in continuous use since 1709 and still offers First Day (Sunday) worship on the first and third Sundays of the month. The land was originally ceded to create a Quaker community in the highly disputed borders area by William Penn as a local land grant. The tree, according to the Penn's Tree Committee of the early 20th century, claims that the tree was present at the time the original (then brick) Meeting House was built, over three-hundred years ago. I tried to give the tree a hug but my arms wouldn't go even a fraction of the way around. So, I just gave it a pat. On to Elk Neck State Forest ...

Red Cedar,
On arrival I was greeted by a handsome red cedar. Beautiful! John Bennett, coordinator of the Maryland Big Tree program, kindly sent me the specs on this champion. It was last measured in 2011 and  at that time had a trunk circumference of 8 ft. 3 inches (99 in.) and a height of 67 feet. Now you know at this point, in the below zero temps, my rewilding heart was jumping for joy and keeping me plenty warm as I walked round and round and imagined a grass savanna with a herd of elk cooling off in the tree's shadow.  The tree, minus the elk, scored 174 points on the Big Tree scale.  I dashed back to the car to thaw my camera. Yes. My camera froze.

Broomsedge takes over on old ag fields adjacent to the  arboretum site - looking like it needs some elk.

Humans have been keeping and maintaining biological gardens as long as there has been agriculture - about 9,000 years. The purposeful planting of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers in collections have enhanced our understanding of ancient cultures. They serve, too, as a window into how we value plants as educational, genetic, and aesthetic resources.  Arboretums are collections of trees and shrubs and they have long captured our botanical attention.  There are so many fine arboretums throughout the Mid-Atlantic that it could take a year of weekends to see them all - maybe a 2019 New Year's Resolution?

Black Birch: dark bark

I've visited a lot - from the National Botanical Gardens and Arboretum in D.C., to Longwood Gardens (omg!) in Kennet Square, PA, the Tyler Arboretum in Media, PA, the Morris Arboretum in Philly, and  the Adkins and Cylburn  in Maryland, not to mention the many fine university arboretums in our six state region. There's even a small (but now neglected) arboretum preserve in Holtwood, PA, near where I live. It was part of a the Holtwood Dam preserve and at one time was the pride of the Holtwood community. Professional arborists and a team of knowledgeable foresters took care of the 2,000 woodland preserve and arboretum for many decades. Now, however, after a succession of power company buy-outs and conglomerations, the current owner, Talen Energy, has no interest in maintaining the arboretum, community ball fields, pavilion, nature center, pollinator gardens, and trails. It makes me sad to go there now, because the pride of stewardship is gone, but at least the land is under the management of the Lancaster County Conservancy after the community raised a ruckus two years ago.

Willow Oak: flat-topped furrows

This was my first visit to a new arboretum, a just-planted tree collection, a first for the Maryland's Forestry Service. Now that my camera was thawed and working again, I took the figure-8 path through the mature woods and the open area and studied the newly planted with saplings for their buds, fruit, and structure. I have a fairly large photo file of winter tree trunks that I've been keeping as reference as an ID and illustration aid for years now and this little trail provided me with several more for the collection. Information tree ID signs are found throughout the arboretum (lift up for natural history).

Sweet Gum - alligator- hide scaled ridges

This is an interesting observation: one of the newest arboretums is within an hour's drive of the oldest botanical garden and arboretum in the country at Bartram's Garden in Philadelphia. I kept this in mind as I trekked through the snow thinking what a great summer visit to Bartram's place will be. Thinking warm thoughts. Many of the arboretums and botanical gardens in the eastern region of the Delaware/Maryland/Pennsylvania area were started by or on land owned by Quakers in the early 1700s, like the Bartram family.  Many fine Quaker colleges have maintained their own arboretums  like Bryn Mawr and Haverford. Some Quaker arboretums ended up as state parks throughout the region.

Scarlet Oak - stripey furrows

Aside from their colonial and religious founders, arboretums serve as important research sites today in natural history and climate science - although many universities struggle to staff and maintain them. Gropp (2003) surveyed the decline of natural history research resources and found that herbariums, native plant gardens, specimen collections, and campus-based natural history museums are facing daunting financial challenges as funding is redirected towards other biological programs including genetics and microbiology. Though the study is over ten years old, the situation for campus biological collections including arboretums, has not changed. It doesn't look to get any better any time soon. 

Swamp Chestnut - loose and scaly
Persimmon - checkered

Possumhaw - black berries waiting for robins

At the same time that institutions threaten to close or shutter natural history resources, scientists and their associations that work with ex situ collections for conservation work are raising their voices about the importance of living biological collections (like arboretums) as "arks" of preservation. From a study by Havens et. al. (2006):

"Gardens can support habitat protection directly by owning or managing natural areas, or they can contribute to in situ conservation efforts indirectly through research, advocacy, and outreach programs. Stewardship professionals face many practical challenges that can be approached using ex situ techniques. When habitats are degraded and lose diversity, ex situ facilities can provide landscape species for habitat restoration, threatened taxa for reintroductions, and often the skills and resources needed for effective reestablishment of species. Conservation efforts for individual species should, wherever possible, be integrated with regional conservation plans for ecosystems as well as suites of species. As habitat declines in quality and quantity, the species load for ex situ management increases. As a result, gardens and other ex situ facilities will increasingly need to coordinate ex situ responsibilities with habitat restoration."

Hackberry - squiggly!

American Hornbeam -chickadee ladder
Blackhaw - bird beak buds

I have to check with the local forester to discover what the purpose for this arboretum will be and whether the State Forest folks plan to create educational programming around the collection. My conversation with John Bennett about the champion red cedar here prompted an invitation to attend a local forestry board meeting which I did a few evenings after. It was a hoot. I learned a lot and had time to catch up with an old friend of mine from my DNR days (in a previous century).

Pitch Pine - an eager pioneer for old fields
Mountain Laurel - growing wild just inside the woodlot

Whatever the purpose of the arboretum will be, whether educational or ark, it's clear the forest service is investing in it. A clean restroom, great parking, kiosks, benches, and an excellent level, short trail make this a nice place to visit for an hour or two. BUT - I was so cold by the time I walked the whole trail - about a mile total -  I could barely shuffle up to the parking area. The camera had long ago frozen and I was hoping my cell phone camera could capture the one bird I saw here - a Carolina wren. It did. Once back in the car I watched as a young man (also with camera in hand) bolted from his car to take a few pictures of the Black Haw berries. I think he got two pictures before I saw him knocking on his camera and mouthing angry words. Frozen in time...

Carolina Wren


The Penn Tree Committee, a group of foresters and historians who dedicated to finding and documenting the oldest trees in the original grants of William Penn, published a book in the 1980s, "Penn's Woods 1682-1982." This might be a fun book to hunt down and add to the 2018 Big Tree Hunt materials. It places the Brick Meeting House oak at 300+ yrs. of age at the time they surveyed.

Gropp, Robert E. "Are University Natural Science Collections Going Extinct." 
BioScience. Vol. 53, No. 6 (June 2003): 550
Havens, et al. " Ex Situ Plant Conservation And Beyond." BioScience. Vol. 56, No. 6 (June 2006):  525–531.

Monday, January 1, 2018

PA Long Level, York County: A Very Tiny Hike with A Big Tree!

Happy New Year 2018!

Thanks for all the readers and followers I've had all these years - I hope you've been inspired to get out there and have some adventures mixed with history and science and good friends along.  I hope you have some great hikes in the works for 2018!

Today I snuck out for sunrise (-3'F) while Bug slept in, cuddled in her blanket. Later in the day we went for a short hike at Kline's Run Park in Long Level on the Susquehanna. Her short coonhound coat is not very good at keeping her warm, so she wore her camo jacket but was still really cold (12'F) so I kept our hike short to about a mile.

Just before sunrise, my first day out of the house in a week due to a Christmas cold, headaches, and asthma (it's a package deal every time...) and it's - 3 degrees Fahrenheit on the bridge over the river, but I jump out of the warm car anyway and snap a picture. I'm reminded of how this was all sea bottom before the Big Collision between North American and North Africa...

Ancient seas had preserved their histories in rocks.  In time, those rocks themselves would be preyed upon by newer seas, eroding history away again. But enough would survive to tell of life by then vanished, of the endless cycles of climate change and of the hidden poetry of our mutable world. 

 -Richard Forte, Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth (1997) 

Looking  at the river rock contrasted by its dark color and the snow laying in layers I remembered the first fossil I ever found "in the wild" not far from here - a chunk of sandstone that contained hundreds of tiny fan corals and crinoid sections. I was eight. That was the beginning of my love affair with natural history and science history. I still have that hunk of stone, come to think of it...

Ridgetop woods.

I thawed out with the heat on high blast in the car as I drove across the bridge to Susquehannock State Park for the sunrise. A group of Amish teenagers, their dad, and granddad were there to greet me "Alles Gute für das Neue Jahr!" ( All the best for the New Year!) - so I'm glad I didn't bring Bug because the carriage horses were right there hitched to the overlook fence. She would've had been a nutcase barking and baying at them and might have ruined the peace of the sunrise for everyone.

A peak at the Cold Cabin community.

About twenty minutes was all I could do but I did get my First-of-Year birds at the top and below. In the woods walk back to the car I spotted a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet in a holly tree at the ridgetop then a Belted Kingfisher at the river walk below. As the sun rose a little higher a delicious mist began to rise from the river. I could see the Cold Cabin community between Turkey and Wolf Islands. Smoke was beginning to rise from the chimneys and I watched a duck hunter wade out (!!!) with his decoy set for a day of hunting.

Gray and red fox tracks?

The river walk makes a great place to find tracks in a light snow and this morning was no exception. A small set of running canine prints made straight away for a leaning, hollow sycamore back from the edge of the river, while another larger set of canine tracks loped diagonally across the smaller prints. I can only assume that this is a gray fox heading for the tree, while the red fox came and returned to a hillside of talus stones. They had more sense to stay in their warm dens than I did down on the river! Gosh it was cold.

Decoy spread near a river blind.
Back in the high blast heat of the car, the exterior temperature read a balmy 0' F (up three degrees!).  Lots of snow and Canada geese were resting far out and an ice fisherman parked and sat in his truck sipping a hot something.  The duck hunter was well ensconced his blind on the bank.  The sun was catching the tops of the highest trees in the valley.

First ice fisherman of the day arrived at sunrise and 0'F.
Full dawn lights up the River Hills.

With full dawn now illuminating the river valley I drove up the wiggly river road to the crest and looked across as ice snapped and groaned on the river. This small amount of sunlight was enough to start the ice-a-poppin and the sound echoed back and forth across the mile-wide Susquehanna like a Star Wars sound effect. There were all those ocean bed layers lying one against the other like a deck of cards laid on edge across the river - how many millions of years did that deck of cards represent?

This history fingers back through hundreds of millions years, not an evolutionary tree so much as an evolutionary forest, and every branch possibly, or possible not, recorded in the rocks.
- R. Fortey (1997)

Old Bug gets her First Day walk and she's happy for the warm car after a mile.
Come afternoon when the temperature had rocketed up to  5'F I asked Bug if she was ready for her First Day walk. Off we went - me coughing and she shivering. Troopers. We drove a few miles up the river and looked at the frozen expanses across the Turkey Hill water gaps, where river hydrologists have tracked the river running at depth through a deep slot gorge at the bottom that has yet to be precisely measured, but some hypothesize that 200' at bottom is conservative. Before the big dams downstream were built, this was an area of deadly falls, rapids, and swirling potholes.

Turkey Hill Gaps - site of the deep gorge.
Looking north towards Columbia-Wrightsville Gaps.
Canal towpath trees.

At Kline's Run we explored the river bank. The ice has only just formed here so no dramatic pile-ups yet and compared to the river islands below, the wide frozen expanse was very quiet. We walked a section of old towpath and Bug had to explore each Red Maple multi-stem clump for all the smells. 

Then - What! We found the York County Champion Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)! At last measurement it had a circumference of 116 inches and a height of 80 feet. I know of another BC that may be bigger but have yet to send in its measurements for nomination. You don't find Bald Cypress this far north unless they've been intentionally planted so its kind of a treat to see one growing happily along the riverbank without any claim of having been put there on purpose. I had been looking for this tree too far south of here, so it was a great surprise to turn around and ta-da!

York County PA Champion Bald Cypress
Kline's Run Sycamores
There is nothing colder looking than a clump of frosty sycamores near a frozen creek with a classic German-built stone house in the picture. Everything screams of Andrew and N.C. Wyeth here - the hues and tones, bleak landscape, and massiveness of stone and big trees together. One of my New Year's resolutions is to find and document as many of the Big Tree champions on my hikes as I can so this was the perfect start to the New Year. Yay, trees!

We had one more place to walk so I looked at poor shivering Bug in the car and she winked at me, so off we went. I wasn't sure either one of us was up to it - I was coughing like a sputtering old 2-cycle engine and Bug was shaking for the two of us, but what the heck -  up we went to High Point Park above the river in a mad dash face-in to Arctic winds (20pmh) until we got to the top on the Spiral Trail. We even did (sort of) the labyrinth at the pinnacle. Poor Bug! She looked at me like I was crazy but - Lo! - the smell of some creature under the snow distracted her long enough for me to get a shot of the view north, where all this frigid wind was coming from. The midday temp was a warm and cozy 12'F but with the wind it was a slightly chilly at minus - 6'F. Time to go home and have some hot chocolate (for me) and warmed sausage treats (for Bug!).

Frozen Susquehanna from High Point.

My New Year's Resolutions include more big tree hunts and documentation. During both my long hikes in Northern Spain (2016) and in Northern England (2017) I was inspired to love the big and ancient trees more - if that's even possible...
The Ancient Tree Forum is an excellent organization in the U.K. that I've joined (they have a great Facebook page!) and have been inspired by their work.

We've also joined Trees for Life
and hope to spend a volunteer vacation in Scotland to help with rewilding and reforestation projects there. They too have a nice FB page that tree folk will love.

For US tree enthusiasts, you can't go wrong to join American Forests, which I've belonged since the Ice Ages ended in 1990. Now they're back.

America's Big Trees are catalogued by AF here:

For PA folks our state foresry board maintains this website and searchable index by county