Wednesday, February 21, 2018

PA Ferncliff Wildflower Preserve

For Lent I've decided to take as many dawn walks as I can up until Easter.  Lent as a fasting period to prepare for the High Holy Days in the Catholic Church has its roots in early Christian traditions, but the word itself is derived from the Old English lencten and means the lengthening of days, the coming of spring. Like many Christian holy days and periods of religious observance, the forty days of Lent are overlaid upon cultural traditions that predate Christianity.  Among Celtic traditions the late winter fast was a period of rationing the last of the winter stores and a time of anticipation for spring's warmth and light.

A dark, rainy, foggy start to forty walks at dawn on Ash Wednesday: Mason Dixon Trail on the Susquehanna
To honor the Lenten fast today people give things up such as certain foods, not-so-healthy-behaviors, and conveniences. Many of my friends are going offline or doing without certain social media. Some friends are taking on something new that may challenge an old routine or way of thinking. I chose this year to take on forty walks at dawn. It is now the first Sunday in Lent and so far I've done five dawn walks starting in the dark and ending with enough light to enjoy a view.

A sunny dawning on Day 4 of 40: Susquehannock State Park, Lancaster County, PA
To the Celts, the natural world contained life lessons, spiritual meanings, and religious observances. Nature was not separate from humankind, but the home in which people lived - an ecology of relationships with all things living and non-living. Central to the Celtic deities were the spirits that inhabited trees, the holy spaces we now know as sacred groves, and recognized the plant world as having soul and wisdom.  It only made sense to mix my Big Tree theme for the 2018 hiking year with the Celtic-Druid love of trees, so I am trying to be conscious of choosing woodlands, like today's visit to Ferncliff, for these forty hikes at dawn.

Ferncliff, part of the Old Growth Forest Network.
Ferncliff is a Lancaster Conservancy site that has an old road to the river through a deep ravine. Ravines are topographically important in the River Hills region and are notable for containing old growth forest, large assemblages of native wildflowers, and wildlife. I thought Ferncliff would be a good choice, too, for taking (pretty big) new coonhound puppy Amos to see the river up close. The day dawned sunny but by the time the dogs and I had made our drive across the Susquehanna, clouds were banking above the ridge tops. The sun shone through porthole openings briefly now and then and the previous night's beautiful snowfall was melting fast, plopping on us all in fat wet dollops from the hemlocks and rhododendron overhead.

Dark diabase schist forms the stream bottom bedrock.
For a coonhound Amos did pretty good not getting too distracted by all the scent trails and deer paths, while his much older sister Bug insisted on walking any puddle she could find. The deer trails are incised deeply in steep ravine hills and I thought how much these paths are like bad habits we try to shake off during Lent - they usually follow contours of least resistance and are well known to other animals as well. It's easy to follow them. Amos was less interested in the well-trodden paths but very interested in the fallen trees that lay across and beside the old road. He hopped right up and tracked who-knows-what animals that use the trees as pathways. Among coonhound clubs, there are contests and "degrees" for how the dogs perform on track and Amos surely earned his degree in log-walking.

The narrowness of the ravine is apparent here.
Bug has always preferred work the edge of streams so her degree would be as a "wet tracker" and with the stream so close to the path she and Amos had me pulled in two directions as one walked logs and the other waded the stream. Thank goodness for long leads! It got to be a little much so I ended the fun and put them both on a double lead. At least I could walk straight ahead instead of staggering side-to-side.
Ancient rhododendron reach over the road like an arbor.
Ferncliff is a site designated by the Old Growth Forest Network as containing significant mature tree communities. The rhododendron were particularly impressive with thick twisting trunks that reached out to any sunlit patches down through the hollow. Groves of old hemlock, incredibly high tulip poplar, and ancient beech occupy every bend and flat in the stream valley. Ironwood and pawpaw filled the open spaces between the old trees while oaks of several species towered over everything, growing high on the steep land above the stream.

Old growth forest communities occupy the flat stream banks and bends in the narrow ravine.

The snow was not very good for tracking but according to the dogs' noses the sodden leaves and damp earth beneath was perfect for snuffling and snorting. This slowed our pace so much that I had the opportunity to study the rock formations, angular and sharp, showing none of the shapely curves of long exposure to river currents. The ravine is rough cut and raw.

Barnes Run is the stream that cuts this ravine.
Cut deeper with every major flood event with walls steep enough that mudslides and rock fall are part of its wall formation, it is easy to spot slippage slopes that carry heavy runoff down to the stream. The diabase, a type of igneous intrusion parent material, has been squeezed over time and at great depths into sheet-like layers now exposed standing vertically at the surface. These layers pop apart in freeze-thaw cycles. Tablets and tables of it laid in the stream bed having broken off from the outcrops far above, some of it weighing several tons.

A old grove sheltered below a diabase fin.

A slippage slope.

I'd be interested in coming back here every month or so to photograph the changes in the tree cover and the procession of wildflower blooms. Various websites list those plants that wildflower enthusiasts can find here in season, including some interesting orchids.  What caught my attention as we neared a stream ford, however, were some interesting small ferns tucked into rocky ledges. I found spleenwort and rock polypody growing from an almost hidden crevice in a roadside outcrop. How many people walk past this, I thought. I was thankful for the very slow nose-pace the dogs were setting.

Old growth hemlock.

The nose-pace ended at the stream ford and young Amos had to face his first wet crossing. He was very hesitant but being double leashed to Bug he walked carefully alongside her, flank to flank, until we got to the other side. I made sure to give him lots of pats and "good boy!" encouragements and he was pretty proud of himself. Every experience for him is new right now so it's fun to see how he sizes up things like edges, water, mud, and new sounds - like the raucous call of a pileated woodpecker.

"Don't worry," says Bug, "That's just a very large woodpecker."

Sunlight came and went as quickly as the clouds were moving overhead. One minute the valley was in shadow, cold and murky, the next minute it was bright with snow and glittering water.The sound of water dripping from the branches and the playful plops of wet snow slipping from the hemlock was soon absorbed by the sound of the swollen Susquehanna ahead. We climbed the railroad embankment, crossed the tracks, and looked out on the wide river fat with snowmelt from New York and northern Pennsylvania.

Playful sounds of the ravine were soon overtaken by ....
...the mighty thrum of meltwater moving down the Susquehanna to the Chesapeake.

Amos stood in awe of the river. His ears stood out an he sniffed the air. He'd seen nothing like it in his six months and was transfixed. He watched the water lap at the embankment and stared intently at logs and debris mats floating by. A gull landed on a drift log and he whined and let out his first real "roo" - the famous coonhound bay that might wake the dead. Startled, he looked at me as if to say "That came out of me?!" Like with all young animals and people, the fun for us grown ups is watching them discover something totally new and thus we see it afresh with own our eyes.

Every child has come to know the name of God
Not the God of names
Not the God of don'ts
Not the God who never does anything weird
But the God who only knows four words
and keeps repeating them, saying
"Come Dance With Me.

-Hafez, Persian poet


Ferncliff is one of many beautiful natural areas under the management and protection of the Lancaster Conservancy. 


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.