Thursday, April 25, 2019

MD Deal Island at High Tide, Somerset County

Deal Island Wildlife Management Area was our destination for what was planned as a ten-plus mile 2019 Trail Challenge hike in Somerset County, MD.  High water, however, prevented us from making the circuit so we did what we could and explored the town and spit of land that is now the community of Wenona. What we lacked in miles hiked we earned back as lessons learned.

Our intended hike, 10 miles...

...our actual hike, 4 mi.

Our intended route was to follow the raised causeway that encircles the fresh water ponds in the main management area but a gated area and an incoming tide pushed higher by strong winds made our trek somewhat uncertain. Since we had young Aiden (8) with us for the day, my sister Laura and I made the safer decision to walk an out-and-back then spend time wandering the towns of Chance and Deal Island afterwards. 

Welcome to Deal Island WMA

Our hike along the raised causeway out into the freshwater impoundment area was shortened when we came upon a gate, locked and chained. The fencing and gate looked rather new and even though I'd researched that the loop was a favorite with hikers, it did end that option. But as I looked ahead I saw that the closed area looked unstable as heavy erosion cut into the causeway with storm damage to a beaten-up plank bridge over a spillway. We backtracked and reconsidered our loop plans. 

Aiden was a little put off by having to turn around at the gated section. 

We checked the tide tables at the boat launch area where we'd parked and saw that high tide was in a few hours - right in the middle of our hike time.  We looked at the elevation of the causeway and decided an out-and-back to an earlier parking area at the woods edge would make for a safer walk and calculated a 4 mile saunter might be the better choice for hiking with young Aiden anyway. 

"Nuisance flooding." 

The marshes were filled with birds which made all three of us very happy. Laura and I are birders and were calling species left and right to add to our day list while Aiden, who carried the field guide, was learning to help identify species. Herons, terns, wading birds, ducks, sandpipers and cormorants kept Aiden busy and excited. I can't think of a better thing to do with an outdoors kid than teach them how to use a field guide and take them into the field to practice. He saw many Forster's Terns knowing to look for the forked tail, black tipped bill, and leg color that he was rightfully proud of the fact that ' I don't need the book for Forster's anymore!" 

Dunlins nap in the marsh as a Great Egret, in full breeding plumage and bright green cere, looks on. 

Forster's Tern.

I was reminded of my own first experiences with birding when my grandmother, an ardent birder with a passion for songbirds, gave me my first field guide, A Golden Guide to the Birds. She helped me match what I saw on our feeders and later, while gardening in our big veg patch at the bottom of the hill, we would lie on our backs and watch the vultures and hawks. I was about six. All through the years I would write her (she moved to live with my aunt in St. Louis) with notes on what I'd seen and included small illustrations. By college I had acquired a Peterson's Guide and a heavy pair of binoculars - nothing like the compact pair of Pentax binos I carry now.  Birding enriched our relationship and it was the bedrock of my interests in natural history. She was a wonderful mentor is so many ways.

Learning the finer points of Tern ID

Our hike ended at peak high tide and we drove off the refuge and into town on roads several inches deep with water.  It was a sobering look at the effects of rising sea levels and sinking land on this small waterfront community. Many high tides now reach well into the town of Deal Island and regularly flood roads and yards, graveyards and farm fields. Called nuisance flooding, this is becoming the norm for lower shore towns and agricultural areas. Regular episodes of salt water intrusion can destroy cropland and kill forests. We saw vast expanses of ghost forest, dead or dying in the midst of marsh or open water.

Aiden's first positive ID - Boat-Tailed Grackle.

Greater Yellow Legs.

The juxtaposition of fresh water habitats to salt water habitats was startling. Though a few species may be able to relocate on their own - birds, larger mammals, and some aquatic turtles - fresh water habitats are built upon the foundation of plant communities that cannot tolerate salt-intruded groundwater and soils. We had our lunch near a beautiful freshwater pond complete with painted turtles and singing frogs protected from salt marsh only by a thin spit of land and shrubby trees. I wondered how much longer this pond will be here. Here we added Northern Water Snake and Painted Turtle to our list and Amos the Coonhound swallowed half-a-turtle, the remains of a fresh kill by owl or osprey before I could say "No!"  Yum.

Northern Water Snake

The Lower Eastern Shore is on the front lines of climate change in Maryland but add two more factors -  subsiding land and thermal expansion of warm water - and you have a complicated multi-factor problem that has no solution except to abandon the land. There's nothing we can do about the geological process of subsidence but warmer waters and rising seas are on us. Everything is transforming and the final phase is open water.

Death of a marsh - conversion to open water. 

Ghost forests, killed by salt water flooding.

Though we didn't reach our ten mile goal for this hike, we measured our distance by how far we came to see firsthand the reality of climate change on this land. Our hike and our drive were both affected by nuisance flooding and sure, maybe we should have checked the tide charts before heading out, but we would have missed the real lesson for our trail challenge this year  which is to to learn about each of the counties through the lens of travel on foot. Our simple goal of walking ten miles was impossible thus we witnessed first hand the drowning forests, abandoned homes, marshes converting to open water. Low mileage for today equaled high awareness of what tomorrow will bring.

Fresh water pond surrounded by salt water marshes 


Here's an online multi-media article on Deal Island in Somerset County, MD, and the challenges it faces with rising seas, followed by a film on Dorchester County, MD, further up the bay coast where my sister lives. Both are excellent but depressing.

How To Save a Sinking Island -

High Tide in Dorchester  -

Thursday, April 18, 2019

DE Lums Pond State Park: Little Jersey Trail

Amos the Coonhound and I decided to add Delaware counties to our 2019 Trail Challenge and off we went to check New Castle County off the list. The Little Jersey Trail at Lums Pond State Park is well marked and easy to follow for 8 miles, then to round up our mileage to ten, we did an out and back along the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal towpath for 2 miles.

New trail markers!

Lums Pond, a large man-made lake at the center of the park which is visible in several places along the Little Jersey Trail (LJT). It started as an impoundment that watered the locks along the old C&D Canal in the 1800s.  The state purchased the land and lake in the 1960s after the C&D was deepened and widened and watering locks weas no longer necessary. Today the lake provides park goers with warm-water fishing and lots of paddling opportunities. The shores and woody edges are very birdy!  A shoreline trail can be hiked all the way around (I've posted on this trail in the past) and is accessible from the LJT.

Two trails, the LJT and Swamp Forest Trail, circle the pond.

My favorite section was an old hedgerow of 50-60 year old Osage Orange trees that marked a field or old pasture boundary with an old farm road. No signs of the old farm remain except for a farm dump area where old bottles and metal pieces are found in the forest duff. It's a young forest, a mix of overgrowth (very vine-y!), plantation pine, and deciduous/holly woods and while the trail skirts the open edges of the farm fields still in use for soybean and corn, it's easy to see many different ways the land has been used in the past by tree type and age.

Osange Orange hedge with a an old Black Cherry standing out. 

Osage Orange, a tree native to the Mississippi River Valley, was a favorite among Soil Conservation Service agents and was offered to farmers of the Mid-Atlantic for free or very low cost to encourage land owners to build wind breaks and soil traps. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Osage Orange was planted by the tens of thousands on Delmarva along roads, field edges, and drainage ditches to address the region's very serious soil loss problem.

Orange bark and wood gives the tree its name. 

Considered an evolutionary residual - or "ghost of evolution" - the Osage Orange is missing its herbivore partner, the Giant Sloth which was hunted into extinction in North America by human newcomers. There are several species of tree in our region which fit this description as well, the Kentucky coffee tree with its large pods and the Honeylocust with its thick armor of long thorns. Nothing living today eats the bumpy-lumpy green globes called "ground apple" by locals. These fruits, however, must have been a treat for sloths, mammoths, and mastodons.

Amos ponders the straight trail ahead.

After completing the LJT, Amos and I took a leisurely rest and water break and drove down to the canal just a few minutes away.  Two miles went by quick on the straight towpath and his coonhound nose was taking in all the new scents of deep water and other dogs. There were lots of dogs!

Violet, Viola sp. 

One of our best finds of the day was Amos' discovery of a Red-Bellied Turtle, Pseudemys rubriventris, a Delaware native that can get quite large. This big guy was the size of a rugby ball and very tolerant of the coonhound sniffer as it made its way down a slope to the feeder canal. The big male was clearly on his way to visit a potential mate somewhere in the old connector leading to Lums Pond, as his long and lovely front toenails and concave plastron (bottom shell) demonstrated. He was a show-off. The Red-Bellied Turtle is a species of concern in its home range which includes my section of the Lower Susquehanna River  and all of Delmarva. It is considered threatened in Pennsylvania.

Red-Bellied Turtle, melanistic - common in old age. 

When we finished our out and back for the needed two miles, I took Amos back to the main park and re-entered for another luxurious rest, snack and water break near the north end of the pond where folks were fishing. With infamous coonhoud drama, Amos plopped himself down on the grass by a picnic table and let out a hilarious sigh that was heard clear across the lake. Fishermen near and far giggled as my 70-pound wonder dog half-wagged his tail and fell quickly asleep for another infamous coonhound trait, the instant nap.

Amos' sigh heard 'round the lake. We're done!


Lums Pond State Park

Red-Bellied Turtles:

Monday, April 8, 2019

MD Pocomoke State Forest, Algonquin Cross County Trail

We checked off Worcester County for our 2019 Trail Challenge! My sister and I hiked the length of the  Algonquin Cross County Trail 12 miles through Pocomoke State Forest, a large working forest on Maryland's Lower Eastern Shore. The landscape was a mix of hardwood/pine natural woodland, remnant swamp, and pine plantations. Though mostly flat, the trail did cross gently over ancient dunes which was cool. More on that later...

The entire trail is well blazed, including the detour area in the working forest.

We spotted our cars at both ends of the trail and started at the Foster Tract off Route 12 a few miles north of the quaint shore town of Snow Hill. Our first two miles were adorned with warbler song, particularly Worm-Eating Warblers.  A recognized IBA (Important Bird Area), the Audubon Society suggested that the largest breeding population of Worm-Eating Warblers in Maryland may exist here. We heard at least two singing males close by and many in the distance. 

We started here and walked south 12 miles to Nassawango Road where we left another car.  1

It was just cold enough that very few bugs were flying with exception of some black midges but they weren't biting. Our one (dead) reptile was a large black rat snake lying twisted in the sand path, it's flanks pierced by talons. It was very heavy to move via hiking pole, so I am assuming that whatever caught it had had a great fight with it and that it was too heavy to carry off.  We heard many frog species calling from the swamps including the spring peeper and a very loud cricket frog serenade. 

Mixed hardwood/pine young forest.

One of our best finds was right below our feet in the path! We were walking at just right to witness aggregations of ground-nesting native bees Colletes emerging. As the sun began to shine they flew in and out of their sand nests or peeked shyly from their entrances.  These shy, furry-faced females would slowly come to the tunnel entrances and see us, then quickly back down out of sight. When we backed away they would come again to the entrance and take off. They are handsome bees and gather the pollen of early blossoms like willow and orchard trees. The old dunes made for excellent sandy nesting sites and the bees were just everywhere! They don't sting and they tolerated our passing through with patience and curiosity. Yay, Colletes!

A cautious Colletes bee peeks out of her sand nest before flying off for more pollen. 

Here's a nifty video show that shows what it was like on our hike (not out video though!)  It's so important to maintain sandy spots in your yard or woods for these early spring native bees. They won't sting and there's no need for removal. They are excellent pollinators of early spring flowering shrubs and trees and anyone who grows food will thank you. 

The trail crosses the Nassawango and Pocomoke flood plains. The low flat ground collects rainwater that sits in pools full of pine needle and tree leaves which acidifies the water. Acid water reacts with oxygen to precipitate bog iron in the sandy soil. Bog iron was an important natural resource mined in the 18th and 19th centuries on the Lower Shore. We crossed the road to the beautifully restored 19th century Nassawango Iron Furnace, which processed the bog iron into pig iron which was then shipped to blacksmiths and other refiners to make finished products.

A recent control burn rids the forest floor of greenbrier and allows grasses to return.

According to John Means, Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware and Washington D.C (2010), the furnace produced up to 20 tons of pig iron per week. The whole furnace is built upon big rot-proof bald cypress posts which have never showed signs of decay though they are over 150 years old and the entire furnace weighs many, many tons. Read more here: Though we didn't get a chance to explore the furnace area (we've both been several times) it's not far down the forest road from the intersection on the trail.

A relic of the Great Swamp, this forest wetlands features a thicket of American Holly. 

For much of the walk it seemed American Holly Ilex opaca was the predominate understory tree except for in plantation woods where understory is controlled to prevent competition with timber trees slated for harvest. The holly is a very slow growing tree and some of the trees we observed were pretty big so they must have been quite old. The berries of the holly are not good for us (they are toxic!) but very important for birds. I have two hollies at home that robins clean off in a day or less come mid-winter so I know how much birds rely on this native tree.

Laura climbing an ancient dune from the Parsonburg Sand formation (30,500 - 16,000 years ago)

The Parsonburg Formation was in full view and provided our only experience of gaining any altitude. The All Trails profile map (in Notes below) clearly shows a succession of wind-blown sand dunes that were deposited on the barren Coastal Plain during the last glaciation period when it was too cold for things to grow here and the sea was farther out than it is now. Sands from the coast blew unimpeded far inland and mounded up in a succession of "waves" similar to the way creek bottom sands will gather in ripples.  Today the area is almost completely forested and the dunes while once mined for sand and/or disturbed by logging operations and farming long ago, aren't easy to miss if you are aware of the rises and dips as you walk.

Mucky areas made muckier by horses which share the trail.

Between old dunes, the trail followed old roads and was sometimes covered in deep puddles which we made our way around. The only bad trail conditions were found were where horses and hikers had to share the same path, although at some points the trail split into two for each user group. But where horses had recently been the much was deep and sucking. We bushwacked twice around really bad spots and learned to speak kindly to greenbrier so that we weren't trapped by angry thorns.

Loblolly is armored against fire with incredibly thick bark.

Our only detour brought us out to a public forest road until rejoining the trail a mile further on.

Greenbier is a problem for disturbed forest patches as it quickly overtakes an area to the exclusion of all else. One forest quadrant had been recently burned to get rid of the stuff and clean the floors of fuel. In its place grew a lovely understory savanna and I wondered if later in the season some native orchids might be found here?

Reindeer lichen and Sphagnum moss.

We reached the end of our hike at the Nassawango Road crossing with a short road walk to the signed parking area. We tallied up birds we heard and saw: red-shouldered hawk, black vulture, pileated woodpeckers, wood duck, turkey, mourning dove, turkey vulture, osprey, barred owl, phoebe, blue jay, fish crow, Carolina chickadee, titmouse, blue-gray gnatcatcher, Eastern bluebird, and those great worm-eating warblers. I can still hear their loud, dry twittering trill and can tell you exactly where we stood on the trail when we seemed to be surrounded by them. I think its important to learn birdsong if you are serious about learning who lives in your woods or meadow. Often we can't see the songster but he's telling you who he is!

From John V. Dennis The Great Cypress Swamps (1988),  ACCT area circled

Me and Laura at the Foster Tract Trailhead.


All Trails Recording of our hike. We lingered in many places to listen to the warblers and explore, so our pace was pretty casual.

You can see several ancient dune crossings on the profile of our hike. 

Worm-eating warblers were abundant at the north end of the trail: Worm-Eating Warbler

Pocomoke-Nassawango IBA:

Geology: John Means. Roadside Geology of Maryland, Delaware and Washington D.C (2010)  This is my go-to book for Maryland Geology and I try to study up on the area I'll be hiking in so that I know what I'm looking at. Knowing local geology enriches every hike.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

NC & SC Western Carolina Wonder-Wander Week

My recent North Carolina trip to visit a friend in Brevard and to attend a conference on pilgrimage in Black Mountain resulted in some nice "down time" experiences in the Nantahala and Pisgah National Forests in western NC and SC.  I've been in and around the Southern Appalachians many times - ranger training, camping trips, research assignments - but rarely have I had the time to just be here and wonder-wander.  Thanks to my friend and host Cheryl for the wonderful week at her place and the opportunity to sleep in e-v-e-r-y day!

Brown-Headed Nuthatch (p.eppig) 

There's something to be said for wonder-wandering, a slow meander walk that takes us this way and that, without a start or finish. The Appalachian spring accommodates this lovely style of walking because every hollow or knob makes the emergence of wildflowers and the appearance of migratory birds a very intimate, local affair, happening in its own time in its own place.  Factors like slope aspect, altitude, overstory/understory, and micro-climate can result in very different iterations of springtime. Rivers and creeks were running full while I craved a vernal pool to look for salamanders. I found a bunch of Eastern Newts in a ruined beaver pond pool along the Pink Beds Trail in Pisgah NF where I laid across the board walk and just stared dreamily into the water.

Eastern Newt

The Southern Appalachians are a naturalist's dreamscape, especially in spring when wildlflowers blossom and bees begin to fly.  We encountered a single B. sandersoni stumbling across a fireroad on our way to Bridal Veil Falls in Pisgah NF on a chilly morning. I lifted her on to my hand and she luxuriated in the warm of the sun and my warm-bloodedness. Her wings were still small and not completely unfurled, wrinkled a bit at the edges but stiffening as I stood there watching. I resettled her on a sunny, sandy patch just as a mountain biker zoomed past, crunching with a fat tire the very place where she had been crossing. Whew!

Sanderson's Bumble Bee Bombus sandersoni, (p.eppig)

We don't know a whole lot about Sanderson's Bumble Bee. Like many species in the Southern Appalachians, they occur in rich hollows and ravines in distinct local populations. I didn't make the identification in the field but took lots of pics and a sketch which I used to key out with a USDA Forest Service Bumble Bees of the Eastern U.S. (pdf) I keep in a Dropbox file.  (See Notes, below)
I travel with a small tablet that contains all of the guides and keys I have found useful in my field work, and this is one of the best for my spring forest rambles.

Blue-Headed Vireo, Pisgah National Forest

Blue-headed vireos were everywhere. Their call is distinct from other vireos in that it is melodic, slow and sweet. Unlike the chatty Red-Eyed Vireo or raspy White-Eyed Vireo, the Blue-Headed has the closest thing to a southern drawl for a bird. "How Yoooo? .......Watch y'all doin? .........Hey there!........"  Unlike many southern songbirds, the population of BHV's is increasing, due in part, says the Forest Service, the the patchiness of many of our national forests where controlled logging is permitted. Overgrown second growth or young forest is the perfect habitat for this handsome vireo and I really enjoyed spending long sits in the forest listening to them.

South Fork Mills River, Pink Beds Trail, Pisgah National Forest

Spring is fickle business in the Southern Highlands. It might be roaring ahead in one place and barely started - or stopped - in another.  The river plain of the Pigeon Branch along the Pink Beds trail looked barren and empty (except for the BHVs and Eastern Newts) while noisy waterfall ravines were popping with wildflowers and early migrant song.

Looking Glass Falls, Pisgah National Forest

Granite - a nice fine grained specimen.

At Looking Glass Falls, Cheryl and I had a hard time hearing the birdsong above the crash of water but we saw plenty of feathered forms flitting about the rich ravine forest that I giggled with delight! Migration time is full of returning birds and birds passing through - the forest is alive with movement. Even the quietest corridor through the woods is, if you stand very still among the giant trees, a fury of small things coursing through the canopy.

South Loop of Pink Beds Trail 

The Southern Appalachian Mountains are mysterious and secretive. There's a reason we don't know everything there is to know about the cove forests, knobs, and balds, but we aren't given the reason why. Instead we are invited to discover the reason for ourselves, one-on-one with the rhododendron thickets and old man's moss. The mountains keep treasures hidden and unknowable unless you have the "eye and ear" to see and hear them, and only then can you unlock a wealth of wisdom.

Warning for White-Nose Syndrome 

I'd like to list all the places we went but I'm afraid it would serve as just an inventory, an index void of the profound sensual experiences of early spring in the pockets and hollows that should remain nameless. I don't understand a lack of curiousness. Listing seems to me to filter the capacity for learning, with affection, about a place full of mystery and myth. This is where folklore and poetry holds power of place, lists aside.

Cheryl and I at Issaqueena Falls, SC

James Still comes to mind. He died in 2001 at the tender age of 91. Born in the Alabama Highlands, he lived most of his life in the Kentucky mountains and earned his eyes and ears roaming the land in search of stories found in the nameless places. He had a deep and insatiable passion for learning about everything and met the mountains "eye to eye." He ruptured stereotypes about southern Appalachian folk as illiterate, simple, and incurious. This was quite a feat in the 1930s when the entire country viewed the region as backwards and shallow-minded. It's a persistent stereotype, however, and we need to study his work more now than ever while listening to our young Appalachian poets and writers who follow in his footsteps. This can't be listed, but it can be lost.

James Still. Photo credit: University of Kentucky

I am wealthy with earth and sky,
Heir to far boundaries of field and stream,
And scarce can keep track of so much property:
Cloud herd, dew diamond, midge and bee,
Wasp-way, wind’s wisdom, and the foxfire’s gleam
I am rich despite a seeming poverty.

James Still, 1906 - 2001

Dwarf Crested Iris, Iris cristata  (Yellow Branch Falls, SC)

Oconee Bells, Shortia galacifolia (Highlands Biological Station, NC)

Halberd-leaved Violet, Viola hastata  (yellow Branch Falls, SC) 

Trout Lily,  Erythoronium americanum (NC Arboretum) 

Wake Robin (in bud), Trillium cuneatum  (Highlands Biological Station, NC)

Pitcher Plant, Sarracenia purpurea  (Highlands Biological Station, NC)
Skunk Cabbage  Symplocarpus foetidus (Highlands Biological Station, NC)

On a side trip returning from Yellow Branch Falls Valley we visited the Issaqueena Falls reached by a well-visited short trail to view a stunning 90' cataract.  Thinking about folklore and story, I was amused by a kiosk storyboard that featured a time-worn tale of some Indian maiden flinging herself off the heights. These kinds of  lover's leap tales were familiar anywhere a local 19th century railroad, hungry for tourist revenue, happened past a natural height. I've seen dozens of trail head information boards, brochures, and even historical texts repeat the same, off-putting tales about failed love affairs between some heroic white frontiersman or brave and an Indian maiden/princess/chief's daughter. Dissecting such a story in the context of the hundreds of others that span the railroad routes across the country, one sees rather quickly that these tales seem cookie-cutter, degrading. I wish interpretive historians entrusted with public educational materials exercised a bit more thought and critical consideration when repeating a railroad tourist tale as historic truth.

Issaqueena Falls, SC
Odontoschisma prostratum

While walking at the Highlands Biological Station in Highlands, N.C., my friends and I admired all the emergent plants - spikes and unfurling things, fat buds and bulbs, fresh green blades. Being a scientific research center there were lots of nondescript mounds of duff labeled but absent plants until a later, warmer time. It was a wonderful walk along the well-made trails but I often lagged behind, stopped by some named thing. I came across a liverwort, Odontoschisma prostratum, lying thinly across mounds of moss. It had no common name with only its Latin name appearing on its label and I wondered about this. Later I searched through my resources and guides and still I could find no name other than Latin, so I sounded out the scientific name over and over like a mantra - O donto schisssssssma  prostratum.  I sang it out loud in the shower, over and over like something sung at evening prayers. Who needs a common name when you can be a Gregorian chant?

Eastern Towhee

I was born humble. At the foot of mountains
My face was set upon the immensity of earth
And stone; and upon oaks full-bodied and old. 
There is so much writ upon the parchment of leaves, 
So much of beauty blown upon the winds, 
I can but fold my hands and sink my knees
In the leaf-pages. Under the mute trees
I have cried with this scattering of knowledge, 
Beneath the flight of birds shaken with this waste
Of wings.

I was born humble. My heart grieves
Beneath this wealth of wisdom perished with the leaves. 

I Was Born Humble, James Still 


Eastern Bumble Bees of the U.S.

Blue-Headed Vireo profile

James Still profile

Highlands Biological Center plant list with flowering times: