Sunday, February 18, 2024

PA Erie Bluffs

Mid-February here in Pennsylvania is usually considered to be the apex of winter. On my trip out to Lake Erie I was expecting the year's most expansive cover of ice, but it wasn't to be. In fact, it was nothing, just wide open wavy water as far as the eye could see. With the hope of maybe a little steelhead fishing, I found the creeks to equally empty of ice - no shelves or pans, not even slush. My cold water waders never left the duffle bag. 

Amos comes to meet the Lake.

Keeping my waders company were my snowshoes and winter gloves in the back of the truck. Though it was super windy on the bluffs over the lake, the woods were pleasantly cold, not piercing or frigid. Mind, I do love winter. Way fewer people and virtually no bugs. And, it's a good thing I really like earth colors - but I did miss snow and ice on this trip to the northwestern corner of the Commonwealth. 

Black Oak savanna 

We were out at sunrise which was hidden by a watercolor sky of snow squall clouds zooming in from the north. Break-thru sun persisted throughout the day as we covered miles of savanna and woodland trail. The park is undergoing a long period of restoration to bring back (hopefully) the now rare Black Oak Savanna (BOS) in Pennsylvania, and to some extent, the use of fire as a rejuvenator of managed prairie plots and edge woodland. We walked through burn areas, tracks of woodland that have seen selective removal of tree species, and fully restored BOS sections as well as tracts of forest where invasives reign over everything. 

Amos enjoying the Big Bluestem

The Erie Bluffs

We made our way along a bluff trail and stopped to admire the gunmetal grey lake, whipped up with waves and whitecaps. Without the protection of a shoreline ice shelf, angry winter waves bash right into the base of the sand and glacial till escarpment furthering the erosion that eats away at the Pennsylvania coast. The weather forecast was calling for gale force winds that night so I was excited to see and hear the changes bigger winds would bring tomorrow. 

Trail atop a fossil dune ridge

Down from over fifty million acres of prairie-meets-deciduous woodlands with less that 30,000 acres surviving, BOS can only be found now in protected landscapes in Ohio and Pennsylvania, just 2 percent of its once historic range.  Part woodland, part prairie, this open woodland savanna is unique to Lake Erie shores and contains great biodiversity that represent Great Lakes coastal hardwood forests with the tough Black Oak (Quercus velutina) dominating over open-glade ground cover of native grasses, wildflowers, clubmoss, lichens, and heath shrubs. 

Fire-tough Black Oak sapling in a burn area

Black Oak (Quercus velutina

On this trip I'd see two of those protected landscapes, both being actively managed to conserve this rare ecosystem in PA's Erie Bluff State Park and Presque Isle State Park. A visit to the North Kingsville Sand Barrens in Ohio is on my list to see this summer, hopefully with a swing back through these two PA parks to see the prairie and sand barrens in full bloom along with their pollinators. 


Elk Creek

The BOS saw its greatest decline as agriculture, large-scale logging, and industrialization came to Lake Erie's shores during the 1800s.  Adding to the drastic changes was the loss of lake wind driven fires that came to the wooded savanna every few years and the introduction of aggressive invasive plants, some native, others not, that quickly overtook the region's remaining woodlands. I wondered about how our prescribed fires today compare with the lake wind fires of hundreds of years ago. In my humble opinion, and not being an expert of fire management, I venture a guess that controlled burns of today are nothing like the sweeping prairie fires witnessed by first Erie People.  Black Oak is a very tough tree, even young saplings can withstand heat and flame. Without these intense fires, however, other species - especially invasive native Black Locust - will shade out the prairie glades. I saw lots of surviving Black Locust saplings on the control burn areas and wondered about the effectiveness of low intensity fires.

Red Osier Dogwood swamp

We wandered into a frozen Red Osier Dogwood Swamp and rather than sinking knee deep in cold water we were able to hop from frozen grass hummock to frozen grass hummock without getting wet. The color of the Red Osier stems reminded me of the famed "dragon's blood" pigment described in  Kassia St. Claire's The Secret Lives of Color (2017) as having been an "exclusive pigment from before the time of Christ" until it was discovered in the 16th century that dragons didn't actually exist and that the color was derived instead from a similar swampy plant sourced from India. Without a belief in dragons to sustain it, writes St. Claire, the deep red pigment faded into obscurity.  

River Birch

Fossil dune and the mouth of Elk Creek

Back through the woods I made some quick sketches of places where restoration has taken place. Open canopy with understory and shade-loving competitor trees removed, large swathes of forest floor are now semi-grassland exposed to more sun and wind than the dense forest elsewhere. Patches of amber and yellow grasses create open glades along the top of a relic dune. Carpets of Striped Wintergreen and Clubmoss poked above thin layers of oak leaves. I pocketed a few acorns as I admired many of the old Black Oaks that were growing on the steep slopes of sand and till. 

Mouth of Elk Creek

While wind blew hard over the bluffs, I counted three immature Bald Eagles cruising the coastline. Out on the open water there was a raft of Long-Tailed Ducks, Arctic visitors who fish for mollusks and clams and love periwinkle snails plucked from marsh grass. We made our way down a well-worn trail to the shingle beach at the mouth of Elk Creek and the Lake. A deceased Long-Tailed Duck on the shore revealed its toothy bill designed for holding and crushing mollusks. Too cold to sketch, I took a series of reference pictures to sketch from. Small flocks of Bufflehead and Scaup winged past at a distance while Black Ducks and a single Loon bobbed in choppy waves closer in to the escarpment. Canada Geese sheltered in the cove while Red-Headed Mergansers hugged the edge of the shingle and tree debris.

Shingle beach

The waves pounded against the base of the bluffs and while I stood there in the full blast of wind, a small section of frozen sand slid from the top to the brushy bottom. Eleven periods of glaciation have impacted these shores, making and remaking them as dunes, carved valleys, and vast wetlands. In between times of ice, the waves have reclaimed the front dunes and banks of glacial till, adding sediments to the lake bottom where aquatic grasses anchor in sand and silt. These are important nurseries for freshwater fish. I watched long and hard at the mouth of Elk Creek for any sign of Steelhead but only saw one, belly up rolling against the bank already having spawned and died upstream.  Amos was very interested in retrieving it, but we needed to move back into the shelter of the oak forest. 

Driftwood banks

Toothy bill of a Long-Tailed Duck

As we climbed the escarpment I heard cackling calls of the Long-Tailed Ducks floating in their big raft about two hundred yards offshore. These are the most abundant of the Arctic ducks wintering on the Great Lakes and surely the most talkative of all the Arctic bird visitors. In summer, they nest on open barren ground along the edge of land but mainly spend their time on open cold waters. Though still very abundant, their populations are trending downward. Climate change and industrial fishing are thought to be the two main culprits and are raising concerns among Arctic conservationists. Without sea ice to protect vulnerable open ground for nesting colonies, nesting sites are flooded and washed away forcing birds to choose sites where more predators lurk. Large trawler fleets that can make their way deeper and deeper into now ice-free Arctic waters often haul in huge numbers of drowned Long-Tailed Ducks with each haul. It is now a species considered vulnerable and threatened.  

This was the extent of ice on my visit. 

On way back to the hotel in Erie, we made one more stop at a community park where cameras mounted to trees are positioned to watch the ever-eroding bluffs. I met up with a park employee who showed me a picture of the park thirty years ago to compare to the what I saw today.  "Without winter ice, this erosion will only eat away faster more of the bluff and there's nothing we can do about it," he said.  In the past two decades, the length of his career with the township, he has watched this park slump into the lake at a rate of ten feet a year. Under threat now is a park road, a picnic area, and a pavilion. Gone already is the bluff edge forest that once buffered the park from wind and a trail that accessed a small shingle beach. "It's like in my one lifetime so much has gone. How much longer before we will have to abandon the park?" 

Actively eroding bluff

One more look at the lake from the edge.  It's strange, I thought.  I described childhood visits to family and friends who lived near both Lakes Erie and Michigan and recalled how thrilling it was to see the ice stretching as far as the eye could see. Ice fishing, ice boat sailing, and winter birding were some of my favorite memories of spending time with my U.S. Navy uncle and his family near Chicago in the 1970s. On our way to and from Chicago, we'd stop along the Erie coast to see the big laker ships in winter layover or in the channels hauling ore and coal. He described ice fishing and skating as his favorite winter pastimes and having grown up not far from here, how "the lake might as well be family."

Lake Erie - ice free


February 16, 2024, report by NOAA about our nearly ice-free winter.

NOAA  "Ice Cover Nearly Non-Existent."

Fact sheet by DCNR  on the Black Oak Savanna Restoration at Erie Bluffs  

Winter is no time to camp near Lake Erie so I found that Sleep Inn (a subsidiary of Clarion Hotels) happily welcomes pets. Amos had a great time. First floor rooms with easy in and out, pet friendly staff, and even a doggy gift bag to welcome him!  Affordable and comfortable when all you need is a warm room and a nice hot shower and a comfy place to rest your chilly bones. We stayed at the Sleep Inn on Peach Street in Erie. It was a great first hotel experience for Amos and he was a very good boi. 

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