Marcia Bonta Reflections

2015

TWIN BRIDGES

September 24, 2015

If the Twin Bridges were human, they would be identical, but their ecological niches would be fraternal.

The first bridge is in the sun this cloudless autumn day. A gray catbird, half-hidden in the underbrush, sings his mewing song, while a red-bellied woodpecker yelps from a nearby tree. American crows caw across the sky, and eastern towhees “to-hee” monotonously. Standing in the middle of the bridge, I can see a flock of cedar waxwings, lit by the sunlight, in a distant, leafless tree.

The stream barely flows beneath the bridge after the late summer drought. Masses of reddening Japanese stiltgrass spread a smothering blanket on either side of the water, but several native plants penetrate this destructive invasive from the Far East.

On one side of the stream pokeweed dangles deep purple berries and the leaves of blackberry shrubs and Virginia creeper are changing from green to gold and red. A few sensitive ferns and a single clump of cattails also grow in the wet area. The trees include a few healthy-looking hemlocks and a young black walnut tree. The latter still has its leaves but no nuts. On the bridge, however, I find pieces of walnut shells laboriously shelled and cracked by gray squirrels.

Even though squirrel researchers seem to have proved that gray squirrels exert more energy to extract walnut meat than the energy they obtain from it, the squirrels in our black walnut tree yard persist in both eating the nuts in fall and burying them for retrieval in early spring. Apparently, they haven’t read the research.

On the other side of the first Twin Bridge are more cattails, sedges, lemony-smelling horsebalm, wild grape vines and jewelweed, also known as touch-me-not.

In between the two bridges pilewort is in silky seed and virgin’s bower overtops the stiltgrass. The “virgin” refers to Queen Elizabeth the First of England, hence its scientific name Clematis virginiana. This native vine has the alternate name of “Old Man’s Beard,” which is an apt description of its small, dry, seed-like fruits with long, white, silky plumes. It’s also known as “Traveler’s Joy” because of the beauty of its star-shaped, white flowers during mid-summer, presumably when folks are on the road.

Poking up from the vegetation are four snags. One is a peeling birch snag and another is from a giant tree that must have broken off years ago, but all snags make excellent living quarters for cavity-nesting birds and small mammals such as raccoons. That may be why, over the next hour, I hear or see downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers in the area.

The second bridge is in deep shade cast by the large hemlocks on the far side of Shaver’s Creek, which still flows strongly beneath that twin bridge. Greenbrier twines over a rotting stump. Wavy-leaved, white wood and calico asters bloom as the goldenrod fades. Overtopping them are the dried flowers of Joe pye-weed.

Sitting on a bench in the hemlock forest near the second Twin Bridge, I hear gray squirrels vocalizing. Fall crickets call and spring peepers peep. In the distance, the voices of students and their guides carry from the nearby but hidden boardwalk.

Here I cannot see the lake and yet, after leaving this tranquil spot, it is only a short distance to the Boardwalk and the dammed Lake Perez beyond. But back near the second Twin Bridge, debris has built up behind a fallen tree, creating a partial dam that no human has designed and built.


RUDY SAWMILL

July 7, 2015

It’s a humid, overcast July morning when we walk to the Rudy Sawmill site. Along the way on the Lake Trail and later at Twin Bridges, we admire golden beds of fringed loosestrife and note that black raspberries are ripe. Across from a dilapidated sign saying “barn owl” for some incomprehensible (to us) reason, we stop to marvel at a huge white oak tree. Through what seems to be an incredibly wet area, perhaps due to the almost unremitting rains of June, many more white oaks grow. This increasingly dwindling oak species seems to be thriving on this site.

When we reach the turn-off to Sawmill Trail, we are amazed at how full Shaver’s Creek is. As we head into the hemlock forest, we are greeted by the loud, explosive “pit-see” song of an Acadian flycatcher. Canada mayflowers blanket the forest floor, but we also see clusters of Indian pipes. The wet weather has been a boon to the ghostly-white Indian pipes. I’ve noticed that during dry summers they are scarce or even once, in the drought year 1988, none germinated on our property, but this year they have been plentiful.

Red-eyed vireos drone their incessant songs loud enough to be heard above the flowing creek. Large rhododendrons in glorious bloom hang over Shaver’s Creek. Mushrooms in a kaleidoscope of colors — pink, dark purple, yellow and white — light up the forest. “Teacher, teacher, teacher” calls an ovenbird as we arrive at the site of the old Rudy sawmill. And the anticipated sun finally streams through gaps in the trees.

Nothing is left of the sawmill but a haphazard pile of rocks topped by a cluster of three small scarlet mushrooms. After standing in a patch of rattlesnake ferns and looking down at the site, I settle on a bed of moss beneath the hemlocks while Bruce climbs down to sit on a boulder beside Shaver’s Creek. A breeze in the tops of the hemlocks sprinkles me with raindrops.

The Rudy Sawmill was a relatively small operation and was open from 1861 until 1882. It probably ran out of lumber because of deforestation. Years ago, back in 1972, Bruce’s great Uncle Byron visited us at our newly-purchased farm in Plummer’s Hollow. Byron’s Albertson family lived in northeastern Pennsylvania near Wilkes Barre, but as he looked around our property, he told us his father had operated a movable sawmill. Byron was certain that as a boy, and Byron was then 72, he had accompanied his father on a logging expedition to our mountain and others in central Pennsylvania. That would have been the early twentieth century. Surely, by then, there wasn’t much left to cut.

But there has always been the belief that trees are a renewable resource. If the Rudys thought of the future at all, they would have believed like our neighbors do today — that the forest will grow back — as they continue to log their properties every 25 years so that it remains a young, brushy forest to feed the deer they hunt. They don’t seem to notice or care that the quality of their forest has degraded, producing striped and red maple, black birch and little else because the large deer population they crave has eaten the oaks, black gum, basswood, tulip and other tree species that sprout.

I’m not certain the Rudys had the luxury of planning for the future of their offspring or their denuded landscape. It must have been difficult enough to survive in those days if you owned a small business and had a large family. Like humans everywhere, even those who already have more than enough like our neighbors, they had no interest in planning for future generations. And the trees did come back after their operation, but no doubt they were cut again, maybe by Bruce’s great, great uncle, since this forest is about 100 years old. Or maybe the poor farms were still struggling along and no forest flourished until the farmers were bought out.

Now that this valley is treasured as a natural place, it may be allowed to transition into an old-growth forest. But wait. This forest is already dying a premature death. Not by the chainsaw but by an Asian immigrant — the hemlock woolly adelgid. Already I can see the cottony white masses on some of the needles and stems where the females shelter and lay their eggs. Will the trees be harvested after they die or will they be allowed to rot in place, providing food for insects and other invertebrates?

And what will happen to Shaver’s Creek? If the hemlocks die, as they have at the Hemlock Natural Area in Tuscarora State Forest, they will be replaced by black birch. Birch will not cast the dense shade that keeps the water cool for fish and the tiny aquatic organisms they eat. The hemlock needles that fall in the creek sustain a different and wider variety of macroinvertebrate species than those lined with hardwoods.

“Hemlocks,” says Donald Eggen, forest health manager for Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, “are what we call a foundation species. That means it’s the dominant life form in the habitat. Everything else is there because the hemlocks are there,” he told Lara Lutz in a recent edition of the Chesapeake Bay Journal.

The hemlocks’ deep shade keeps out most other plants but provides shelter and warmth for more than 120 vertebrate species including 90 species of birds. The last two cold winters have knocked back the adelgids — below zero Fahrenheit temperatures have been a respite for the hemlocks. And even though hemlocks have been killed from the Smoky Mountains up through the Appalachians to Pennsylvania, not all the hemlocks die in some places. Still, barring a natural predator on the woolly adelgids, and scientists have been studying possible Asian beetle species, this place will eventually transition into a hardwood forest.

But today I am enclosed in a green curtain only slightly pierced by hazy sunlight. A black-throated green warbler sings, “trees, trees, beautiful trees,” and I can only agree. What a contrast this peaceful retreat is to what was once a noisy commercial enterprise.

As we take our leave, we hear the rattling call of a belted kingfisher. They probably have a nest dug back into the creek bank. Here I spot a patch of partridgeberry and there a cluster of Christmas ferns. Best of all, I find a few plants of striped wintergreen, although they have no buds or blossoms, so they must be only a year or two old. I’ve been watching as one striped wintergreen plant increased to nine inside our three-acre deer exclosure. It took several years for the oldest plants to produce flowers, and this July I counted three with nodding, white, waxy blossoms. Striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), also known as spotted wintergreen, has evergreen leaves striped with white and would be a ground cover in some places if the deer didn’t relish it.

A member of the Pyrola Family, striped wintergreen is a close relative of pipsissewa, which I haven’t seen since I was a child in the late 1940s when the deer herd was sparser. My Dad used to point it out to me during our outings in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania near Pottstown where he had grown up.

Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide calls striped wintergreen a plant of woodlands or bogs, The Peterson Field Guide to Wildflowers says it is found especially in uplands. Then there is the eccentric, old Wildflowers of the Alleghanies by Joseph E. Harned who claims that it is usually found in the deep pine forests.

But here it is in a deep hemlock forest and in our exclosure it grows under a hardwood forest. How little we still know about the many wildflowers we name as we walk through field and forest. How little about what will be here in 100 years.

Nature, despite our often rapist approach to it, will survive in some form or another but will humans? That, it seems to me, is the question for the 21st century, as we continue to live beyond the means of the earth to provide. But those who do, and I suspect small pockets will survive even a nuclear holocaust, extreme climate change, food and water shortages and whatever else is thrown at them, may live more like the Rudys than the way we live today.


Photo courtesy American Chestnut Foundation

CHESTNUT PLANTATION

August 28, 2015

I enter the gate of the three-acre chestnut plantation and wade through a white haze of Queen Anne’s lace. Carrying a chair, I intend to sit and contemplate the rows of planted chestnut trees covered with prickly round nuts.

But I can’t sit still. I had expected to see rows of trees, and instead I sense the whiff of neglect, not because of nature’s messiness, but in the rows of empty tree tubes, some scattered on the ground, and still other tubes protecting oak saplings.

This “plantation” doesn’t look like the “plantation” of red pines planted here in 1938 as part of a plan to reforest Stone Valley. Such conifer plantations were planted all over the commonwealth then, giving employment to legions of unemployed men during the Great Depression. Those plantations didn’t need to be fenced because the deer population was still recovering from unregulated hunting. As a child, growing up in the 1940s, I remember passing conifer plantations in eastern Pennsylvania and admiring their neat appearance, although I knew, even then, the difference between those forests and wild forests.

According to a sign posted outside the chestnut plantation fence, the red pine plantation had been clearcut in March and April of 2002 and planted by members of the American Chestnut Foundation the following year. Surrounded by wild forest, this exclosure, planted in the sun, is almost as old as our three-acre exclosure planted in a mature hardwood forest in March 2001.

It is quickly apparent to me that there is more than rows of chestnuts in this plantation and that in reality it is a deer exclosure, protecting both chestnuts and a wide array of trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. Eager to identify what is here, in addition to chestnuts, I spend the next cool, sunny hours, pen and notepad in hand, walking the length and width of the exclosure.

Of course, there are a few invasives — Japanese stiltgrass and crown vetch — and what one author calls “green immigrants” from Europe, such as heal-all, oxeye daisies, common mullein, and Queen Anne’s lace, but, for the most part, I see natives wherever I look. First, the wildflowers — lance-leaved and early goldenrods, boneset, a couple clumps of dwarf St. Johnswort, bush-clover, black-eyed Susan, snakeroot, pearly everlasting, silverod, panicled hawkweed, Joe pye-weed, Virginia day flower, woolly wild mint, blue curls, Indian tobacco, pilewort, partridgeberry, and false Solomon’s seal. Except for the false Solomon’s seal and partridgeberry, growing in a dense, early forest of black birch and red maple at the south end of the exclosure, most of the wildflowers are field denizens.

Were the seeds brought in by birds, on the shoes of visitors or workers, or were they in the soil for decades waiting for the sunlight? Perhaps, vehicles driving on the gravel road along two sides of the fence spread the seeds, and they crept under the fence from the roadside. I note a lovely cluster of green coneflowers blooming outside the fence, yet none are growing inside yet.

We have a 37-acre, unfenced mountain meadow and know that boneset and Joe pye-weed are favorite deer foods. Until we reduced our deer herd, those species struggled to survive, and even now I find only an occasional boneset, although in the last couple years Joe pye-weed has made a spectacular recovery.

My list of shrubs and vines inside the chestnut exclosure is not as varied as that of wildflowers. Still, I find a grove of Hercules’ club in fruit, a single maple-leaved viburnum beneath the dense shade of recovering forest at the south end of the exclosure, along with a few ground cedars, a spray or two of Virginia creeper, wild grape, dewberry, blackberry, a hawthorn, greenbrier, smooth sumac, scrub oak, and a cluster of spicebushes covered with red berries growing in the midst of Joe pye-weed. Most are, according to my studies on our property, both inside our exclosure and outside, favorite deer foods.

Finally, there are the tree species. In the dense black birch and red maple forest, I also note red and chestnut oak sprouts. At the opposite, northern end of the exclosure, I find several large tulip poplars and oaks as well as smaller saplings. Mixed in are a few chestnuts with seeds, empty grow tubes, dead chestnuts, some already sprouting new trees from the roots of the dead ones as they do in our forest. Medium-sized white pines — about the height of those in our exclosure — have also escaped deer pressure, as well as a few Virginia and red pines. I even find a few prickly cones of the latter. Hickory sprouts, sassafras saplings and aspen have sprung up in open areas.

I’m certain I have missed other species, but later I receive an explanation and a map from Sara Fern Fitzsimmons, who was in charge of planting the chestnut trees. Originally, there were 30 rows of chestnuts. While most survived, a few had types that couldn’t withstand our cold winters, namely chinkapins and European chestnuts.

Another problem is the spring that runs through the center of the site. It was created by an under-road culvert, which flows toward the southwest corner of the site, making it too wet for chestnuts. It’s been dry for a while, so I didn’t see signs of this, but it does account for the cattails and sedges I noted. Because of this, it was decided to allow natural regeneration there. In Fitzsimmons’s words, “It’s a nice comparison of natural regeneration to planted trees, with natural regeneration also being the preferred method of establishment when you can do it.”

Still, she said, there are more than 100 trees there that are important for their work. Excepting three species, every other Castanea species is represented. In addition, the plot has four to six generations of backcross breeding. In summary, she told me, “Each of these species and hybrids are used for various genetics and genomics work, as well as educational and demonstration opportunities.”

Eventually, I do sit and contemplate the plot. It is a quiet place. Only three vehicles pass during my time there. Fall crickets chirp and, as it warms up, they are joined by the buzz of annual cicadas. Once I spot an eastern phoebe sitting on a low tree branch, flicking its tail. From the forest beyond the exclosure a pileated woodpecker calls. A great-spangled fritillary flutters past. Along the fence near the Hercules’ club, I had noted an active wildlife burrow probably large enough for a woodchuck. And Fitzsimmons answered my puzzlement over what looks like several large brushpiles made for wildlife. But they are not, it turns out. They are slash piles left after the clearcut, creating other obstacles for their plantation.

Since this plantation is part of ongoing study by university professors and students, there is no point in wondering whether it is worth the time and effort to try to recreate a blight-resistant American chestnut tree. Research is what a university is about — asking the questions, doing the work, and hoping for satisfactory results. But often experiments fail. Even if, in the end, American chestnuts never return to wild forests, no doubt the American Chestnut Foundation will keep alive this species in plantations, just as other rare animals are kept and bred in zoos, waiting for a time when their habitat is once again available for rewilding.

Photo: Creative Commons

DARK CLIFFY SPOT

July 22, 2015

This glorious day, all too uncommon during the rain-soaked, humid summer, we set out to the dark cliffy spot. Following the Shaver’s Creek Trail through a mixed hemlock and white pine forest, we spot the blue of Lake Perez, lying silent this quiet, mid-week morning.

Although the understory is mostly empty, it makes it easier to find the occasional shrub or wildflower. A spikenard blooms down slope, its strange, greenish-white blossoms, growing in long, branching clusters from heavy black stems that support numerous heart-shaped leaves. When I first identified this plant in our hollow, I thought it had to be a shrub because it is so large. But it’s a perennial herb (Aralia racemosa),a member of the Ginseng Family, and in the same genus as bristly and wild sarsaparilla, also wildflowers, and most notably the shrub/small tree Hercules’ club (A.spinosa).

I also find a cluster of four maple-leaved viburnums, also called dockmackie shrubs, one of which was large enough to flower, and is now going to seed. All eight viburnum shrub species have been heavily impacted by deer foraging, but the maple-leaved has been recovering in some areas, particularly on steep slopes where deer don’t linger to eat.

Now that we are almost through July, birdsong has dwindled, but once I hear a singing black-capped chickadee, a calling eastern towhee and Acadian flycatcher in the forest before we reach the bergamot meadow, flush with the pale purple flowers of wild bergamot. They, in turn, are flush with tiger swallowtails, both yellow and black. Here and there an Indian tobacco also flowers, its tiny, pale blue blossoms less showy than the lobelias and cardinal flowers in its genus.

Then, we almost stumble over the only wild creature, other than birds, that we see during our hike. A medium-sized eastern box turtle is soaking in a small puddle in the trail, its head and legs fully extended. Even when we bend down to look at it, it remains out of its shell, reminding me of a box turtle, similarly soaking in the last remnants of our vernal pond one early summer day.

Box turtles often walk about after heavy rainstorms, such as we’ve had the last several days. They are also homebodies and rarely stray from their 300 to 500-foot home range except when females search for a place to lay their eggs. Their numbers have been dwindling over the years, mostly because of habitat loss — old fields and forests — death by wheeled vehicles, and even collection for the pet trade. I’ve followed them on our property, watched them dig nests and lay eggs, and find them restful creatures whose “turtle time,” as I think of it, slows me down for a while.

We move into a hardwoods zone, its understory thick with New York and Christmas ferns, black gum, hickory, and oak seedlings and mayapples dangling the single, golf ball-sized fruit they are named for. White coral mushrooms and a cluster of velvety earth tongues grow in the dampness near the wooden plank bridge over an unnamed tributary of Shaver’s Creek. In the mixed hardwood/hemlock forest beside the stream, I find several treasures — three species of club mosses, a cluster of hawthorn saplings, dark red boletes, white oak saplings, partridgeberries, black cohosh, and a perfect downy rattlesnake plantain in flower at the base of a hickory tree.

Despite its name, the downy rattlesnake plantain is an orchid with a basal rosette of white-veined, evergreen leaves that sometimes sends up a spike of small, pouch-shaped, white flowers. Of the five different clusters of these leaves, which grow from underground rhizomes on our property, only six flowers are blooming this year. One banner year every rosette of leaves on a slope with rotted logs in one section of our exclosure sent up a flower stalk and 37 flowers bloomed. But like other orchid species, they never seem to stay in the same place.

We cross a tributary of the tributary, and I notice the shaly rock has broken into rectangular cubes. More remnants of spring plants — hepatica and Canada mayflowers — are threatened by invasive Japanese stiltgrass making inroads even in the forest.

At last we reach the dark cliffy spot and settle down beside the unnamed tributary that is full and flowing, Bruce calculates, at 80 feet a minute. It bothers me that such a lovely stream is unnamed. Even our first-order stream has a name — that of the original owners — and I wonder if this one could be similarly named. Or perhaps, like Tennyson’s unnamed stream in “The Brook,” it needs no name.

My father, who loved that poem, recited it every time he drove up our road beside our Plummer’s Hollow stream. As a child I memorized portions of the poem too and can’t help thinking of its final lines, “For men may come, and men may go, but I go on forever,” which reinforces humanity’s belief that life, as we know it, will continue the same forever.

But to be blessed by water may not be as eternal as we seem to think. The Southwest is running out of water. Areas that might have done well if they hadn’t encouraged growth, think Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, for example, have long lived beyond their means and with the added threat of climate change, it looks as if they may have an insurmountable problem. The only way we can make more water is to do as the Israelis do, and build energy guzzling, desalination plants. Of course, then we will burn still more oil, gas or coal, I imagine, or maybe build more nuclear power plants on the San Andreas Fault to fuel such plants. If we burn more fossil fuel, it will trigger still more warming.

It may be easier to live in a warmer climate, but I’ve always thought that having water to drink was more important than a few years in the sun. So even though I have been tired of the rainy summer, I’ve been grateful for our water resources in Pennsylvania. But I’ve also been worried that we take our flowing streams and rivers for granted, or at least our politicians do as they’ve been allowing the gas industry to use such water to flush out gas deep in the ground using chemicals and without understanding how connected our underground water courses are. Yet, once again we believe what we are told about an industry even as many of our streams and rivers are still suffering from acid mine drainage as a result of coal mining. I call it madness and can only hope that the young people we are leaving this damaged earth to will be able to figure a way out of what I see as an impossible conundrum.

But enough of such gloomy thoughts on a glorious day. I sit and watch the sun shining on the stream as it casts flickering shadows on a portion of the cliff face and flows over and around sizable boulders broken off from the cliff. The water is crystal-clear, and I can see to its bottom. Like our stream, it doesn’t appear to support a fish population, and perhaps in drier summers it dwindles to a trickle.

Beside the stream a long dead hemlock tree trunk provides nourishment for two dark red, fan-shaped varnish cap shelf fungi — Ganoderma tsugae. Its species name is also that of hemlock’s genus (Tsugae Canadensis) and only grows on dead hemlocks. As our state tree continues to die from hemlock woolly adelgids, varnish cap should thrive in any case.

Since the stream provides a barrier to the fifty-foot-high cliff, I use my binoculars to study the plants cascading from it. Most notable are sprays of maidenhair spleenwort and common polypody. Both favor rocky cliffs, although maidenhair spleenwort prefers more acidic cliffs and boulders and withers when cold weather arrives, whereas common polypody is evergreen and also likes acidic, shallow soil, but will grow on stumps, old logs and rocks along flowing water as well as in tiny cracks in cliffs.

In places where there is more soil halfway up the cliff I record Solomon’s seal, wood and Christmas ferns, witch hazel, red maple, and hemlock saplings and a bed of worm-like coral fungi (Clavaria vermicularis) as far as I can tell.

I make no attempt to identify the mosses from this distance and wonder if a bryologist might find the cliff and moss-covered boulders harboring unusual mosses. I also notice at least one species of liverwort growing at the bottom of the cliff and white patches of lichens on the bare rocks.

The only sound I hear during the hour I study the cliff is the flowing water, including a miniature waterfall, and an occasional call from an Acadian flycatcher. And we see no one else and no one on the trail back. Altogether, a peaceful retreat on a perfect summer day.


BLUEBIRD MEADOW

April 28, 2015

“April is the cruelest month,” I think and not for the reasons T.S. Eliot examined in The Wasteland. I am eager to see green after the long monochrome winter, and yet most of April’s green is a wasteland of invasives that turn the forest understory and meadows shades of hazy green.

To most people, this greening is a hopeful sign; to me it is a natural disaster. As I walk the Bluebird Trail, I search for natives hidden in the sea of invasives. Passing the first of several decrepit, broken down bluebird boxes in an overgrown field of invasive privet, barberry and autumn olive, I eventually reach a small patch of open meadow. A set of intact, back-to-back nest boxes are set above the dried remains of native broom-sedge (Andropogon virginicus) grass and Canada goldenrod (Solidago Canadensis) festooned with goldenrod ball galls (Eurosta solidaginis).

A female eastern bluebird peers from one of the nest boxes and then flies out to join her alert, brilliant, blue-backed mate. I’ve reached what’s left of Bluebird Meadow. After I watch a black tiger swallowtail flutter past and land in the grass where it basks in the sun, I search for a shady spot where I can sit for an hour or so.

A young, native white pine encircled by autumn olive seems a good place to settle down. Beneath it I find a polished white, shed antler where a young buck left it last winter. It’s small but a reminder of the animal, other than humans, that has most shaped Pennsylvania’s natural habitat in the last hundred years.

White-tailed deer eat over 500 plants, a bushel-basket worth per day, and are excellent naturalists, able to choose native plants and ignore invasives. Not for them the barberry, privet, autumn olive, multiflora rose, and garlic-mustard, to name only a few of the pernicious plants from other continents that are taking over our fields and forests.

I’ve kept a list of the native shrubs we have on our forested mountain property 30 miles from here. Most either grow on steep slopes where deer rarely linger to forage or in our three-acre deer exclosure.

The only native shrub that greens up, flowers and fruits as quickly as the invasives is red-berried elder, and it only survives deer appetites on steep slopes. Wild hydrangea, maple-leaved viburnum, Hercules’ club, common elder, deerberry, wild azalea, hawthorns, and rhododendron are heavily browsed by deer. Spicebush is not as popular with deer, but they will eat it. Mountain laurel, which is poisonous, is only eaten sparingly, when no other plants are available, but many mountain laurel shrubs are dying from a leaf fungus, leaving only native blueberry and huckleberry shrubs and hay-scented ferns, which deer don’t eat, as the understory in forests and edge habitat.

Most native wildflowers, with the exception of trailing arbutus, goldenrods, asters, and snakeroot, are also deer food. The non-native wildflowers, for example, oxeye daisies, yarrow, gill-over-the-ground, coltsfoot, and dandelion, are never touched by deer, although it’s probably a mistake to say “never” where deer are concerned.

Most ecologists don’t blame the rise of invasives entirely on deer preferences. They point out that some plants, such as privet and barberry, have been here for more than a century, but only in the last several decades have they become a problem. A change in soils, perhaps the spread of non-native earthworms, or other changes in the landscape may also be part of the problem.

The neighboring land was logged in 1990, and shortly thereafter the empty spaces began filling in with barberry, privet, and multi-flora rose. Perhaps, poor logging practices should be added to the mix of reasons for the spread of invasives. It can be argued that the mostly diameter-limited cut mimics natural events such as blowdowns or ice storms, but when over 40 acres on our land was badly impacted by an ice storm, only the native striped maple filled the spaces and native wildflowers carpeted the forest floor.

Like all ecological questions, there are no easy answers or fixes. Often, the fixes are worse than the problems, such as the excessive use of Roundup on invasives, which now, it turns out, is attractive to but poisonous to insect pollinators.

With all my dislike of invasives, I worry that if we remove them, what will grow in their place, given the abundant deer in most areas. Birds eat and thus spread their seeds, and I’ve found eastern towhee and hooded warbler nests in barberry shrubs, towhee nests in privet, and cardinal nests in multi-flora rose.

Sitting beneath my white pine, I look across at a hillside of forest and wonder if the meadow should be allowed to return to forest. Then I hear a singing field sparrow and know that if Bluebird Meadow is expanded, more field sparrows will join the bluebirds. If it is managed well, it may even attract golden-winged warblers and yellow-breasted chats. Or if it is large enough, eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, Henslow’s sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, and Savannah sparrows, all old field and field edge species that have lost habitat because of changing farming practices, might nest in a large field. On a gamelands not far from our home, such a managed area now attracts all those species.

A pair of black-capped chickadees sing “Hey sweetie” back and forth, from field edge to forest. But they are out sung by a tufted titmouse that never stops his “petering” for very long, all the while I sit there. Both those birds will use nest boxes if they are close to a wooded area as these boxes are.

At last the birds I expect to occupy the opposite nest box arrive with the swooping flourishes of tree swallows. They have been competitors for bluebird boxes ever since people began supplying them back in the 1970s. But these birds are in need of more nesting cavities also.

I well remember the days when seeing an eastern bluebird was an event. Now they are common, and all because Lawrence Zeleny wrote The Bluebird: How You Can Help Its Fight for Survival in 1976 and followed it up with “Song of Hope for the Bluebird” in the June 1977 issue of National Geographic magazine. A retired biochemist who had been building bluebird boxes as a hobby, he wrote that bluebirds had lost both habitat and nesting sites to humans and more aggressive non-native European starlings and house sparrows, as well as native house wrens.

Not only had humans tidied or gobbled up old orchards and pastures, chopping down and burning old trees, stumps, and hollow limb nesting sites in orchards, they had also replaced wooden fence posts, where bluebirds preferred to nest, with iron ones.

Zeleny encouraged volunteers to build nest boxes and mount them in pastures, abandoned orchards, country cemeteries, the roadsides of small country roads, open borders of woodlands, cultivated fields with low-growing crops and open spaces between rows, any open areas with scattered trees and sparse vegetation, even over large lawns and golf courses, although heavy herbicide use on both lawns and golf courses makes them poor candidates today. Bluebirds like to perch above ground on a low tree branch or telephone wire to look for ground-loving insects which are their chief prey, hence their preference for short-grass habitat.

Tens of thousands of people continent-wide joined Zeleny’s North American Bluebird Society founded in 1978. Others worked as part of a youth organization, retired people’s group, garden club, conservation organization or bird club to make, sell, erect and monitor bluebird boxes on private and public lands.

Here in Pennsylvania, our Bureau of State Parks launched its Bluebird Trails Program in 1981. The Pennsylvania Game Commission started its Cavity Nester Cooperators program which includes nesting boxes for a number of cavity nesters, such as wood ducks and American kestrels, as well as bluebirds.

For once, humans’ meddling in the lives of a wild creature have paid off. Eastern bluebird populations have rebounded. Thus, turning Bluebird Meadow back into a functioning meadow for a variety of native, meadow-loving birds is a laudable goal.

Later, in the parking lot, I speak with Jon Kaufmann about this and he assures me that that is a long-term goal at Shaver’s Creek. He is especially interested in attracting more tree swallows in addition to bluebirds. I’m certain that if they recover a meadow, complete with native plants and wildflowers, they will come.


photo by Torri Withrow

LAKE PEREZ

November 27, 2015

Everyone loves a lake, no matter how small, especially on a warm, sunny day at the end of November, even a lake that nature didn’t put here in central Pennsylvania. Once most of the commonwealth was almost wholly a place of slow-moving rivers and rushing streams, except for the glaciated-formed lakes of northeastern and northwestern Pennsylvania. Then the dam builders persuaded us that we needed lakes, and dozens of free-flowing streams were dammed, creating lakes as large as Lake Raystown and as small as Lake Perez.

These lakes were a boon for recreationists of all kinds. Fishers sit along the lake shores or in boats instead of wading through streams and rivers, swimmers enjoy calm, deep water, children wade in the shallows and build sand castles on the artificial beaches, and folks of all ages enjoy a picnic at a table overlooking the blue water.

The larger lakes provide huge areas to run speedboats and smaller motorboats, all spewing noise and gasoline into the air and water, but they also provide hidden coves and even wetlands where those in quieter boats — canoes and kayaks — can find a more natural setting.

Here at Lake Perez, the only place where water-loving birds can hide is the boardwalk area, and back on October 29 we found a head-pumping American coot there among the wetland grasses. But today we are hoping to see migrating waterfowl. Our son Mark is with us and thinks that the lake is too small to attract lots of waterfowl. Still, we set up our scope at the beach area to positively identify a pied-billed grebe already in its chestnut and gray winter plumage and lacking the black band on a whitish bill that gives it its common name. It’s one of three that we see here, and the only waterfowl on the lake except for six of the ubiquitous Canada geese.

However, as a mountaintop-living naturalist, I welcome the chance to study a bird I know little about. They are poor fliers and prefer to go under water instead of flying when they are disturbed, which is what this one does over and over. Or perhaps it is diving for food. They eat a varied diet, especially of small fish, snails, frogs, tadpoles, and aquatic insects and larvae, all of which the lake provides, and sure enough it emerges from the water with a small fish in its bill.

Pied-billed grebes like flat or sluggish fresh to slightly brackish water and spend their summers in larger ponds or smaller lakes with at least some emergent vegetation such as cattails and bulrushes. But in order to breed, the lake or pond must have 70% or more emergent vegetation on which to build their nests, as well as non-motorized boat traffic in water lily beds. Since Lake Perez lacks the wetland requirements, this pied-billed grebe, which has been around all summer, is a non-breeding visitor that didn’t migrate north and the other two we see are probably northern migrants heading south for the winter.

Although the pied-billed grebe is the only member of its family that breeds in Pennsylvania, its numbers are low and have decreased from our first (1983–89) to our second (2004–2009) breeding bird atlas. Even optimal breeding areas seem, for the most part, to be devoid of this species, in Pennsylvania.

Disappointed to see so few waterfowl, we walk over to the boardwalk, flushing a bird that Mark thinks might be a wood duck. Whatever it is, we never spot it again.

Eventually, we leave the lake to the growing number of hikers and strollers enjoying this day after Thanksgiving, and I learn, from eBird several days later, that on a damp, overcast November 29, birders recorded three ring-necked ducks, seven buffleheads, one common goldeneye, one hooded merganser, and two pied-billed grebes.

Curious about how many water-related birds had visited the lake over this year, I worked my way back through the eBird records and found 32 species in extremely small numbers, ranging from nine northern shovelers, seven tundra swans and the buffleheads, and six red-breasted mergansers to a single common loon, American bittern, long-tailed duck, green heron, osprey, wood duck, and red-necked grebe, to name only a few.

Because Lake Perez was drained for nearly a decade and has only recently filled up after cleaning and repairs, perhaps it will take a while for the birds to discover this new, blue eye in a sea of green. From my naturalist’s perspective, only its value to these birds justifies its artificial existence.


RAPTOR CENTER

October 30, 2015

On this damp, lowering day, we are accompanied by our ten-year-old granddaughter, Elanor. She has been here before, but she still finds interest and some enchantment in seeing wild birds close-up.

I am not enchanted. I know that October is the major migration month for many of these species, and I wonder if they feel any Zugunruhe or migratory unrest during this time. Or are they resigned to imprisonment for life, in these cases, imprisonment for their own good because they have injuries that would doom them to a quick death if they were released. Like wounded humans in wheelchairs, they have a life but not the one they would have chosen.

Most have been injured either purposely or accidentally by humans and their instruments, i.e. guns, vehicles, windows or communication towers and wires. Now they are involuntarily serving as goodwill ambassadors, living their imperfect, imprisoned lives to keep safe their wild brethren flying free. Unlike the hordes of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who crowded the slopes of Hawk Mountain during migration in the early twentieth century to kill hundreds of raptors, believing that the only good hawk was a dead one, or the farmers and hunters all over the world who believed the same and, in some places still do, using these flawed creatures to educate the public about the usefulness of raptors as well as showing off their sheer beauty, seems to have led to a more enlightened attitude toward raptors in our area and in other places where similar facilities exist.

Still, as an aging naturalist who isn’t as agile as she once was, I feel pity for these caged birds, especially when I compare them to their brethren, which I have watched every autumn from the top of our First Field as they have flown southward, and to those that stay put on our mountain, living their wild lives.

Our ridge is especially known for its golden eagle migration, both south in the fall and north in the spring. When researchers trapped and radio-tagged the first-ever eastern golden eagle on our mountain back in 2005, a female, in fact, she spent her night quietly in a covered cage in our basement. The next morning I was allowed to hold her and release her the following morning. Instead of fleeing instantly, she flew into a nearby white pine tree and landed long enough for photographers to scramble through the woods and snap several pictures. To those of us watching, this seemed to be her farewell to us before continuing on her way. Holding her by her legs, looking into her eyes, and then letting her go was one of the most fulfilling times of my naturalist life.

Today I look at the golden eagle in the cage, its beak deformed, and listen as it calls over and over. This eagle seems to be the noisiest of the raptors because every time we’ve visited, it has vocalized even if we were walking past to the restrooms.

Next we stop to look at the barn owl.

“She looks like a pineapple,” Elanor remarks.

I can’t see that resemblance. To me, its face resembles a heart.

Barn owl numbers are abysmally low in Pennsylvania, so it’s a shame that one has been injured and can’t be released. We need all the wild barn owls we can get. Our barn is huge but it has no old silo, where barn owls prefer to nest. We also don’t have the right habitat. Years ago, Bruce climbed up an old silo in a valley farm field to photograph young barn owls in their nest for an article I was writing and he almost fell back down the 50-foot-high ladder when he was greeted by a nest of hissing nestlings. On the ground, I had a good, safe look at the female, but I have a much better view of this one on its perch far back in the cage.

The great-horned owl is swiveling its head as it looks down at us, and I remember numerous close encounters with them on our mountaintop, although lately their numbers have dwindled, probably because our habitat has changed. Once, years ago, when we kept chickens and Muscovy ducks, we drove up our driveway at dusk and stopped to watch a great-horned owl trying to lift our male Muscovy duck Big John. Big John fought and the owl dropped him. When we had domestic fowl, we also had Norway rats, a favorite food of these owls. Now that our caretakers are raising chickens, they are seeing great-horned owls hanging out nearby.

The barred owls seem to have replaced them as our woods have matured into large second growth. We’ve always had a pair or two, but in the last several years they have been more common. The three in the raptor cage are as bold as those I’ve seen in the wild, not keeping in the back of the cage but in front where Elanor points out the differences in their plumages, and I explain their seeming interest in humans around a campfire.

As charming as they are though, we are even more charmed by the short-eared owl. It moves from perch to perch and strikes us as personable as it looks straight at us. Last March Bruce and I with our son, Mark, traveled to fields outside Gettysburg to watch these wintering owls as they flew low up and down fallow fields or perched on nearby telephone poles, seemingly undisturbed by the dozens of people inside and outside their cars, taking photographs and peering through scopes and binoculars at them. Again, for me, it was a close encounter I’ll treasure.

To our surprise, the lively short-eared owl shares a cage with what appears to be an aloof red-shouldered hawk. It never moves from its perch. That reminds me of the only wild red-shouldered hawk I have ever had a long, close look at. On our same birding trip last March, we stopped to identify waterfowl crowded on a smallish pond in a suburban area. Nearby a red-shouldered hawk perched atop a telephone pole. At first we watched it through binoculars in our car. Then we slowly emerged and moved toward it, figuring it would fly at any moment. But it didn’t. It was as if we didn’t exist as we crept closer for lingering views through binoculars and then our naked eyes. Perhaps, it was so intent on the nearby waterfowl that it wasn’t worried about us. Or maybe that’s a red-shouldered hawk’s nature.

Impatient as always, Elanor has raced ahead to the turkey vulture with, as she says, an “old-fashioned hair style,” and she also names it.

“I feel so sorry for you, Turf,” she says as it comes up to the bars in its cage and spreads its wings as if willing itself to fly. Surely, it would want to catch the considerable wind blowing on this day and tilt in it as they do from March until November over our field and ridges.

The black vulture sharing a cage with a red-tailed hawk is not quite as lively as the turkey vulture, but it is still friendlier than the red-tailed hawks, which seem to be as disgruntled as the red-shouldered, or, more likely, to feel the Zugunruhe more strongly than the owls and vultures. After all, many of the vultures only migrate as far as the Gettysburg Battle Field’s winter roost, and most of the owls remain in central Pennsylvania. The hawks, on the other hand, migrate much farther. Sometimes in an hour on Alan’s Bench atop First Field in mid-October, I’ve counted several dozen red-tails heading south as well as lesser numbers of sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks.

The pair of bald eagles are lively and look like all the photos of mature ones, their signature white heads gleaming in the light. So much in our natural world has gone wrong during my 75 years, but bald eagles are one of the success stories. I remember when only a couple pairs lived in the northwestern area of Pennsylvania back in the 1980s. Now almost every county in the state has a breeding pair or more. Even our mountain, which encloses Sinking Valley, has a breeding pair. Never in my lifetime had I expected to see such a sight. Occasionally, while sitting on Alan’s Bench, one of the parents flies past and it is always a thrill. To see them in a cage is mostly sadness.

In the end, we ask Elanor which birds she preferred.

“I liked the short-eared owl, barred owls, and vultures,” she says.

We agree with her. As humans why wouldn’t we bond with what seem to us to be the most personable raptors?


LAKE TRAIL

May 23, 2015

Even though it is a gorgeous Saturday afternoon, my husband Bruce and I find Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center fairly quiet, although a few local families have brought their children to the manicured grounds where the adults watch and visit while the children wade in and out of the tiny pond.

As soon as we start on the trail, though, we are alone. Serenaded by a scarlet tanager, we walk past blooming golden ragwort, long-spurred violets and sweet cicely. Nearing the boardwalk in the wetland, wild geranium and golden ragwort flower amid skunk cabbage leaves.

We emerge from the forest on to the boardwalk spanning a portion of the wetland, and have our first glimpse of the lake — 72 acres of sparkling water on which a single Canada goose floats.

Far more wildlife seems to be concentrated in the wetland. Green frogs burp their calls. Red-winged blackbirds scold from nests hidden in the shrubs and cattails. A gray catbird unravels his long string of imitative calls and songs. Below in the water, hundreds of tadpoles swim. A tiger swallowtail slowly flutters past on its showy yellow and black wings in contrast to the flat-winged, speedy flight of a whitetail dragonfly.

Then we are back in the forest where ovenbirds and red-eyed vireos sing. Once again I catalogue plants — Indian cucumber-roots, mayapples, sensitive and Christmas ferns, Solomon’s seals, Canada mayflowers and Hercules’ clubs in the understory. Overhead hemlocks, the undersides of some of their flat green needles showing hemlock woolly adelgid damage, look as if they have several more years, especially if the cold winters continue. But the white oaks and even some small basswoods will probably replace them just as oaks in Pennsylvania have replaced American chestnut trees. Although I find one small chestnut tree lurking in the understory, it is doomed to die soon from the implacable fungus.

From the forest the Lake Trail leads us on to an expansive green blanket of grass that spreads to the lake. We have reached the old Civil Engineering Camp in Penn State’s 7,000 acre Stone Valley Recreation Area. Eleven year-round small rental cabins flanked by a road and numerous picnic tables have attracted families and couples bent on enjoying a sunny afternoon near or perhaps on the water in the small rowboats, paddleboats and canoes for rent by the half hour.

But my attention centers on the strange bird flying low over the water. Its long bill, black body, and skinny head make me think it is a double-crested cormorant and when it lands in the water, I am certain, because its profile, both flying and floating, as well as its diving, is cormorant-like, and I am pleased to see a bit of wildness in a decidedly managed habitat.

We wind our way past the cabins, searching for the orange blazes marking the trail, and shortly before we leave the area, a very large man on an even larger mowing machine spewing dust drives past waving. If the folks on the picnic ground hope for a peaceful afternoon, they aren’t going to get it.

Continuing on toward the dam breast, I note sweet ferns, wild yam-root, and maple-leaf viburnums in the forest. American goldfinches bounce overhead, and an eastern phoebe perches on the fence atop the spillway. A thin sheet of water streams over the sterile cement spillway into the diverse wetland below where a common yellowthroat sings its “witchity” song.

We pause to read the plaque explaining the origin of Lake Perez, named for civil engineering professor Lawrence J. Perez, who taught at Penn State from 1944 until 1970. He worked during the glory years of dam-building in the United States and especially in Pennsylvania where so many free-flowing streams, large and small, were dammed to please the people who preferred lakes to streams for their recreational pleasure. Perez had helped to plan, design, and construct the dam which was finished in 1961. After all, that was what engineers did in those days and still do — build first and ask ecological questions later. Today, as dams break down and need expensive repairs, numerous small and even larger dams have been destroyed and streams and rivers run free again. But Lake Perez was recently resurrected after several years when it was drained for repairs.

Of course, the lake is used for a variety of Penn State University’s gym classes, and recently, as we learn when we walk up the gravel road leading from the spillway, Vertical Adventures for Groups has been added so students can perfect their climbing skills, engaging in the newest and most popular recreational pastime.

On either side of the road grows an almost impenetrable hedge of bush honeysuckle, most likely Amur honeysuckle Lonicera maackii, still another invasive shrub from Asia that white-tailed deer dislike. But the forest above the shrubs is native and diverse and includes both black walnut and red spruce trees.

Still, the trail only regains its interest after we pass the last of the climbing equipment, and once again becomes a footpath strewn with flowering dogwood petals. Wild grapevines twining through the trees are in greenish-yellow flower. I also note white pines and maple trees thriving in what appears to be a recovering woodland. Silver-spotted skippers and blue azures flit along the path in front of us. The understory is dominated by a dark green carpet of Virginia creeper that is frequently penetrated by more golden ragwort.

By this time we are across the lake from the mad mower who is still at work, destroying the peace even at this distance. And I wonder, as I hear the scream of a motorcycle on a nearby but hidden road, whether anyone notices the noise or if most people are so inured to it, that they are neither aware nor bothered by it.

I am reminded of acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton’s attempt to make the Hoh rainforest in Olympic National Park the world’s first quiet zone. Increasingly distressed by the loss of natural silence because of human-made noise even in the most remote areas of the earth, Hempton found a location deep in the Hoh where he established his one square inch of silence on Earth Day 2005 by placing a small red stone on a log three miles from the visitors center. He hoped that if he could protect that area from noise pollution, the rest of the park would be quiet.

In his book One Square Inch of Silence, subtitled “One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World,” he recounts his trip across the United States from Oregon to Washington, D.C., zigzagging from one recommended quiet place to another where, as Sound Tracker, he records and measures the decibel level of mostly natural sounds, producing a sonic record of America. He also hopes to meet politicians and other government officials in Washington who might be interested in noise reduction, especially in wilderness areas.

As a young man, Hempton had been inspired by John Muir’s A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf where Muir had written “There is nothing more eloquent than a mountain steam,” several decades before our love affair with dam-building began in the early twentieth century. Hempton devoured Muir’s books, writing that Muir’s “listening prowess and ability to capture the varied range of nature’s symphony astounded me.”

Following in Muir’s footsteps, Hempton went to Yosemite National Park, grew a beard and even followed a wilderness vegetarian diet as Muir had done, hoping that by doing this Muir “could teach me to become a nature listener. He describes valleys and rivers as music…It was Muir who truly opened my ears to listening to nature as music.”

As part of his cross-country recording trip, Hempton is especially eager to re-find Muir’s stream — “walking the same ground as he did and listening to his cool mountain stream.” That stream is outside Montgomery, Tennessee in hilly terrain “offering scenic but discouraging valley views: almost every major valley has a road cutting through it,” Hempton writes, “the hills echo traffic” which could be a description of present-day Pennsylvania.

Finding Montgomery, even though he has it pinpointed on his topographical map, proves to be fruitless. Finally, he discovers a protected side valley with hollows and a little mountain stream, but the back country gravel road is filled with coal trucks. He waits until sunset to start recording after the trucks hauling coal shut down, but then a National Coal Corporation truck drives in, parks upstream, and starts sucking up the water, filling the “little valley with a piercing, mechanical whine.”

Hempton learns from the driver that he takes 4000 gallons at a time from the stream in what has been labeled a Wildlife Management Area on the map and works driving back and forth to the mine four miles away 12 times until 3:00 a.m. when another driver takes over. Not only does the water keep down road dust from the coal trucks but it is used to refill the coal mine’s pond. Then Hempton asks the driver if he knows where Montgomery is. He tells him he is standing in the town of Montgomery and next to Montgomery Creek.

So Hempton gives up his plan to record there. And as he nears Washington on the Chesapeake and Ohio towpath, where he walks the last 100 miles of his trip, he is appalled by the build-up of noise — trains, cars, trucks, but most of all continual air traffic all night long when he’s camping out. Eventually, he meets with the FAA officials, but they are particularly obdurate about making any changes in air flights over the Olympic National Park and continue to route passenger and military planes overhead.

I hope he is successful in his quixotic quest, but I’m certain he knows that Muir lost his fight to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from the dam-builders in 1913 and died the following year, worn out from his quest to preserve what Muir called the “other Yosemite” that became a reservoir for San Francisco.

We’ve watched for 44 years as the remote home we bought up a mountain hollow has become noisier. It was never totally quiet. We are on a direct jet lane from New York to California. Our son, Steve, who was a frequent flyer in a previous job, says he could see our First Field from 30,000 feet, but we rarely hear more than a low rumble. The military jets and helicopters, small, private planes, and the medical helicopters are much closer and louder. The family-owned limestone quarry in the valley below was bought up by a large conglomerate and has gone from barely noticeable to often cacophonous. And the small bypass at the base of our mountain transmogrified into Interstate 99. Sometimes on the loveliest days it seems as if the traffic is coming over the mountain. Every neighbor has had a logging operation with the accompanying whine of chainsaws and skidders. At the base of our mountain, since the 1850s, the major railroad line runs from New York to California. Recently, we see many more trains and tanker cars hauling fracked oil from the Dakotas and tar sands oil from Alberta.

Still, most of the time we have no trouble hearing natural sounds above the din of modern life, and while I sympathize with Hempton’s quest, I see an acceleration of human noise over the years ahead as humans “harvest” still more of the natural world to feed, clothe, and satisfy the desires of the increasing population.

Here on the Lake Trail, an ovenbird and red-eyed vireo sing, followed by a Baltimore oriole. A metal mark butterfly nectars on Philadelphia fleabane. We find the dried flower of a jack-in-the-pulpit. False Solomon’s seal, the flower the late Lemont botanist George Beatty renamed more appropriately Solomon’s plume, is still blooming. So too is sweet cicely. But by and large the spring wildflower extravaganza is over for the year.

And suddenly, as we near the end of the trail, it is quiet. It’s 4:00 p.m. and the mower is finished for the day. We are too. But I can’t help thinking that the Lake Trail is a misnomer. Except for glimpses at the wetland, Civil Engineering Camp, and spillway, we have little sense that we are circling a lake.

Marcia Bonta was born and raised in the wooded fringes of a suburban South Jersey town, Woodbury, New Jersey. Daughter of Harold and Leona Myers, she inherited her father’s love for forests, streams and swamps. Her earliest memories are of a childhood enchantment with nature. Marcia is the author of nine books, all currently in print, and over 300 magazine articles. Visit her website and blog, which includes her “Naturalist’s Eye” column from Pennsylvania Game News, the publication of the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC).