Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Compass


Finally caught up with my reading, gradually working through the magazines that had piled up over the past months. Only a bit over a year and several months late, and deep in the pile, I eventually got to the November 2013 issue of Smithsonian and there, staring out from the page was a photograph of a compass that looked amazingly familiar.

It was a photograph of the compass Meriwether Lewis carried on the Corps of Discovery (Lewis and Clark) expedition that President Thomas Jefferson sent west to map and explore the Louisiana Purchase. The journey to the Pacific Ocean and back lasted from May 1804 until September 1806.
The reason the compass looked familiar is that in 1960 I purchased a Model 5600 “Forestry Compass” made by Kuffel & Esser Company. At the time it was the premier hand-held compass used by foresters, geologists and surveyors.

The compasses aren’t identical: Lewis’ compass was made with a wooden case, mine with an aluminum case; Lewis’ compass has a set of sights in the form of two slotted posts that are aligned to take a bearing, mine has a sight line milled in the lid – but they’re remarkably alike given the 150 year difference in their ages.

Compasses are rapidly becoming obsolete as professionals as well as hikers, hunters and other outdoor folks adopt electronic Global Positioning System (GPS) devices that can determine their location to within a few feet anywhere on the earth. GPS receivers are now even in cars, cameras and cellphones – some will actually speak to you.

However, in reading the reports of rescues it quickly becomes apparent that relying on GPS is fraught with potential problems – from people who, following the directions given by their vehicle’s GPS, use roads that are closed in winter and get marooned in deep snow; to hikers relying on a GPS receiver until its batteries give out and they’re totally lost. If a GPS receiver can’t “see” enough satellites it won’t give a reliable reading – think about beneath dense foliage or in deep narrow valleys – and if water gets inside …

There’s a lot to be said for an old-fashioned compass and map – no batteries to fail; they work beneath dense foliage and in deep valleys; and no annoying computer-generated voice – this old codger will keep using his old compass.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas Count


This is the time for the 115th annual Christmas Bird Count. For those of you who aren’t familiar with what is commonly called the Christmas Count a bit of detail: In the late 1800s eastern forests had been decimated by “cut and get out” logging; wildlife populations were under tremendous pressure from unregulated hunting, including market hunting; the passenger pigeon’s billions of birds were on the brink of extinction; the bison’s millions had been reduced to a remnant population in Yellowstone and in zoos and private preserves; egrets and songbirds were killed to adorn ladies’ hats. It was common for folks to take to the field on Christmas day, guns in hand, form teams and kill as many birds as possible. The team with the most birds won.
Canada Geese
In an effort to reduce the slaughter of songbirds the early leaders of the Audubon Society organized the first Christmas Bird Census to count birds rather than kill them. In the intervening years the Christmas Count evolved into an effort to count all the birds in a circle 15 miles in diameter on one day. There are over 2,300 Christmas Count circles throughout the world, most in the United States and Canada.
Hermit Thrush
Recently I participated in a Christmas Count I’ve been doing for over 30 years, covering the same portion of the circle for all those years, an area that I know well. It’s an interesting area with a diversity of habitats – mature woodland, cutover forest, tree plantations (young and old), cropland, abandoned fields, ponds, wetlands and small streams. Because of the diversity of habitats it offers a wide variety of bird species. The Christmas Count is great fun, whether I do it with friends or family or alone; a chance to revisit an area I like, wander through all those habitats and see other wildlife in addition to the birds.
White-breasted Nuthatch
It’s interesting to see the trends in bird populations as the habitat changes – as fallow fields are put back into agricultural production; after the owner of a large acreage clearcut a significant area; one year the ponds are frozen, the next they’re not; when new houses spring up in what had been fields or forest.
Black-capped Chickadee
Some folks call the Christmas Count “citizen science” and researchers have spent countless hours and reams of paper and megabits of data compiling and analyzing the results. But, like all scientific efforts, the value is dependent on the quality of the data collected and how it’s used. But there are also serious concerns about the value of the data  – especially about species that are hard to identify or uncommon in an area. Many people just don’t have the skill to identify species correctly, aren’t interested in being cold or wet or don’t cover their area thoroughly – is the information they collect worth having? How good is the “citizen science”?   
Purple Finch  -  House Finch
Enough for the Scrooge stuff, for now I’m going back to photographing birds.
Pileated Woodpecker

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Ice Storm


Northcentral Pennsylvania receives fairly frequent ice storms when supercooled rain falls and freezes almost instantly when it hits the ground, trees or other objects. Two days after a light freezing rain I headed to a wooded park in the Big Woods to hike out to an old abandoned farm.
All of the trees and shrubs and dry stalks of herbaceous plants were coated with a thin layer of ice:
The branches of a hawthorn –
A small crabapple still hanging from a twig –
White pine needles –
Goldenrod and aster stems weighted down by the ice –
The buds containing next spring’s mountain laurel flowers –
And a dry sweetfern leaf –
Sweetfern actually isn’t a fern; it’s a shrub related to bayberry and more distantly related to walnut and beech trees.  
This ice storm didn’t result in enough ice forming on the trees and shrubs to cause any damage, but a few years ago what began as light snow changed to an ice storm that resulted in major damage to many trees over large areas.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Down By The Riverside II



This is the dreary time of year; at times it seems as if everything in the outdoors has turned drab gray or brown. Even the sky was gray this morning, without a hint of blue anywhere. Nonetheless, it was a good day to walk along the river, although with the low dark clouds and a bit of mist in the air it was a terrible day for photography.
Even the birds along the river were various shades of brown, gray or white on this gray morning. As usual, the most abundant birds on this December morning were dark-eyed juncos, flitting among the shrubs or flushing to fly a short way ahead as I walked.
Out in the river were more gray and brown birds – two female buffleheads loafed not far from shore –

A short way further were three horned grebes swimming upstream at a leisurely rate –

And further out in the river was a lone female lesser scaup – even the normal white at the base of the bill was drab, hardly noticeable –

Further along, on top of the electric transmission tower where I’ve seen and photographed them before, were two adult bald eagles. Hardly anyone would describe adult bald eagles as drab, certainly not me. But who could deny that the eagles’ predominant colors are brown and white?

Last but far from the least of the birds along the river this day, in a tree near the tree where one or both of the resident birds frequently perch, was the male peregrine falcon. The falcon’s crop was bulged a bit, probably by one of the many pigeons that frequent the nearby bridge –

He soon moved to the favored tree to join the much larger female –

It may have been a gray day, and the birds may have been gray and brown with some white thrown in, but the walk turned out to be anything but drab.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

It's Time For A Change!




This is the first week of Pennsylvania’s traditional firearms deer season; a long-standing tradition that has brought generations together as fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons, brothers and cousins, shared time together in forest and field and in hunting camps throughout the state. Times have changed and now some wives and daughters and granddaughters have joined hunting parties, and many traditional hunting camps are seeing year round use as family getaways.

For more than a century hunters and trappers have funded the state’s wildlife programs, which have included restoring populations of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, river otters, and fishers. However, for the most part the Commission’s programs have been concentrated on species that are of interest to consumptive users of wildlife. But the Commission also deserves everyone’s praise for its acquisition of over a million acres of wildlife habitat on State Game Lands that are open to public use.
Often overlooked, however, is the fact that wildlife is a public resource which, in essence, belongs to all the citizens of Pennsylvania whether they are hunters, non-hunters or anti-hunters – whether they are interested in white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, Allegheny woodrats or blue-headed vireos.

A few years ago there was a move to change the name of the Pennsylvania Game Commission to the Pennsylvania Wildlife Commission to more accurately reflect its mission; a proposal that was vehemently opposed by a faction of hunters and so Game Commission it remains. 

Now it’s time for a change in two long-standing traditions. Yes indeed, it sure is – in fact it’s long past time for a change.

What should be changed are the way wildlife management in Pennsylvania is funded and the composition of the Board of Game Commissioners. The Pennsylvania Game Commission is an independent agency of state government that is charged with managing all wild mammals and birds in the state and managing over a million acres of State Game Lands. The Board’s eight members are nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the state Senate; in turn, the board appoints the Commission’s executive director. Traditionally, Board members have been active hunters with solid connections to sportsmen’s organizations and funding has been primarily derived from fees paid by hunters and trappers or excise taxes on firearms.
It’s past time to change the funding base for wildlife programs in Pennsylvania and the composition of the Board of Game Commissioners. Although there have been ups and downs, the general trend has been a steady decline in license sales from 1.3 million in 1982 to  952,000 in 2013 – a 27% decline. At some point the reduction in license sales will have a severe impact on staffing and/or wildlife related programs. Unless there is a change in the Board’s composition and the recruitment of an additional constituency consisting of wildlife watchers and photographers, the programs that will probably suffer most are those dealing with non-game wildlife.
It’s past time for a change, because the citizens of Pennsylvania view wildlife in a different light than they did 50 or 60 or 100 years ago. Look at the situation with predators, Pennsylvania paid bounties on virtually all predators for many years. Now, although a certain element among hunters would like to resume paying bounties, the general public acknowledges predators’ role in the natural world and their increasing interest to photographers and others who enjoy wildlife. Coyotes are a prime example; the Board has seen fit to continue treating them as “varmints” allowing them to be killed every day of the year, in any number.
Pennsylvania’s elk herd is a major draw for wildlife watchers and photographers and occupies only a portion of the state’s suitable habitat. When the Game Commission instituted an elk hunt in 2001 it was met with joy by hunters and complaints from wildlife watchers. Only a tiny segment of the elk range is managed as a “no kill” zone, and that’s virtually all within sight of designated viewing areas or public roads; thus elk that have lost all fear of humans and move outside of that zone are shot each year. It seems obvious that hunting is valued over wildlife watching or eco-tourism – what about serving the larger public’s interests?
The gap between the interests the Board of Game Commissioners now represent and the larger public is wide and growing wider as the number of hunters diminishes and the number of wildlife watchers and photographers has grown. The non-consumptive wildlife interests have an obligation to provide significant funding for wildlife programs and deserve a seat at the table, in the form of representation on the Board, when decisions are made. And yes, there will be contentious issues leading to much debate – Pennsylvania’s wildlife deserves no less!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

November Gold



One of Aldo Leopold’s best essays was “Smoky Gold” included in his A Sand County Almanac – "The tamaracks change from green to yellow when the first frosts have brought woodcock, fox sparrows, and juncos out of the north. … I regard a phalanx of young tamaracks, their golden lances thrusting skyward. Under each the needles of yesterday fall to earth building a blanket of smoky gold …" Tamarack is pretty scarce in northcentral Pennsylvania however, occurring only in some widely scattered wetlands -- relics of the last time a glacier came this way.
Tamarack
Tamarack is known by a variety of different names across its wide range – tamarack, hackmatack, eastern larch. That range extends from Newfoundland to the Yukon and south to the Lake States and West Virginia. It is very intolerant of shade and is most commonly found in wetlands and recently disturbed areas. While we don’t have much tamarack, there’s quite a bit of the related European larch and Japanese larch in this part of Pennsylvania.
It’s obvious from their names that European and Japanese larch aren’t species native to our area, but are instead imports that have frequently been planted in old fields and also used to re-vegetate strip mines. In Leopold’s Wisconsin the tamarack turn color and begin to shed their needles in October; here the larches are at their best in early to mid-November. Gleaming golden on the hillsides, the larch are readily apparent to even the most casual observer. And, yes the larches are deciduous conifers – unlike the pines, spruce and fir that always have green needles on their branches, the larches shed all their needles each autumn.
Although they’re very similar in general appearance, the imported larches can be told apart by the color of their new twigs. European larch twigs are straw-colored while those of Japanese larch are salmon-colored.
European Larch                                                          Japanese Larch

Unfortunately, many of the larch plantings were on soils that are unsuited to their requirements. Thus, many of the trees are failing to thrive and won’t be around for too many more years.
But for now we can enjoy the November gold, it’s obvious after the hardwood leaves have fallen and among the last of nature’s bright colors that we’ll see until next spring.