Thursday, April 25, 2019

Morning in the Big Woods

Spring mornings are a glorious time to be in the Big Woods; actually spring mornings are the best time to be in any woodland. Wildflowers are emerging and some are in full bloom, trees are beginning to leaf-out – an old boss of mine used to say that the oak leaves were the size of squirrels’ ears – birds are defending their territories with song and waterfalls are at their best.

So, it was off to the Big Woods to see what I could see. Amidst last fall’s sere brown leaves a small patch of bloodroot was in full bloom –

Nearby were a couple of trout-lily flowers among hundreds and hundreds of non-blooming plants that had produced only leaves –

Amid the flowers a small butterfly, a spring azure, engaged in short flights; spring azures are the most common butterflies of early spring –

There’s a small open wetland in this section of the Big Woods and, although the wood frogs and spring peepers had already bred and left, amphibians still called from the open water. American toads in large numbers gave forth their trilling calls –

At the edge of the open water swam a garter snake, hunting toads no doubt –

The wetland gradually gives way to moist woodland where a large number of round-lobed hepatica were in bloom: blue –

And white –

And, least common, the pink variety –

Heading back to the car on an old woods road, I saw the day’s second butterfly, a Juvenal’s duskeywing –

And in a muddy spot the track of a coyote –

Further along I kneeled to photograph the pretty flowers of a Pennsylvania sedge –

As I knelt, I was “treated” to the sight of a large tick crawling on my pants’ leg – a wood tick (also called the dog tick) –

Wood ticks don’t seem to be anywhere near as common as the black-legged ticks that carry Lyme disease and are much easier to see. Like other ticks, wood ticks are a vector of one or more diseases; they can carry the rare, but potentially lethal, Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Every time I find a tick, I’m glad for the permethrin with which my pants are treated.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Seven Days in April

April is a month of rapid change as waterfowl pass through on the way north, the earliest wildflowers bloom, frozen ground melts to occasionally becomes a sea of mud, the first warblers return, the sky is blue without the haze of summer – for the naturalist/photographer it’s a wonderful time of year. Here’s a sample of what April had to offer during seven consecutive days –

Day 1 – Down on the river a common loon leisurely swam near the shore; the bird would occasionally float with its head submerged as if it was looking for fish, but never completely submerged. Loons winter along the Atlantic coast and breed on northern lakes and large ponds. Although, on rare occasions, these loons have bred in Pennsylvania and non-breeders occasionally spend the summer here, we normally only see them as they pause on their way north; years ago a co-worker and I counted 104 common loons on a large local lake on a single day.

Day 2 – Went to State Game Land #252 looking for waterfowl on the ponds. Other than the resident Canada geese, some already incubating eggs, there were few birds on the ponds. High in a tree a flash of red caught my eye – the brilliant red crown and nape of a red-bellied woodpecker. Decades ago red-bellied woodpeckers were a bird of southern woodlands, but as the climate has changed they’ve expanded their range northward and are now common here.

Day 3 – I was walking along the edge of a small wetland edged by a narrow band of cattails when a large bird flushed from the cattails, flew across a narrow band of open water and landed in the top of a large patch of red-stemmed dogwood. There it stayed as I took photo after photo – it was an American bittern, the first I’ve seen here in many years. American bitterns prefer extensive cattail marshes and, due to habitat loss, are endangered in Pennsylvania so it was a very lucky find.

Day 4 – There are quite a few old homesteads in the Big Woods, places where families lived and farmed until a changing economy made their life styles untenable and the farms were abandoned. While they lived on their farms those folks often planted flowers and flowering shrubs: lilacs, columbine, myrtle, irises and daffodils – some of which survive to this day. Alongside an old stone foundation remaining from one of the farmsteads was a clump of daffodils with its flower buds beginning to open.

Day 5 – Along the Pine Creek rail-trail a tiny white flower was in bloom – hairy bittercress is its common name. The entire plant is small, growing only about one and a half inches tall and very easy to overlook. Hairy bittercress is native to Europe but has been inadvertently carried throughout the world by settlers and travelers. It’s said to be edible and was used as a green in salads.

Day 6 – It was 70ºF today and, in spite of a stiff breeze, it felt quite hot. Along a woodland trail, a mourning cloak butterfly flew lightly among the trees until it finally landed on the trail. Mourning cloaks spend the winter as adults beneath loose bark, in the leaf litter or in hollow trees, emerging on warm days in spring to feed on tree sap. On those warm spring days the males bask in sunny spots on the forest floor waiting for females so they can mate and produce the next generation.

Day 7 – Along an old road in the Big Woods are some decaying chunks of firewood that were cut and never removed. The decaying chunks are habitat for worms, slugs, fungi, insects of many species and salamanders. You can never tell what may be found if the chunks are carefully lifted. On this day it was a red-backed salamander (the variety with a lead-colored, not red, back). Red-backed salamanders are the most abundant vertebrate in our damp woodlands. Because they’re lungless and breathe through their skin they must live in moist places: in the leaf litter, beneath logs and rocks or in burrows in the soil

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Videos from the Rim

The camera trap along the rim of the plateau has been in the right place at the right time for a number of months. Earlier videos were in previous posts – the one with the bobcat trying and failing to catch a gray squirrel was especially satisfying.

Here’s a selection of the latest videos –

The jumble of boulders, outcrops and overhangs on the steep slope below the camera seems to be prime habitat for one or more bobcats; a photograph or video of a bobcat has been on the camera’s memory card at every check.

The rabbit in this video may well be an Appalachian cottontail since the site’s elevation and habitat, which contains significant amounts of mountain laurel, huckleberries and blueberries and a few conifers, are those preferred by these rabbits. Appalachian cottontails are a species of concern in Pennsylvania; white-tailed deer compete for the browse that the rabbits rely on for winter food and eastern cottontails compete for summer foods. Unfortunately, without a DNA test there’s no way to know if it was an Appalachian cottontail or just a wayward eastern cottontail in a large area of dense woodland.

The white-footed mouse that ran down the branch stub didn’t hang around for long – a wise move with the bobcat paying regular visits.

Eastern coyotes form lifelong pair bonds and the pair in the video appeared at the peak of breeding season – in mid-February on a foggy morning after a freezing rain. These weren't the first coyotes caught by a camera at this site.

The rim of the Allegheny Plateau has been a productive place for a camera trap, what will the future hold?