Wednesday, October 20, 2021

At the Cave

Is it really a cave? Maybe, but it might also be a place where, many many years ago, someone dug just below the rim of the Allegheny Plateau looking for coal thankfully they found none. In any event, it’s not very large and at first glance doesn’t seem to go very far. However, on one side of the cave there appears to be an opening deeper into the earth.

There’s a narrow path, apparently a wildlife trail, leading from the top of the plateau down to the cave. I’ve had a camera trap facing down the trail toward the cave (which is just out of the camera’s gaze) since 2018 and have been generally disappointed with what it’s captured.

It’s been quite a while since anything from the camera at this cave has been in a post, but things have changed since then. Here are the best videos from the camera at the cave taken between January and the end of September this year –

The camera took many many videos of gray squirrels, opossums and raccoons which aren’t included in the posted video. Every species that passed the cave’s opening either entered or investigated the opening. Porcupines, opossums and raccoons frequently use similar openings into the earth as dens; eastern coyotes utilize dens to birth their pups and for the first few weeks of the pups’ lives, and black bears often spend the winter in similar locations.

The passage off to the side is certainly large enough for the smaller mammals to enter and the eastern coyotes would be able to enter as well. Would the opening in the side be large enough for a black bear? Perhaps, but I won't try to enter.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Big Male

It's only certain that I saw him once with my own eyes but there's a good possibility that I’d also seen him a second time ten years later.

The first time was on the morning of May 1, 2005; H called me up from my basement workshop to see a bear at the bird feeder. There it was, a beautiful animal with a bow-tie-shaped white blaze on its chest.

Due to their thick coat of hair, which varies seasonally, it’s very difficult to estimate the weight of a black bear with any accuracy. But my best guess is that the bear weighed about 150 pounds at the time, it was spring and the bear wouldn't have had much time to put on weight after hibernation. How old was it? Perhaps 2¼ years if it was a male and something older than that for a female (some older females are rather small).

The bear left after a few minutes and the feeder went in the garage.

The next time we had any indication that this bear was still in the neighborhood was eight years later on October 27, 2013 when he appeared in several camera trap photographs taken in the backyard. I say “he” because with the passage of time the bear was much larger and had some scars on his face acquired in territorial battles with other males –

Just another guess, but with the eight years after his first appearance and with the fat acquired before hibernation, he may have weighed 500 pounds – he certainly was rotund. We don’t remember what we had for supper that night, but it must have smelled good to Mr. McChubby.  Without the camera trap photos, we wouldn’t have known he’d visited.

Then on the rainy night of April 8, 2014 what was apparently the same bear appeared in a photo from a camera trap on the hill above the house –

April 28, 2015 – there he was again, in front of a different camera trap on the hill. The camera took a number of photos, most showing his battle scars –

In October 2015 he was again in front of the camera trap on the hill –

It was also 2015 when I saw what might have been the same male bear on the edge of a field about three miles from the house. To the right of the bear’s right eye is a round scar and to the left of, and slightly above, that eye is another scar. Those scars can be seen in this photo and in several from the camera traps.  Was it the same bear? Quite possibly given the scars and that the distance is well within the territory of a male black bear.

Those were the last photographs I ever got of the bear. Apparently he was shot and killed (not "harvested" as the Game Commission prefers to say) during the 2016 hunting season at which time he weighed just under 650 pounds when placed on a scale at a check station and would have been at least 13 years old.

Friday, October 8, 2021


Jim died this week, fittingly he was outdoors at the time. His death is a tremendous loss, not only to his family, but also to forestry and land conservation in Pennsylvania and his many friends. Jim was a friend of mine; we were, in many ways, like-minded when it came to forests, their management and people’s relationship to them and had conducted several workshops together.

Jim was Dr. James Finley – Professor of Forest Resources at Penn State, Founder and Director of Penn State’s Center for Private Forests, and senior research fellow at the Pinchot Institute for Conservation; he had been associated with Penn State for 42 years before retiring in 2017. Jim had been on the boards of a number of organizations: the Foundation for Sustainable Forests, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and the Center for Amazon Community Ecology.

Sustainable management of privately-owned woodland was the primary focus of his professional career and to that end he conducted research, authored publications, chaired committees, trained both landowners and professional foresters and managed the woodland that he and his family owned. The number of honors and awards he received are too numerous to list here, there were a lot.

It wasn't just forests and the trees within them that were of interest to Jim, he was a superb woodworker who specialized in lathe-turned objects especially bowls. Many of his beautiful pieces were donated to benefit conservation organizations.

All of us who knew Jim and considered him a friend will miss him greatly and Pennsylvania’s forests will be less well managed without his influence.

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Elk in September

Arose well before dawn for the drive to Pennsylvania’s elk range and got on the road shortly afterwards. First stop was at the doughnut shop for a large coffee with skin milk and extra sugar as well as a cinnamon-raisin bagel. Then it was on the road passing a few houses where lights glowed and seeing some other early-risers who were also on the road.

Arrived at my destination during morning nautical twilight (when the horizon is visible but objects on the ground are not easily distinguished), just before what photographers call the “blue hour”. Parked the car and headed up the hill on an old road through a typical early morning fog. On the hill’s crest a spike bull elk grazed –

And dew spangled a spider’s web –

Then over the crest and down the other side where the old road ran through woods and paralleled a small stream. On the other side of the stream was a strip of woods and then a large grassy field.

A bull elk bugled from the wooded strip, but couldn’t be seen so I walked further down the hill and then across the stream to the edge of the field, where –

There were seven bull elk, three with branched antlers and four with only spikes, a bachelor group whose bulls hadn't been able to gather a harem and thus weren't going to be the sires of next year's calves. Even so one of the larger bulls dominated the younger animals –

After watching and photographing these elk for a while I looked around and saw a much larger bull with wide-spreading antlers, apparently the one that had bugled, walking into the field. He passed within about 150 feet, seeming to ignore the mere human who was photographing him –

It looked like he’d been pretty well battered in a fight with another bull, with two puncture wounds that match the spacing of an elk’s brow tines
and having lost a large patch of hair. Oh to have seen that battle.

After he walked past me, he headed straight for the other bulls who kept their distance and gave him a fairly wide berth. They all headed across the clearing and up the far hillside –

All the elk disappeared into the forest, there to spend the day resting and ruminating. As for me, I decided to head into the 50,000 acre Quehanna Wild Area to scout for signs of other elk activity.

A little over one hundred years ago the last of the Quehanna’s valuable white pine and hemlock timber had been cut, some logs floated down the streams to the sawmills, but most hauled by logging railroads. Forest fires followed the logging, the land was sold to become part of two state forests, and the regenerating forest was vastly different. Some of the old pine stumps persist, but are gradually succumbing to fungi (and tree roots)

While in other places there are old trees, like this white oak, that obviously spent years growing in the open while younger trees came up around them –

There were eight small subsistence farms in the area, none of which lasted very long due to infertile soils and a short growing season. Several of those open areas are now managed for wildlife, including elk.

The old farms aren’t the only open areas, in some places trees never returned after the fires that followed the original logging, while other openings are abandoned beaver ponds. There are active beaver colonies as well –

A few scattered openings were planted to conifers –

But probably 90% of Quehanna is occupied by a mix of oak, maple, aspen and birch of varying ages –

Nough of Quehanna, it was getting late in the afternoon and time to head back to where I’d seen the bull elk in the morning. So it was up the hill, over the top and down to the clearing.

Patience is a necessity for wildlife photographers, a quality I don’t possess in any quantity so I moved to three different places in the course of the hour it took for the elk to make their evening appearance. But appear they did; and, except for this yearling, they were closer to where I'd first sat on the edge of the opening – oh well!

Then it was the end of day, not enough light for photos, time to head home.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Flowers of Fall

I don't know about you, but to me fall is meteorological fall (September 1 to November 30) rather than astronomical fall (autumnal equinox to winter solstice). The meteorological seasons are much closer to the seasons that the natural world experiences.

In any case, it’s that time of year when the blooming season is just about over, we’ll have to wait many months before we can once again enjoy the flowers of forest and field. Wildflower aficionados (including me) have a tendency to go gaga over the wildflowers of spring: hepaticas, trillilums, bloodroot, and many others. But as for the wildflowers of late summer and fall, well … To paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield: They don’t get no respect.

Here’s an attempt to correct that disparity with a celebration of the flowers of fall beginning with my personal favorite, the many-hued New England aster –

And then there's it's look-alike the purple-stemmed aster with its very attractive stems –

Blooming a bit earlier, but of an even more intense blue are the spikes of the great lobelia –

There are a number of fall-blooming native orchids, the two most common are spotted coralroot –

And nodding ladies’-tresses –

Although often hidden by taller vegetation, in moist places closed gentian can be quite common –

Taller than any other wildflower growing in northcentral Pennsylvania is Jerusalem artichoke with its large yellow flowers –

Almost as tall is wingstem which grows in the rich soil of stream bottoms –

Although it’s called tall white lettuce, it’s not as tall as the two former flowers nor are it’s flowers nearly as conspicuous –

The flowers of white snakeroot are conspicuously abundant in rich moist woodland –

Also white and wet is turtlehead that grows on the shore of rivers, streams, lakes and ponds –

While we're looking at white flowers, many asters have white flowers. There’s small white aster –

and white wood aster –

Goldenrods are the epitome of late summer/fall wildflowers; the Peterson field guide illustrates 29 species, Newcomb 34 species and Britton & Brown 62 species. Here are but three: lance-leaved goldenrod –

gray goldenrod –

and the shade-dwelling blue-stemmed goldenrod –

Also in the shade is a small inconspicuous plant, beechdrops, that parasitizes the roots of American beech –

The only white goldenrod, silverrod, grows in the semi-shade of open woodland and roadsides –

Enjoy the flowers of fall, they’ll soon be gone.