Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Naturalists

In the late 1970s and early 1980s a group of six to ten friends would arise early and get on the road headed to …? Perhaps to New York’s Bergen Swamp to photograph wild orchids: small white lady’s-slipper and dragons-mouth

Perhaps we were headed to Elk County, Pennsylvania to photograph what was, at the time, a small band of elk. Another time we went to the old growth forest of Alan Seeger Natural Area to photograph Smalls twayblade, a tiny rather unassuming yellow orchid. A timber rattlesnake basking area and the remnant stumps of the forest of huge white pines that drew long-ago loggers kept us closer to home. 

One winter a friend of a friend had found a female black bear denned with her newborn cubs beneath a fallen tree and so “The Naturalists” went to see them.

And a wandering great gray owl drew us to northwestern Pennsylvania. All in all, we took many trips and used an abundance of Kodak film.

It’s been many years since the group got together, but those grand times live on in memories and collections of fading 35-millimeter slides.

Through all of the excursions there was a rotating cast of characters and a few one-time participants. Some of the regulars had nicknames, some not, but these are the principals:


Wayne was the oldest of the group and the first to pass on. He was, during his later years, probably the finest amateur botanist in the state and an excellent photographer. It was Wayne who led us to a hidden population of small whorled pogonia, the rarest wild orchid in the eastern U.S. At age 78 Wayne caught a timber rattlesnake the color of black velvet with his bare hands so the rest of us could photograph it before it disappeared into thick vegetation.


Hillary was frequently the driver for the group. In the tradition of his eastern European heritage, he was a gatherer of wild mushrooms and always brought jars of mushrooms he'd picked and canned to share with others who were hesitant to gather their own. Hillary was, for a number of years, in charge of an environmental education center at a state park. He too is now gone – the mushrooms had nothing to do with his demise.


Jack was probably the finest photographer of the bunch, an all-around fine fellow who almost always wore a smile, and a science teacher whose students often said he was their favorite teacher. Besides traveling with The Naturalists, he went south to photograph plants and wildlife in Virginia. Unfortunately, he died a number of years ago, still too young to leave this world.




Trapper paid much of his way through college with the proceeds from the sale of pelts from a trapline that he ran – hence his nickname. He was a forester and in many ways the rogue of the group and a bit of a free-spirit; he too is gone, not while on some grand adventure, but while mowing his lawn.


Grump was the curmudgeon of the group; a forest manager, naturalist, photographer and now blogger who wrote occasional articles for magazines – but never about trips The Naturalists had taken. He began taking photographs of wild critters, wildflowers and other natural objects in the 1960s and continues to this day. He's mellowed over the years, at least a bit.


Thump was also a forester and got his nickname as a result of the spectacular falls he occasionally took; if he resented the nickname he never showed it. Easygoing and a just plain nice guy he seemed to know everyone and always had a new idea about a place for the group to visit. I have him to thank for getting me interested in native orchids over 45 years ago. Sadly he recently died from complications of COVID-19 after being hospitalized for several weeks.


Bob and his wife lived in an off-the-grid log cabin he built with his own hands from logs he cut on his land. I've never met anyone else with such an extensive knowledge of the trails, history and wild places of northcentral Pennsylvania. He was a consummate storyteller, pausing during the long strenuous hikes he led to regale fellow hikers with accounts of wildlife and historical figures. Now he too is gone but not from the memories of his many friends. 


In the 1970s Ralph knew more about Pennsylvania’s elk than anyone else and was greatly saddened by the circus-like tourist attraction they have more recently become. Although he never lived in it, he too built a cabin with logs from his land. On The Naturalists’ excursions to photograph elk we occasionally spent a night in his cabin. Ralph wrote several short works on Pennsylvania’s elk herd and an extensive history of the Quehanna Wild Area; he died a few years ago and is sadly missed.

With the passage of time the ranks of The Naturalists have thinned; few who went on those jaunts are still alive. What great times we had. For all who enjoy the natural world, I hope you can have rambles with such friends.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Thunk, thunk … thunk

Got out of the car, grabbed the pack and camera and headed for the house. Thunk, thunk … Thunk ...Thunk sounded from behind the house. The sound of a pileated woodpecker chiseling into a dead tree on the hunt for the carpenter ants or beetle larvae within; it sounded as if it was high in a tree.

There it was, way up in a tulip-poplar chipping into a large dead limb –

The bird had a black “mustache” mark on its cheek, extending from the base of the bill, which marked this bird as a female –

She continued working on the dead limb and moved to another spot on the limb as she fed –

Surprisingly she continued working as I slowly approached and, unsuccessfully, maneuvered for a view unblocked by small branches –

She repeatedly chopped into the dead limb, rearing back as pileated woodpeckers do to deliver a forceful strike –

Each time the bird thrust its beak into the wood inertia caused its crest to fly forward –

Meanwhile from not far behind me another pileated woodpecker called repeatedly and then swooped in to land on a nearby red maple. The tree had a small hole indicative of an internal problem –

This woodpecker was a male as shown by his red “mustache”.

The hole warranted an examination by the new arrival

He proceeded to go to work on the tree searching for the insects in the tree’s decayed interior –

Watch the chips fly –

Pileated woodpeckers are often quite wary, but some tolerate humans. This pair, which resides in the neighborhood, puts up with its human neighbors most of the time. We’re glad to have them here.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Winter Day Along the River

Winter along the river can be pretty brutal with a cold damp wind coming across the water and only a thin screen of trees to break the wind. On this day some of the still water was frozen, and there was little wind. Although the day started out gray and cloudy, by the time I got to the river the thick clouds were breaking up, there was some blue sky and the temperature had climbed to just above freezing, brutal it was not.

As soon as I got near the river there were a few waterfowl in sight in a patch of open water. There was ice near the shore so the ducks were quite far away, a pair of common goldeneyes –

A small flock of buffleheads –

And a group of common mergansers –

Further along a large dark wing flashed from the ice below and behind a large silver maple on top of the riverbank. The bird belonging to the wing was out of sight behind the tree, but the wing was just a preliminary movement of an adult bald eagle that flushed from the ice. The eagle flew out over the river, turned and quickly disappeared upstream, screened by a maze of branches.

The eagle was down on the ice because it was feeding on the carcass of a dead raccoon that it had dragged from the shore –

About a half mile further along the river there was the eagle, perched in a tree until it flushed again and flew out of sight –

With that I turned around and headed back downstream. In a riffle two female common mergansers were looking for fish in the shallow water near a small island

A flock of 20-25 Canada geese fed and rested in the quiet water below the riffle

And closer to shore were some lesser scaup

Except for mergansers and resident mallards there haven’t been any ducks on this section of the river all winter – these are a sign of the coming spring.

In a tree a mile further on was a peregrine falcon, this bird also screened by branches and twigs

It was the female of the pair that has nested beneath a nearby bridge. She stretched and flexed her wings, perhaps the prelude to an opportunity to photograph a peregrine in flight –

Nope, she didn’t take flight. Two hundred yards further along her smaller, lighter mate was perched in a tree with a more open crown –

The account of my riverside walk and the opportunities for photos ends with a winter stonefly that had emerged from the river –

Winter’s more than half over and spring is fast approaching with even more riverside sightings in the offing. In any season of the year there's always something interesting to see in forest and field and on the river.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Elk in the Afternoon

It was a beautiful morning with a forecast of a beautiful afternoon as well. So I said to H: “Would you like to go see some elk this afternoon?” “Sure” said she. With that we loaded the car with boots, snacks, several water bottles, sandwiches with accompaniments for supper – and off we went. Stopped along the way to pick up lunch at one of our favorite places (no indoor eating thanks to COVID) and then continued our journey.

Early in the afternoon we got to one of the best places to see elk, and there they were, we could see 18 on a far off hillside –

We drove as close as we could get on an old road with protruding rocks and a few small gullies. Where the road was gated, it was time to walk uphill on a continuation of the road. Closer now, there were still elk near where we'd seen the 18: cows with this year’s calves and a few bulls –

Closer still were some elk that had been hidden from view; they were bedded down chewing the grasses and forbs on which they’d been feeding earlier

They were alerted by this human's head appearing over the crest and some stood up –

After a few photos and not wanting to stress them further, it was time to head back down the hill. We drove to several other areas looking for more animals and found another band along a fencerow at the edge of a field. That band was on the move, walking down across the field, occasionally stopping to feed and coming ever closer –

One cow that was wearing a radio collar stopped and her calf, which also had a radio collar, proceeded to nurse. Apparently Mom was quite willing to tolerate the calf’s nursing because the calf continued for quite a while with much head-butting (called bunting) to release more milk –

They continued across the field until they were quite close to us –

We were still watching the elk when the sun dropped to and below the horizon, producing a beautiful sunset –

As night set in it was time to head for home. We drove down along Sinnemahoning Creek and found a band of bulls in a field, some were larger than any of the elk we’d seen earlier in the day and barely visible in the deep valley's darkness (although there was still a red-orange glow in the western sky). Fortunately, one of my cameras is really good at capturing images in poor light, not high quality photographs 

But after some editing and a little cropping on the computer, good enough –

One of the smaller bulls in the group went from one of his companions to another, challenging each to spar a bit –

Homeward bound, passing a few white-tailed deer at  the road's edge, other deer looming out of the darkness as they stood in the road resulting in frequent application of the brakes! Got home in time to quickly download more than 500 photographs to edit the next morning and have dessert: a glass of milk and a few cookies – a tasty end to a great afternoon.