Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Eagle Day(s)

After a dry summer, fall began with an all day rain that put 2¾ inches in our rain gauge. I must be getting soft because, except for doing a couple of things around the house, I didn’t go anywhere that day. Two days later rain was falling again, this time a bit less than an inch. Late in the day the rain diminished to a drizzle and, to stave off cabin fever, we took a ride to the lake to see what we could see.

At the lake, in the tree where I’ve photographed eagles before, there were two eagles. The light was beyond terrible, with a flat gray sky, so all the photographs were comparably bad.

The first is a first-year bird, the second a two-year old. Then a mature eagle flew in to land in the tree –

As we were watching those eagles another flew past, a three-year old –

We were in the “WOW” mode since we’ve never seen more than two at one time at the lake even though there’s a nest nearby (but not on the lake) so there are occasionally one or two young birds to be seen.

After watching and photographing for a while we drove further along the shore and found an osprey in another dead tree –

With that we turned around and headed back along the shore. WOW, WOW, WOW ! – there in the eagle tree were not just three birds as we’d seen earlier, but three more for a total of six bald eagles in that one dead tree –

The adult had departed, these were a mix of juveniles, first year, two-year and three-year old birds. As we watched yet another juvenile flew in and landed in a nearby live tree –

Further down the shore, dim in the mist, an adult perched in a large white pine (the same one as earlier perhaps?) –

Six bald eagles in one tree may not be unusual on the shores of Puget Sound or Chesapeake Bay, but this was northcentral Pennsylvania.

Add up all the eagles we saw that day and you get a probable total of nine eagles at the lake, absolutely outstanding when remembering that merely sighting a bald eagle anywhere in the area was once a rare treat.

The next day dawned clear and cool with a bit of a breeze and clouds sailing across the sky after the cold front moved through. Having taken a long woodland walk I asked H if she’d like to go to the lake again to look for the eagles in better light. So off we went.

Back at the eagle tree we saw two birds – an adult and a juvenile –

In the tree where we’d seen the osprey, but on a different branch, there was another young eagle –

And in the same white pine, on the same limb where we’d seen an adult the day before, were two eagles, a three-year old and a younger bird.

Much of the lake’s shoreline is too far from the road for an eagle to be seen, so were there still nine bald eagles at the lake or did some take advantage of the better weather to head south for surely they were not all residents.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Good Intentions Gone Wrong – Again

What’s that old saying about the road to h—l being paved with good intentions? Given a few seconds any naturalist can come up with a list of good intentions gone wrong in the natural world. The well-known examples are infamous and commonly cited. But there are many more cases of good intentions gone wrong and adversely impacting species far beyond their target.

I was photographing thistle flowers in an old field, in this case primarily the species known as pasture thistle –

In looking for the cleanest, freshest flower I came across small insects in many of the flowers and photographed those as well. My Manual of Common Beetles of Eastern North America (an 884-page tome describing and illustrating 1,200 species) was of no help. A bit of sleuthing revealed that they were thistle head weevils (Rhinocyllus conicus) –

These weevils, native to central/southern Europe and north Africa, were introduced in both Canada and the U. S. beginning in 1969 to control the non-native Russian thistle and several other exotic thistles that were deemed pest species.

Unfortunately, research on the weevil’s biology and its impact on other species wasn’t done until it was already here. And so it doesn’t just feed on the invasive thistles, it also feeds on native thistles as well.

This species overwinters in the adult form, becoming active in late spring/early summer and then mates. The female beetles lay their eggs, a few at a time for a total of about 200, in clusters on thistle flower buds. The larvae feed in the flower on flower parts and developing seeds; they pupate within the flower and emerge as adults in late summer – that’s when I found them.

Hordes of species depend on native thistles (butterflies and bees, goldfinch and white-footed mice), but populations of native thistle species are also being reduced by the thistle head weevil. As with the flies introduced to control gypsy moth, crown-vetch used for erosion control, Bradford pear grown for it’s pretty blossoms, Japanese knotweed another ornamental, the list goes on and on and proves Benjamin Franklin right – “Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late.”

Wednesday, September 14, 2022


May flies, as do all the other months as you get older – but that’s not the subject for today. Today we’re talking about mayflies (known as fishflies in Canada and some adjacent U.S. states), those very primitive insects that live in streams as nymphs and whose adults don’t feed and live but a short time.

There are at least 3,000 species worldwide with a variety of lifestyles, although there are many similarities. The nymphs live in clean unpolluted water, usually in streams but some species live in lakes, where they feed on fallen leaves or algae – although a few are predators. The nymphs live on the bottom, often beneath rocks or logs, some species live there for months and others for years.

Any one species’ nymphs all rise to the surface over a short time, often only an hour or two, and molt into their winged stage – in what fishermen call a “hatch”. The newly molted adults mate, the females lay their fertilized eggs, and all die – often within a day or two. Adults emerge not just in May, but throughout the warmer months.

Mayflies are beloved by trout and those who fish for trout. Beloved by trout as food and by those who fish for trout because mayflies emerging from the water can be imitated by artificial lures.

Mayflies come in a wide variety of sizes and colors, many are beautiful and worthy of a close look –

Next time you’re near an unpolluted stream, river or lake, early or late on a warm day, take a look around and you may see a mayfly or perhaps a “hatch” of thousands.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Old Growth Forests

European settlers began clearing farms in southeastern Pennsylvania in the 1600s and early 1700s, and gradually pushed up the large river valleys. After the Revolutionary War the rate of settlement increased and most of the farming areas of the state were settled by the mid-1800s. Meanwhile, iron furnaces, tanneries and large lumber companies were acquiring vast forested tracts.

The combination of clearing for farmland and cutting to supply various industries meant that the trees 1n almost all the woodland had been felled by the early 1900s. Thus Pennsylvania has very little old growth forest remaining. Most of what is left exists in scattered small stands, on extremely steep hillsides of the Allegheny Plateau or among the stunted, contorted trees on the steep slopes and ridgetops of the Ridge and Valley region. Those scattered small stands are the result of boundary disputes, economic conditions, inaccessibility, or owners who simply liked big trees.

Most people may have heard of the battles over old growth forests in the western states, and may even have heard that as much as 100,000 acres of Great Smokey Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee is cloaked in old growth forest. How many know that an even larger acreage of old growth forest is located in New York’s Adirondacks – including a single block of perhaps 45,000 acres that has never been logged?

Those of us who are interested in old forests know that old growth exists throughout all of the eastern states. In Pennsylvania, the largest single old growth tract is about 4,000 acres in the Allegheny National Forest. Many of Pennsylvania’s first state forest natural areas were created to protect old growth stands of hemlock and/or white pine, but almost all of those are relatively small. Unfortunately the remaining old growth oak-hickory and northern hardwood stands appear to have been ignored when the earliest state forest natural areas were created; in fact, some old growth oak stands on state forest land were logged in the 1970s or 80s. In later years a number of large state forest natural areas have been designated, primarily to protect significant watersheds but some do protect additional old growth stands.

Knowing what to look for, those of us who get to wander widely on both public and private land are fortunate enough to occasionally explore forests that have never been logged or grazed. Some of those old growth forests are in small farm woodlots; some are in much larger tracts on public land.

Although it may not be easy to determine whether a stand is truly old growth, all old growth stands share certain characteristics:

  • A diversity of tree sizes and ages, including some very large trees (20-30 inches in diameter on fertile moist sites);

  • A substantial number of large standing dead trees;

  • Numerous large fallen trees on the ground;

  • Many large gaps in the forest’s canopy;

  • No sign (cut stumps, old skid trails, roads, stone walls) of human activity.

What’s special about old growth and how does it differ from younger forests?

  • The diversity of tree sizes and species provides foraging habitat and shelter for a variety of wildlife;

  • The range of tree heights results in a multi-layered canopy;

  • Old trees have a branch structure and bark characteristics very different than those on younger trees, creating distinctive habitats;

  • The fallen trees supply moist habitats and cover for many species;

  • Standing dead trees offer foraging habitat and shelter for a broad range of wildlife;

  • Old growth forests have larger trees, a more diverse understory and produce a larger quantity of seed than younger stands.

Some lichens, mosses, fungi and other plants depend on factors that are common in old growth forests but are missing in second growth forests.

Many species of amphibians (especially salamanders) and birds (particularly woodpeckers, warblers and thrushes) are more abundant in old growth forests. Even a number of common species, while not dependent on old growth, benefit from the diversity of food and cover in these old forests.

Unfortunately, many landowners and foresters don’t recognize old growth forests; they may think a tree 18 inches in diameter is “mature”; and may not know, or care, about the significance of old growth forests. In many cases the forest industry, foresters and even some wildlife professionals describe old growth forests as veritable wildlife deserts – when the opposite is actually the case. Those folks are merely justifying cutting old forests to promote their own interests. They see these old forests as nothing more than raw material for a sawmill or a lovely place to build a cabin.

Old growth forests are part of our heritage and are worth as much protection as the most significant historical sites and the grandest monuments.