Christmas is coming and even in this super-technological world, some of us still like to curl up with a good book. If you are such a person or if someone like that is on your Christmas list, you might be interested in one of the following books.
Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon tells you everything you might want to know about cerulean warblers as she follows researchers at the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia’s northern panhandle and the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area a few miles south of the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. Both areas are thought to be in prime cerulean warbler habitat, which researchers say stretches from southwest Pennsylvania through all of West Virginia and into eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.
Along the way, Fallon profiles the prominent senior cerulean warbler researchers — Paul B. Hamel and Petra Wood — as well as the graduate students and others who search for cerulean warbler nests during late spring and early summer. She spends days in the field with them and days in the library researching the history of the cerulean warbler beginning with the early bird artists Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. Wilson, known as “the father of American ornithology,” was a Scots man who immigrated to Philadelphia. In his Volume II of American Ornithology, he calls the cerulean warbler “one of our scarce birds in Pennsylvania,” but he saw it “on the borders of streams and marshes, among the branches of the poplar” in the Philadelphia area early in the nineteenth century.
Fallon also discusses the threats to cerulean warblers on their breeding and wintering grounds — mountaintop removal coal mining and habitat fragmentation in their core breeding areas and sun coffee agriculture and logging in their wintering habitat in the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and maybe even as far south as Bolivia.
She even travels to Colombia to attend the Cerulean Warbler Summit and visits the Cerulean Warbler Reserve — a 500-acre forest created through a partnership between ProAves and the American Bird Conservancy in 2005. This was the first reserve in South America created for a bird that breeds in North America.
Because Fallon is a creative writing teacher, her book is lively, and she records numerous adventures both here and abroad. Black and white photos of habitat and people are sprinkled throughout the book such as one of boys dressed as warblers in San Vicente, Colombia, as part of a parade celebrating ProAve’s Fifth Annual Migratory Birds Festival. ProAves, which means “for the birds,” is a nonprofit Colombian organization formed in 1998 “to protect birds and their habitats in Colombia through research, conservation action and community outreach.” Fallon also includes dismal photos of the remains of what used to be Kayford Mountain in southwestern West Virginia, and, of course, a photo of the beguiling bird itself perched on the finger of a West Virginia researcher.
Her Epilogue entitled “Help Save the Cerulean Warbler” includes a plea to buy shade grown coffee because the forest canopy above the coffee shrubs provides a winter home for cerulean warblers and many other migratory and resident songbirds. She also asks readers to speak out against mountaintop removal coal mining which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. calls “the worst example of what human beings can do to their environment when they behave irresponsibly.”
Here in Pennsylvania many folks feel the same way about Marcellus shale gas drilling. That brings me to my second book The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone by Seamus McGraw, a 51-year-old journalist whose mother contacts him and his sister about whether or not she should sell gas-drilling rights on her property near Dimock, Pennsylvania in Ellsworth Hill.
McGraw sets out to discover all he can about the natural gas rush in the commonwealth. As he said in a later interview, “the risks are real and profound and cannot be minimized,” but he also thinks that there are real benefits to those who strike it rich and to our greater society looking for a clean energy future.
Unfortunately, the extraction of natural gas is neither clean nor quiet as neighbors discover. And in Dimock, at least, some wells are polluted with methane due to improper drilling by one company. But, on the other hand, at least one person, Ken Ely, strikes it rich.
McGraw has written a book that satisfies neither the gas industry nor the conservationists opposed to gas drilling. Mostly, it is about how the drilling affects individual lives, namely Ken Ely and his neighbor Victoria Switzer. Ely sells off his gas rights, figuring he’ll never see another penny. To his amazement, the Ely well produces so much natural gas that he is a millionaire overnight. And that’s only the beginning.
Perhaps Tom Brokaw best summed up the book when he wrote, “The End of Country is an elegantly written and unsettling account of what can happen when big energy companies come calling in rural America. This cautionary tale should be required reading for all those tempted by the calling cards of easy money and precarious peace of mind. The result too often is bitter feuds, broken dreams, a shattered landscape.” I can testify from friends living in fracking land that it does mean “the end of country” and all that might imply.
But, needing the money and assured by the gas company that the risks are minimal, like many of her rural neighbors, McGraw’s mother signs over her rights for $2500 an acre, far more than many of her neighbors received who took offers as low as $25.00 an acre earlier.
And Ken Ely? You’ll have to read the shocking (to me) ending to find out.
Among the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests by Joan Maloof is a book I wish I had written. Imagine visiting old-growth forests from Alabama to Maine and New Jersey to Michigan — twenty-six forests in all — in each state east of the Mississippi River. Actually, I was surprised at how many we have visited — the Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama’s William B. Bankhead National Forest, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, West Virginia’s Cathedral State Park, Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and Pennsylvania’s Cook Forest State Park.
Some are more impressive than others. Maloof is especially disappointed by Mississippi’s Bienville Pines Scenic Area in the Bienville National Forest, “a forest gone missing,” she calls it after a fruitless search for what was described on the Internet as a scenic area of 180 acres containing “the largest known block of old growth pine timber in Mississippi.” The advertised trail is gone and no local person knows anything about it. When she finds it she sees that it has been logged, a ‘mechanical reduction’ to lower the risk of fire near a populated area that is “standard forestry practice.” Mississippi does not look good in Maloof’s account and neither does the National Forest Service or forestry practices in general.
But Maloof has a list she calls “Other Forests of Interest” at the back of her book, and the alternate for Mississippi — Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area–is an excellent remnant of old-growth forest according to our son Mark who has lived in Mississippi for several years and just finished writing a book on the natural places of the delta area of the state. Sky Lake WMA, in the Mississippi Delta, has a board walk through old-growth bald cypress forest and is heavily promoted and visited by local people proud of it, unlike the citizens near Bienville Pines Scenic Area who are either unaware or scared of the place. Incidentally, Maloof’s other choice in Pennsylvania is Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area.
Along with a map, travel directions, and a photo, each chapter also has fascinating natural and human history material, for instance, on wildflowers and beetles, butterflies and crabwood, bluebead lily, Lucy Braun, nesting hawks, the Bealls, Henry Ford, tulip poplar trees, Bob Leverett, and, in Pennsylvania, the family Cook. People, she stresses, have saved these forests. Many have been private landowners and others, such as Lucy Braun and Bob Leverett, have studied and promoted old-growth.
She concludes by naming her top four old-growth forests — the Porcupine Mountains, the Sipsey Wilderness, Congaree National Park in South Carolina, and our own Cook Forest. “These are the places I keep urging others to visit so they, too, will see and understand what our land aspires to be, and what it can perhaps be again in more places, given enough time.” Maloof, a professor biology and environmental studies, is well-qualified to write such an eloquent, opinionated, and convincing book about the worth and beauty of old-growth forests.
At last, we come to the ideal book for the nature nerd on your list: The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. He too, is a biology professor who chooses to sit for hours at a time observing one square meter of old-growth Tennessee forest on the Cumberland Plateau. He calls it his “mandala” which he explains is “a re-creation of the path of life, the cosmos, and the enlightenment of Buddha. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand,” a mandala he saw that was created with sand by two Tibetan monks on his campus. But he sits on a flat slab of sandstone on a forested slope in steep, rock-strewn terrain that kept the loggers away.
There he sits through the four seasons many times a week and covers a vast number of subjects in great detail such as how deer digest their food, the lives of Plethodon lungless salamanders, the biology of ticks, the reproduction or rattlesnake ferns, medicine from nature, sharp-shinned hawk, in summary, something for everyone who has an interest in some aspect of the eastern forest.
His account can be poetic, i.e. “lightning-white fungal strands crackle over black leaves,” and introspective, “the world does not center on me or my species. The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making. Life transcends us. It directs our gaze outward.”
He also makes frequent comments about conservation, some so subtle that you have to read them again to appreciate them. For instance, in a section he calls “Chainsaw” he asks, “How should we treat our forests, as a gift to be wisely and sustainably managed or as an ‘industrial process’ in which we run down nature’s capital, mining the soil, and then discarding the spent land?…Our laws and economic rules place short-term extractive gain over other values.”
Finally, maybe the most controversial point he makes as an ecologist has to do with white-tailed deer. “Most of the scientific studies of eastern North America forest ecology in the twentieth century were conducted in an abnormally unbrowsed forest…’Overbrowsing’ by deer may be returning the forest to its more usual sparse, open condition,” he writes. Haskell quotes from old letters and diaries about the great abundance of deer in the 16th and 17th centuries and mentions that Native Americans cleared and burned forests to provide food for plentiful deer.
Merry Christmas and good reading!
Sometime in early April, I hear the ringing song of a Louisiana waterthrush near our Plummer’s Hollow stream. One of the first neotropical migrant birds to return, he comes winging in from as far south as northern South America and southern Cuba.
This handsome brown warbler, his whitish breast streaked with brown, looks more like a thrush than a warbler. Along with his congener, the northern waterthrush, the Louisiana waterthrush wades on long, pink legs in streams and bobs his tail and rear like a spotted sandpiper.
I spend a lot of time along our mile-and-a-half, first order stream, watching and listening to these fascinating birds. By mid-April there are usually four males staked out along the stream singing, defending their long, narrow territories and courting the returning females. It’s important to catch their singing early, though, because as soon as they pair up, the males slow down and almost stop singing.
A favorite place for waterthrushes is below our Waterthrush Bench, and last spring their activity was especially interesting. On April 18 I watched two singing waterthrushes bobbing their tails as each one tried to stay above the other when they landed on mossy logs, tree branches, and in the stream itself. They moved several hundred feet upstream before flying back down stream, and I wondered if they were two males in a territorial dispute or a pair involved in a courtship ritual.
The last day of April, as I sat on Waterthrush Bench, I watched a waterthrush as it poked about in the puddles of a backwater, pulling aside rotted leaves in what ornithologists call ”leaf pulls” as it searched for food. Although 89 to 98% of waterthrush feeding consists of quick, jab-like strokes called “picks,” “leaf pull” is an alternate strategy. In both cases, they are searching for aquatic insects and invertebrates. According to one study in northeastern Connecticut, before the leaves emerge waterthrushes engaged in “leaf pull” 42% of the time and “picks” 54%, but “leaf pulls” decreased and “picks” increased as their breeding season progressed and trees leafed out.
After my waterthrush stopped “leaf-pull,” it waded about belly-deep in the water. Then it flew up on a moss-covered log spanning the backwater to preen. All the while it preened its breast, neck, belly and under its tail, that tail kept pumping as regularly as a metronome.
Years ago, again on the last day of April, in the deepest part of the hollow, which is overhung with hemlock and beech trees, I walked quietly downstream and saw a pair of Louisiana waterthrushes in the water in front of me. They didn’t notice me when they turned over wet leaves in the stream. As I followed and watched, the male walked a couple yards behind the female. Unlike most warbler species, the male and female look alike, so I was relying on a description of this courtship tactic by ornithologists. The male made a “zizzing” sound and fed the female. Then they continued alternately foraging and poking at the stream bank. After I followed them for fifteen minutes, they suddenly saw me, chipped warning notes, and flew off.
Last spring, on the fourth of May, a Louisiana waterthrush swayed and scolded on a branch overhanging the road near Waterthrush Bench. Somewhere nearby in the road or stream bank there must have been a nest with eggs. I remembered my son Steve’s discovery a quarter of a century ago of a nest he found in the road bank as he walked up the road. The female flushed in front of him and performed her broken wing act. Following his description, I easily found the nest four feet from the ground, tucked in over a rock well-padded with dead leaves. An overturned sapling provided a roof above the five whitish eggs spotted with irregular brown spots that lay in a nest of dried grasses.
The nest had been built on the south side of the ravine by both parents. They dug a shallow cup in the bank’s soil and hauled in fallen leaves from the forest floor to fill the cup and provide a short pathway to the nest, a task that ornithologists say takes three to four days. Incubation by the female lasts 12 to 14 days and the altricial nestlings go from naked to fully feathered in nine or 10 days when they fledge. The nest Steve found did produce not only nestlings but fledglings, and I saw both the nestlings and their fledging.
Since then, we’ve never found another nest but suspect that most are along the stream bank and in the interstices of uprooted trees, which are the usual nesting places for Louisiana waterthrushes.
The bird that scolded me last May then waded into the stream and poked up food from the wet moss on the rocks or from the swiftly-flowing water. Like the dippers of the western United States, Louisiana waterthrushes are wedded to clean, running streams. It jabbed quietly in the crevices, living its enviable life in the moving water whose babble blocks out all other sounds.
Its affinity for water makes it an ideal species to use when assessing the ecological health of streams, researchers discovered at the Powdermill Nature Reserve in southwestern Pennsylvania. This biological field research station of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh is best known for its long-running, year-round, bird-banding program begun in 1961 by Robert Leberman.
Leberman’s assistant, Robert Mulvihill, now at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, along with Leberman, chose the Louisiana Waterthrush as a model for looking at bird populations back in 1996. After all, two streams — Powdermill Run and Laurel Run — hosted Louisiana waterthrushes. But those two streams differed in one important aspect. Powdermill Run’s water has a neutral pH of 7, but Laurel Run’s was an acidic pH of 5, the result of acid mine drainage from a small, hand-dug coal mine on nearby private land.
More than 50 years after this 30-year-long disturbance, it still impacts Laurel Run despite the best efforts of a local watershed association that installed a Successive Alkalinity Producing System to filter water through organic material and limestone into a settling pond to lower the acidity and remove heavy metals, as well as an attempt by the Department of Environmental Protection, using bioremediation techniques, to further improve stream quality.
Consequently, Louisiana waterthrushes breed early and abundantly on Powdermill Run and late and sparsely on Laurel Run because of the lack of macroinvertebrates, especially caddisflies and mayflies, in the acidic Laurel Run. In fact, by 2009, no waterthrushes bred on Laurel Run, yet over the more than ten years of monitoring, Powdermill Run remains a hot bed of successful, breeding waterthrushes. Apparently, the availability of the proper food — namely macroinvertebrates that favor clean water — is very important for attracting breeding Louisiana waterthrushes.
This study also made some natural history discoveries about Louisiana waterthrushes, according to Mulvihill, who directed the research. The males of this supposedly single-brooded, monogamous species occasionally engage in opportunistic polygyny, defined as pairing with two females at the same time. Eight times during the study, waterthrush pairs re-nested or double brooded after their first successful fledging of young. One female that started out on Laurel Run in her first year of breeding, transferred to Powdermill Run and brought off successful families for at least eight years.
Today, Steven Latta, Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary, continues Louisiana waterthrush research, studying one of its wintering grounds in the Dominican Republic. He’s especially interested in how water quality there affects the survival of the birds and whether or not they return to their breeding grounds. He also wants to use the species to understand what affects neotropical bird populations throughout the year. He writes, in a recent article in Birding, that “in addition to acidification, breeding success is likely linked to sedimentation and other forms of stream contamination, combined with the loss of surrounding vegetative cover in the riparian corridor… Preliminary results suggest that older, more mature forests with relatively high canopy cover, coupled with perennial streams that do not run dry in mid-summer droughts, are key drivers to reproductive success for such bird species.”
Back at Powdermill, scientists are now concerned about the impacts of natural gas drilling on water quality, macroinvertebrates and Louisiana waterthrushes. And they have joined other ornithologists in the state to study the affects of hydraulic fracturing on streams throughout Pennsylvania. They hope that birders will help by counting waterthrushes along streams and reporting their numbers to their local watershed association. Two territories per kilometer are considered a healthy number of waterthrushes along a stream.
Louisiana and northern waterthrushes were once lumped along with ovenbirds into the genus Sieurus, which means “to shake or move the tail,” but for decades Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes, the late curator of birds at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, argued that the waterthrushes should be separated from ovenbirds. They differ too much in behavior, singing, structure, the way they move, their juvenile plumage and how long they keep it, as well as other differences that only ornithologists could sort out.
It took a Ph.D student in the Molecular Systematics Laboratory at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, George Sangster, who admired Parkes’s work, to prove his point. Using genetic analyses, he discovered that ovenbirds were only distantly related to waterthrushes.
On the strength of his work, the North American Classification Committee of the American Ornithologist’s Union agreed to put the waterthrushes in their own genus. Furthermore, they accepted Sangster’s name — Parkesia — in honor of Kenneth C. Parkes because of “his lasting contributions to avian taxonomy, molt terminology, hybridization and faunistics.”
Sangster finished his manuscript about his discovery in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club in late July of 2007 and “hoped to inform Dr. Parkes about my intention of naming a genus after him,” Sangster told Paul Hess who wrote about this in PSO Pileated, The Newsletter of the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology. “It was when I looked on the Internet for a contacting address that I found out that he had passed away only a week before.”
Only three other Pennsylvanians have been honored with a bird genus — William Bartram, Thomas Say, and Alexander Wilson. All of them lived and worked in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and all were residents of Philadelphia.
How sad that Parkes never knew of his genus. But how serendipitous that one of the species Leberman and Mulvihill decided to study at Powdermill has not only become important in stream ecology but also honors a fellow western Pennsylvanian who, like them, devoted his life to the study of birds.