Some years are more fruitful than others. Last year was one of those years. From mid-June until mid-August I never set out for my morning walk without slipping a pint jar into my pocket. I wanted to be prepared to pick first the low bush blueberries, then the huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way, and later, in August, the blackberries that overhung the Far Field Road.
But for nearly three weeks in July, most of my berry-picking centered on our home grounds where, for the first time in more than two decades, black raspberries escaped most of the ravages of deer and the attention of black bears and produced a crop that I could barely keep up with.
Video of Marcia picking raspberries in 2008. (Subscribers must click through to watch.)
Back in 1971, when we first saw our place on a Fourth of July weekend, I couldn’t believe the abundance of black raspberries growing in the backyard. Over the years, as the deer herd increased, the black raspberry canes decreased. Then, the bears appeared. Those canes that survived the browsing of the deer, namely those growing on the steep slope below the front porch, were trampled by bears overnight and stripped of their almost-ripe fruit.
During the last several years, our hunters have trimmed the deer herd and the black raspberries have begun to recover. Last summer we had a perfect storm of berries — patches outside the kitchen door, below the front porch, surrounding the springhouse, on a steep slope beside the guesthouse, and in the guesthouse backyard. Secondary patches thrived beside the driveway and in our side yard. Every hot, humid morning I was out early, picking several quarts. Although some went into the freezer for winter fruit salads, we ate most at our meals, either alone or combined with blueberries and huckleberries, depending on whether I had the strength and will to pick both in one day.
The word “fruit” comes from the Latin fructus meaning “that which is used or enjoyed,” and we certainly did both with our wild berry crops. I did most of the picking. Occasionally, I was rewarded with more than berries. Once in the patch outside the kitchen door I found a song sparrow nest that contained four greenish-white eggs heavily blotched with brown. While picking blueberries on the powerline right-of-way, a tiny American toad hopped in front of me. Hooded warblers serenaded me as I harvested blackberries on the Far Field Road.
With all the bears on our mountain, I was surprised that they left the black raspberries alone and that I never encountered them amidst the blueberry and huckleberry shrubs. No doubt, the incredible abundance of wild berries everywhere on our mountain kept them busy. I, after all, ranged only a mile or so in search of berries, but I knew of other patches on neighboring properties that had as much or more berries than our property and that were not picked by humans. And the bear scat on our trails certainly showed evidence that they were enjoying berries as much as we were.
Not only did the wild fruit crops palatable to humans thrive. So too did those palatable to birds and animals, such as the red-berried elder, also called mountain elder. This beautiful, native shrub likes cool, moist, rocky woods and blooms in April. On steep slopes, where deer cannot reach to browse its twigs and foliage, red-berried elder thrives, bearing pyramidal clusters of berry-like drupes here by the sixteenth of June. Our son, Dave, photographed chipmunks eating them, and I have watched rose-breasted grosbeaks gobbling them up.
The naturalist-writer Henry David Thoreau once wrote in Faith in a Seed, “If you would study the habits of birds; go where their food is, for example, if it is about the first of September, to the wild black-cherry trees, elder bushes, pokeweed…” The “elder” he meant is the common elder, those shrubs with flat-topped, clusters of small, white flowers that are even more popular wildlife food. By early September, those shrubs inside our three acre deer exclosure hung heavy with the umbels of purplish-black, berry-like drupes, and I flushed two ruffed grouse feeding on them.
Because common elder blooms long after the last frost — in late June and early July — it always produces a bumper crop of fruit. “Many species of wild birds are attracted to the ‘banquet table’ which the common elder spreads in the fall,” William Carey Grimm wrote in The Book of Shrubs, such as gray catbirds, American robins, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern towhees, red-bellied woodpeckers, brown thrashers, and wood and hermit thrushes. But because white-tailed deer browse on its twigs and foliage, the “common” elder has become uncommon in many areas. What the deer don’t eat, the sprayers of roadsides, drainers of swamps, loggers of stream sides, and abolishers of fencerows destroy, because this is a shrub of fencerows and waysides that flourishes in rich, moist soils along streams and swamps. Those in our exclosure grow along its moist border, reaching a height of seven feet, while those that grew along our stream at the edge of our First Field wetland are gone because of deer browsing.
Wild black cherry trees are not deer food so we have many in all stages of growth including large trees. As early as the second of July, I flushed a brown thrasher fledgling that was eating wild black cherries from a medium-sized tree at the edge of First Field. But it was mid-August before most of the cherries in the forest began to ripen. Then they were loaded with fruit, some of which were green, some red, and some black. Common grackle flocks quickly discovered them, and during an evening walk, my husband Bruce and I watched hundred of blackbirds stream over First Field and land on Sapsucker Ridge, their black bodies silhouetted against a golden sky as they ate cherries.
The following day, Tim Tyler, one of our hunter friends, was cutting out black locust trees on First Field when he discovered a cedar waxwing nest with four pale gray eggs spotted with brown in a locust tree. He immediately stopped cutting there and left a small grove of six trees standing to protect the incipient waxwing family.
Thoreau wrote about finding a small black cherry tree in “full fruit” and hearing the “cherry-birds — their shrill and fine seringo — and robins… The cherry-birds and robins seem to know the locality of any wild cherry tree in town…” “Cherry-birds” are cedar waxwings. Had the waxwings waited for the cherry crop, which was unusually late because of a cold spring, before starting their family? They do, after all, feed fruit to their nestlings. On the other hand, it could have been a second nesting. Successful cedar waxwing couples often have second families, especially during good fruit-bearing years.
I kept an eye on the nest from a distance and always saw the female sitting on it. But on the fifteenth of September, a cedar waxwing keened from the bare branch atop one of the tall black locusts above the nest site. It looked around alertly, as male cedar waxwings do when they are on guard for their family. I peered at the nest through my binoculars and saw the female on the nest as usual. Then she flew up toward the male and both of them flew off. I took the opportunity to check their nest and found four nestlings. One looked more advanced than the others did, but this sometimes happens with waxwings because often the female starts incubating before she lays all her eggs.
That was the only time I went near the nest, but I continued to watch it from a distance. Soon the nestlings’ little crested heads were visible above the rim of the nest. At least one parent was on guard in the tall locust whenever I walked past. Based on my calculations, that the female sits 12 days on her eggs before they start to hatch—a process that can take form 48 to 96 hours—and another 16 days as nestlings, I expected them to fledge around September 24.
Sure enough, on the morning of September 24, the cedar waxwing nest was empty except for a broken egg still holding smelly liquid and two squished wild black cherries. The nest had been woven of wild grape stems, lined with dried weeds and plastered on the outside with fluffy white material.
In addition to cedar waxwings, I saw red-eyed vireos, blue jays, and scarlet tanagers harvesting wild black cherries, but the list of songbirds and other wildlife that feast on them is legion. Thoreau mentioned gray catbirds, brown thrashers, eastern kingbirds, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and northern cardinals as the most common birds that eat wild black cherries, in addition to robins and cedar waxwings. Huge piles of bear scat studded with cherry pits on our trails testified to their popularity with bears. And the smaller animals, such as foxes, squirrels, and chipmunks, also ate the fruit.
A bower of pokeweed above Coyote Bench ripened too in September. Pokeweed, known by many alternative names, for instance, pokeberry, poke, redweed, inkberry, and pigeon berry—can grow up to 12 feet tall in rich, moist soil. Its long clusters of dark purple berries and large shiny seeds are popular with many songbirds, especially mourning doves, hence its name “pigeon berry.” Philadelphia-based bird artist, Alexander Wilson, wrote back in the early nineteenth century that “the juice of the berries is of a beautiful crimson and they are eaten in such quantities by these birds [robins] that their whole stomachs are strongly tinged with the same red color.” I’ve watched eastern bluebirds harvesting the berries from pokeweed growing beside our house.
Several of our spring wildflowers flaunted autumn fruit also. In mid-September, I walked down our road and found twin orange berries hanging from the end of yellow mandarin stems. A series of twin blue berries dangled beneath Solomon’s seal stems, bright red clumps of jack-in-the-pulpit berries bent over from their weight, and a string of pinkish-red berries hung from the stem ends of false Solomon’s seal. Wild spikenard displayed upright clusters of wine-colored berries. Even the small beginnings of maple-leaved viburnum shrubs had a few dark, bluish-black clumps of berries.
But the wild nut crops were thin or non-existent, probably due, in part, to a cold spell in late spring. No wonder wildlife was busily harvesting the September fruit crops. Because nature often gives bounteously with one hand and takes with another, the more diversity we have in wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in our forests, the more likely the animals and birds are to find enough to eat even if a major food fails.
All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow except where indicated otherwise.
Imagine receiving a gift of 113 acres on Tussey Mountain. That’s what happened to Mike and Laura Jackson back in 1988 when Laura’s parents, Richard and Phyllis Hershberger, gave them a portion of their farm. The Jacksons named their property Mountain Meadows and built a home with large windows for wildlife viewing.
Part of the land had been pastured. Twice the woods on the higher slopes had been high-graded — “taking the best and leaving the rest” in forester parlance. Then a gypsy moth caterpillar outbreak dealt the final blow to most of the remaining oak trees.
But Mike and Laura, who have devoted their lives to educating themselves and others about the natural world, were undaunted by the challenge of reclaiming their land for wildlife. Experimental and innovative, they have learned from their mistakes as well as their successes.
On a bright, breezy day in late October my husband, Bruce and I bumped over the cattle guard across their driveway and into their three-acre yard, which is enclosed by a five-foot-high fence. There we joined 20 other members of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society on a guided tour of Mountain Meadows.
Laura showed off the 150 foot by 50 foot wildflower garden they had established primarily to attract butterflies and other invertebrates. Although they had hoped to find a native wildflower seed mix suitable for their south-central Pennsylvania site near Everett, they had to settle for a northeastern United States wildflower mix that included cosmos and zinnias, both natives of Mexico, as well as coneflowers, lupines, scarlet flax, tickseeds, larkspurs, cornflowers, wallflowers, Shasta daisies, corn poppies, evening primroses, New England asters, foxgloves, and golden yarrow, only some of which are natives of Pennsylvania or even the northeastern United States. The day we visited the garden displayed a colorful blend of cosmos, zinnias, and cornflowers.
Mike then pointed out a few of the many trees and shrubs they have planted for wildlife. In the past, they had planted non-natives such as buddleia, Calgary pear, burning bush, and Japanese honeysuckle without realizing they were invasive. Calling the knowledge of natives versus non-natives “a steep learning curve,” they finally established a rule that “if it is invasive, remove it. If it is not native and not invasive and provides food and/or cover for wildlife, then we might plant it within our fence,” for example, “blue spruce, holly, and annuals that attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds,” Laura said.
Inside their fence, which is a deer exclosure, they can plant trees and shrubs without protection. Outside the fence, every tree and shrub has a wire fence or plastic tube around it. But now they use exclusively wire fencing. The five-foot-high tubes produce “wimpy trees,” Mike said, because the trees grow too fast in the moisture and heat-trapping devices. On the other hand, in wire fences trees grow slower and stronger. The tubes also attract paper wasps, which bears love, so they tear apart the tubes to get at the insects.
Every spring the Jacksons order tree saplings from a variety of sources. During our visit, Mike sang the praises of red mulberry (Morus rubra). These wind-pollinated trees produce dark purple, edible berries in July that are eaten by eastern box turtles, and mammals such as gray and red foxes, gray and fox squirrels, skunks, raccoons, woodchucks and opossums, and once the Jacksons watched black bears mating below the mulberry trees. More than 20 species of songbirds are also attracted to red mulberry fruit. In the words of Charles Fergus, from his wonderful and informative Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast: “To observe frantic avian activity, stand in a mulberry grove when the fruit is ripening in early summer. Birds will be everywhere, gobbling down the sweet crop: grackles, starlings, cardinals, robins, catbirds, mockingbirds, thrushes, thrashers, orioles, waxwings, woodpeckers–even crows, clambering about clumsily on the springy boughs.” Unfortunately, such a sight is increasingly rare because red mulberry, which grows across the southern half of Pennsylvania, “has declined greatly in abundance over the last 200 years,” write Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block in their definitive Trees of Pennsylvania.
Other native trees the Jacksons have planted are not as uncommon as red mulberry, for instance, the 50 to 60 eastern redbuds or Judas-trees (Cercis canadensis), which thrive in the southern part of the state and produce a haze of lavender-rose blossoms in early spring. The primary larval food for Henry’s elfin butterflies, their small, pea-like flowers also provide nectar for Henry’s elfins, eastern pine elfins, spring azures, duskywings, and other early butterflies as well as for honeybees.
Sweet American or wild crabapple (Malus coronaria) is our only native crabapple tree and another species the Jacksons planted to attract wildlife. Grosbeaks, foxes, ruffed grouse, skunks, opossums, raccoons, deer, and black bear relish the yellowish-green, sour fruits that mature in autumn, partially fall on the ground and partially remain hanging from the branches throughout the winter.
Washington hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), another tree the Jacksons planted, is one of many confusing hawthorn species. This native produces fruits that furnish food during the fall and winter for deer, rabbits, raccoons, foxes, squirrels, ruffed grouse, and songbirds.
In the former log yard, they have planted a variety of apple trees but, Mike said, they have to pick the apples before they mature and put them on the ground so the bears don’t rip the trees down to get the fruit.
The Jacksons also wanted to increase nut-bearing trees on their property. Because the American chestnut tree is functionally extinct, they planted Chinese chestnuts (Castanea mollissima) instead. They also planted sawtooth oaks (Quercus acutissima), an Asian native, because they grow fast and produce acorns much sooner than our native oaks.
Native shrubs that are wildlife attractants on the Jacksons’ property include both red-osier (Cornus serocea) and silky (C. racemosa) dogwood. These thicket-producing shrubs provide both food and cover for many birds.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), still another choice of the Jacksons, has bright red fruits in September or October that often remain on the branches throughout the winter, hence its common name. Ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings, and other winter birds harvest the fruits.
The Jacksons also put in a hybrid of the American hazelnut (Corylus americana), which produces sweet, edible nuts that are almost immediately harvested by squirrels, chipmunks, blue jays, deer, and ruffed grouse.
In addition to planting trees, shrubs, and flowers to attract wildlife, Mike constructed an enormous, tepee-shaped wildlife brush pile in their woods. At its base he has a hole big enough for a hibernating bear to crawl into. Although he set up a trail camera near the brush pile and caught a sow and her cubs on film, so far no bear has hibernated in it.
Mike is an avid deer hunter and has built a huge tree stand in his woods. During our walk along their woodland trail, we saw many mature shagbark hickory trees, two healthy butternut trees, and an enormous white oak that took three people — their arms outstretched — to reach around its trunk. Mike also showed us his American Woodcock Habitat Site where he has to remove dozens of invasives to make it viable for woodcocks.
Back in 2002, the Jacksons joined the Pennsylvania Forest Stewardship program and, working with their Service Forester, drew up a plan for their property that emphasized attracting wildlife. They have documented their work to improve their land under the stewardship program in a loose leaf notebook, complete with photos. More recently, they have added American mountain ash and witch hazel to the tree species on their property.
As former teachers — Mike taught fifth grade in the Everett elementary school and Laura taught advanced biology and environmental sciences in Bedford High School — they have been keeping lists of the plants and animals on their property. Of the 37 mammal species, a Russian wild boar was the most distressing and a bobcat the most exciting. They’ve also recorded 117 bird species, 29 shrubs, 13 vines, 14 coniferous trees, 78 deciduous trees, 8 snakes, 4 turtles, 8 frogs and toads, 4 salamanders, and, so far, 92 insects, and 8 spider species.
Mike takes special interest in the eastern box turtles and timber rattlesnakes he finds. One notebook is devoted to the turtles. He photographs each turtle’s shell and plastron and files a notch on the edge of its shell. That way, when he sees a box turtle, he can figure out whether it is new to him or a repeat. Just before we arrived, he recorded box turtle #90 — an astounding number. Once he watched a female lay eggs on a path that they planned to dig up. He moved the eggs into a raised bed in their garden and fenced it. He and Laura kept a close watch on it and saw hatchlings emerge from it late in the summer.
Mike, with the help of Laura, is also adept at handling rattlesnakes. Each year he captures every rattlesnake he sees and measures it. So far, the eight he has captured have been between 36 and 45 inches long. He also sexes and photographs them. When I asked him why he does this, he said, “Because I’m curious about them. Are any returning? How many do we have? How much do they grow every year?” And once again, he keeps meticulous records on them.
Did I mention that they were wildlife rehab assistants under a local veterinarian for ten years? In that time they rehabbed 54 orphaned opossums, 34 gray squirrels, 17 red-phase and 16 gray-phase eastern screech-owls, and 7 American kestrels, in addition to barred owls, a beaver kit that the PGC gave them to raise, and a baby flying squirrel. Laura particularly enjoyed raising owls, but she told a funny story about the flying squirrel.
“We had it in a bird cage, never realizing that it could squeeze through the bars of the cage. We searched high and low for three days, but never found it. On the fourth day, I found it… snuggled in a laundry basket full of dirty clothes. Fortunately, when I decided to wash the clothes, I sorted them one by one and didn’t just dump them into the washing machine.”
The day of our visit their bird feeders hosted three male purple finches and a female. Their turkey pen held wild turkeys that they raise. Water lilies bloomed in a water garden in front of their home, which contained green frogs, a painted turtle, and a bullfrog.
Laura has taken a part time job, since she retired, as Director of the Bedford School District’s Environmental Center, but both she and Mike have taken on an even more monumental volunteer position. As founders of SOAR (Save Our Allegheny Ridges), they are trying to educate people about the detrimental effects of industrial wind farms on wildlife. Although they are not opposed to wind farms if they are appropriately sited in states “where the wind comes sweeping down the plains,” and even on such devastated areas as former strip mines, they are appalled that for a possible one percent of the electric power we need, plans are afoot to put them on many of the mountaintops in northern and central Pennsylvania. These mountaintops contain some of the state’s last unfragmented habitat for wildlife. Already the Jacksons have documented with photos the problems this so-called “green power” is causing on our mountaintops, namely, erosion, despoiling of Class A wild trout streams, and providing, on land that has been cleared for access roads and around the windmills, ATV trails.
Fishermen and hunters are alarmed to see still more of our wild land and waterways compromised. Studies by wildlife biologists have already documented incredible bat kills during migration as they are chopped up by the enormous windmill blades. The blades are also a danger to migrating songbirds and raptors, all of which use our ridges as migratory corridors. Canada has many industrial wind farms, but they have a law that forbids building them on mountaintops. Too bad we haven’t followed their example.
Every day, it seems, the Jacksons send us notice of still another problem with the siting of industrial wind farms. The Jacksons always thought of themselves as conservationists, but now they have become environmentalists in defense of wildlife. Wish them luck in their venture.
All photos were taken by Bruce Bonta.