A Balmy March

eastern phoebe on lilac branch

eastern phoebe on lilac branch

Ah March! How eagerly we await it as we look for signs of spring between blasts of freezing winds and occasional warm days. On one windy day in mid-March, the first returning turkey vulture flies along Sapsucker Ridge. A calm, warm day brings back a singing field sparrow or eastern phoebe. As the earth thaws, American woodcocks perform their sky dance over First Field. By the end of the month, the first wildflower, a coltsfoot, lifts its golden disk sunward.

But last March wasn’t March as I have known it for the 40 years we have lived here on our west central Pennsylvania mountaintop. While the songbirds returned on schedule, the plants responded to the early, almost continual, May-like temperatures, by breaking all our previous blooming records. Instead of the steady spring progression of wildflowers, from late March to mid-May, most were blooming by the end of March.

It began on a balmy, warm March 11 with coltsfoot, which flowered four days ahead of its earliest date back in 2000. As the month progressed, the gap between the previous earliest date for many wildflowers, shrubs, and even trees, such as shadbush, widened.

I couldn’t keep up with all the changes. Because of that, some of my dates were probably a day or two behind where they should have been. For instance, round-leaved violets are usually out a few days before hepaticas and trailing arbutus, but by the time I checked on the violets, the hepaticas and trailing arbutus had been blooming for at least five days, beginning on March 18. Rue anemone flowered on March 24, a full month ahead of the previous year, and at least two weeks ahead of any other year. The following day swamp buttercups, long-spurred violets, and purple trillium appeared also a month before any previous year. Red maples, spicebush, and shadbush blossomed by the third week in March and red-berried elder, wild black cherry, blackberry, and striped maple leafed out.

All of the previously mentioned plants, except coltsfoot, are natives. But the non-natives and invasives were also way ahead of schedule. Our crocuses were a week early. Forsythia, daffodils, and hyacinths bloomed in our yard by mid-March and privet, multiflora rose, Japanese barberry, and garlic mustard burst into leaf.

The incredible warmth lasted until March 26. Then we had what we had feared—a killing frost. Our several hundred daffodils flopped to the ground and the forsythia flowers wilted and never recovered. The leaves of privet and multiflora rose similarly went limp but not those of Japanese barberry. However, all of them eventually rallied except for some of the daffodils and the forsythia blossoms.

bee-fly on an early coltsfoot blossom

bee-fly on an early coltsfoot blossom

The natives stood up to the 22 degree Fahrenheit temperature and continued to open. Lowbush blueberries dangled their pink and white, bell-shaped flowers on the powerline right-of-way, common blue violets blanketed the path through Margaret’s Woods, and early saxifrage blossomed on the Far Field road bank. Not one early wildflower drooped.

But on March 29, when the temperature shot back up to 70 degrees, our pear trees bloomed. That’s when I began to seriously worry about our warm March. I knew a frost would kill the blossoms and the possibility of fruit in late summer. And that’s what happened on the thirtieth of March.

Throughout April, the temperature waxed and waned but the plants, once started, seemed unable to stop despite the colder days, and I continued to record record-breaking dates for all of them. In early summer the lowbush blueberry crop failed. In late summer there were no wild apples, pears, or wild black cherries for the wild creatures on our mountain, and in the fall there were few wild grapes or acorns. Our black walnut trees did produce a bumper crop probably because they are the latest of trees to leaf out and flower, but the hickory trees in the woods did not have any nuts.

Our local orchard in the valley didn’t fare well either. Although cooler April temperatures did slow down the blossoming of some trees, hard frosts near the end of April froze the cells of the new leaves and blossoms. Because of that, they had no apricots, sweet cherries, or pears, very few sour cherries and plums and half the usual crop of apples and peaches to sell. But they do grow several varieties of peaches and apples so the trees didn’t blossom all at once. Diversity, both in wild and domestic crops, was the key to withstanding, to some extent, the unusually warm March and cold April.

Apparently, keeping records of blooming dates for plants and the emergence or migration dates for insects and birds makes me an amateur phenologist or someone who studies phenology, which is defined as the study of the effects of seasons on plants and animals.

Phenology was studied as early as 974 B.C. by the Chinese, but it was the Swedish taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus, who lived from 1707 to 1778 and recorded flowering times for 18 locations in Sweden over many years, who shared the title “Father of Phenology” with Englishman Robert Marsham (1708-1797). Marsham kept systematic records of what he called “Indications of Spring.” From 1736 until 1796 on his country estate Stratton Strawless in Norfolk, England, Marsham recorded 27 signs of spring including the flowering dates of four species, the leafing dates for 13 tree species, the arrival and first songs of migrant birds, and signs of the breeding activity of rooks, frogs, and toads. His descendants kept up the tradition until 1958 when his last descendant, Mary Marsham, died.

Robert Marsham portrait by Johann Zoffany

Robert Marsham portrait by Johann Zoffany (courtesy Wikimedia Commons – public domain)

Marsham was especially enamored of trees and planted thousands, most of which were cut down during the two world wars, but a giant cedar remains that he planted in 1747 as well as an avenue of ancient oaks.

He also corresponded with fellow Englishman, the Reverend Gilbert White, who kept similar records on which he based his seminal nature book The Natural History of Selbourne, published in 1789, which was accompanied by his The Naturalist’s Calendar. Thus began in England a tradition among amateur naturalists to keep phenological records that naturalists in other European countries imitated.

Here in the United States, naturalists, both amateur and professional, have kept such records, but most are buried in herbaria, museums, archives, and family papers. One researcher, Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie, is studying such information in the herbaria and archives of Acadia National Park in Maine. She hopes her research will track the ecological effects of climate change on plant communities over time.

More formally, The Lilac Network, funded by the United States Department of Agriculture, began in the late 1950s in the western United States. Using the non-native common purple lilac plant (Syringa vulgaris), volunteers recorded “first bloom,” “full bloom,” and “end of bloom” in an attempt to use phenology “to characterize seasonal weather patterns and improve predictions of crop yield,” according to their website.

In 1961 the central United States and in 1965 the northeastern United States joined in, and volunteers observed the cloned plants of the lilac cultivar Syringa chinensis “Red Rothomagensis” and added dates also for “first leaf” and “95% full leaf.”

Today, as climate change accelerates at an unprecedented rate, phenology is more important than ever. That’s why the National Ecological Observatory Network launched Project BudBurst in 2007. According to their website, “We are a network of people across the United States who monitor plants as the seasons change by timing the leafing, flowering, and fruiting of plants.” Thousands of folks from all 50 states—school groups, backyard naturalists, gardeners, seniors in retirement communities, scout groups, college professors and their students, hikers, botanists and ecologists, and visitors to botanic gardens, national parks and wildlife refuges—are producing data that scientists can use “to learn more about the responsiveness of individual plant species to changes in climate locally, regionally, and nationally.”

Mayapple blossoms where the coltsfoot bloomed a month earlier

Mayapple blossoms where the coltsfoot bloomed a month earlier

Their website has a list of targeted plants by state that volunteers can use. The plant groups include wildflowers and herbs, grasses, deciduous trees and shrubs, and conifers for Pennsylvania. Both natives and non-natives, even invasives like Japanese knotweed, are included. Under wildflowers and herbs are such plants as jack-in-the-pulpit, large-flowered trillium, mayapple, and Japanese knotweed. Deciduous includes forsythia, common lilac, shadbush, red maple and flowering dogwood, and conifers are eastern red cedar and eastern white pine. Volunteers can choose one or many plants to monitor using either the Project’s suggestions or plants of their own choice.

While I have been contributing to a variety of citizen science bird-related studies over the years, I have never been involved in submitting plant-related data. I have always hoped that my nature journals and records will be of value to researchers in the future, especially as our climate continues to change, so Project BudBurst looks like a program I can sign on to, and mayapple will probably be my chosen plant. We have several huge patches on our property. Last spring the first flowers opened on April 27 but the first bud appeared on April 18. The cold of April did hold back that wildflower more than most, but still it bloomed a full week ahead of time.

Project BudBurst sums up their mission statement in haiku form that they hope will inspire more people to volunteer:

People watching plants
Contributing to research
Join BudBurst

For more information on Project BudBurst, you can consult their excellent, informative website.

Photos by Dave Bonta (click for larger versions)

The Longest Autumn

red oak in snow

red oak in snow (all photos in this post by Dave Bonta except where indicated)

Every autumn the first hard frost comes later. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when we were engaged in intensive gardening, we could expect a hard frost in the first week of October. Gradually, as the years passed, the hard frost date arrived in the second week. Then, in this century, it moved into the third week. And last October it finally came on October 28.

Just as the date for the first hard frost has advanced year by year, so too has mild autumn weather. Instead of several days of Indian summer weather at the beginning of November, we have stretches of Indian summer weather throughout November and, last autumn, well into December.

Final leaf fall is also later every year. In the seventies and even into the eighties, we could count on a brisk wind at the end of October shaking down every last leaf and leaving us with the bare branches of November. Yet despite last October’s heavy snowstorm, most of our red, black, white, chestnut and scarlet oaks held on to the majority of their leaves until the third week of November.

Remembering the previous year’s mid-October snowstorm that brought down so many trees and branches overburdened with leaves and snow, I was apprehensive when I woke to snow on October 29. As the snow piled up on leaves and branches, I walked down our road, dreading to hear the sound of breaking branches, but I heard only a few. Once I picked up an oak branch, its leaves heavy with snow, and marveled at its weight.

Later in the day, the thermometer slowly rose to 34 degrees. The trees dripped even as it continued snowing, but the warmth saved most of our leafy trees. The one casualty I found was a large, live, black oak along our road. But it was hollow throughout much of its trunk length and would have come down soon in any case.

bottom of the First Field in an October snowstorm

bottom of the First Field in an October snowstorm

By November most of the snow had melted, and we finally had a couple weeks of what is normally “October’s bright, blue weather” and dazzling leaf color after a mostly soggy October. The sugar maples along the Far Field Road were still a blaze of red and gold. The coppery gold of American beeches lit up the hollow. And from Alan’s Bench, I gazed at the oaks of Laurel Ridge, which glowed reddish-gold and burnt orange.

Although I saw an occasional buck during my walks, squirrels, chipmunks, and turkeys were scarce. What few acorns the oaks had produced had been plucked from their branches by blue jays weeks before. I also saw little evidence of hickory nuts. Even our black walnut yard trees hadn’t produced many nuts. After the previous year’s feast, the wildlife was faced with famine. As soon as I put my bird feeders up, in early November, they were mobbed by gray squirrels and chipmunks.

The birds were not as affected even though our wild grape crop had also failed. Berry eaters, such as robins, cedar waxwings, and bluebirds still called most warm days. Carolina wrens caroled back and forth in our yard. The female tapping cardinal returned to our stairwell window. Winter wrens called and bounced up and down beside the stream. Golden-crowned kinglets foraged in the spruce grove. And, in Margaret’s Woods one day, I found dozens of singing, foraging white-throated sparrows, several dark-eyed juncos, a Carolina wren, and at least one fox sparrow in a large hedge of multiflora rose covered with bright red rose hips.

Raptors, too, were plentiful. A male American kestrel sat on his favorite power pole overlooking our First Field. On a hazy warm day in late November a male northern harrier flew silently past me as I sat on Coyote Bench. Driving down our hollow road, I flushed a sharp-shinned hawk. And on Thanksgiving Day our son Steve and his wife Pam watched a barred owl swoop down on a tree branch beside the Far Field Road. Steve also saw a golden eagle migrating along Sapsucker Ridge that day.

Hermit Thrush in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, November 9, 2011

Hermit Thrush in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, November 9, 2011 (photo by Christopher Eliot, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial licence)

But I had the most unexpected sighting of Thanksgiving. As I circled the Far Field on Pennyroyal Trail, I flushed a hermit thrush. Never had I seen one so late in the season. When I checked McWilliams’s and Brauning’s The Birds of Pennsylvania, it reinforced my belief that hermit thrush migration peaks during October, which is when we usually see them. By the second week in November most hermit thrushes have moved south. A few winter over at low elevations in Pennsylvania, particularly in the Piedmont area. But more surprising than my sighting occurred three days later, on a warm November 27, when our son Dave heard a singing hermit thrush on Laurel Ridge. Since we rarely hear one singing here during spring migration, we were especially surprised to hear one so late in the autumn.

Whether it was the acorn failure or merely the lure of our birdseed, we had many excellent views of southern flying squirrels at our feeder area. Because it was still warm and some bears were no doubt still about, I brought in my feeders every night throughout November and December. On Thanksgiving evening I turned on the back porch light before going out to retrieve the feeders. A flying squirrel was busily scarfing up seeds on the porch floor. So intent was it that my husband Bruce was able to take several photos of the creature through the storm door. It only fled down the steps when I went out to get the feeders.

My next sighting was the first of December when I watched one flying squirrel chase off another on the birdseed-covered ground below the back step. The victor continued eating, even burying most of its body beneath the grass and seeds in its quest for food.

A full moon illuminated the sky on the tenth of December when Bruce startled a flying squirrel on the back porch. It zipped up the porch railing and sailed over near the juniper tree where it made a rough landing and disappeared down slope. The next evening I surprised the flying squirrel on the back porch steps, and it performed the same maneuver as it had for Bruce the previous night.

flying squirrel on a black locust tree in Plummer's Hollow

flying squirrel on a black locust tree in Plummer’s Hollow

We saw at least one flying squirrel at our feeder area throughout December, and we thought it was only fair that we should feed flying squirrels at night since we hosted at least 11 gray squirrels by day.

Whether or not the flying squirrels were affected by the unusual warmth, at least one woodchuck was. Below the back porch a fat male woodchuck continued to emerge from his hole every afternoon to eat the fresh greenery on the slope into December. The last time I saw him was mid afternoon on December 22, again a record breaker here for a woodchuck. Usually, they are tucked into their hibernation dens by mid-November and we don’t see any until the following February when the males are busy visiting female dens.

Plants also responded to the continual warmth. Several so-called green immigrant flowers, those that came from over seas, bloomed later than I could remember. On November 27 I found a pearly everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) blooming beside Alan’s Bench. A member of the Composite family, it was once dried and used in making memorial wreaths and for decorating vases and wall brackets. Today it still appears in dried flower arrangements. Its small, white, globular-shaped flowers grow in clusters atop a cottony stem with thin, toothless leaves that are sage-green above and woolly-white beneath. Other names for it are silverleaf, cottonweed, lady-never-fade, Indian posy and ladies’-tobacco. Since it came from Europe, Indian posy seems inappropriate and I doubt whether ladies smoked it. But they did use it for coughs and as a poultice for bruises in pioneer days. Its latest blooming month, according to Rhoads’s and Block’s The Plants of Pennsylvania, is October, which was why I was amazed to find it flowering in late November.

On that same day several forsythia flowers blossomed on a scattering of branches. Forsythia originated in South China where it grew wild. The Chinese called it golden bell. Robert Fortune, a young Scot, was sent into China to collect new plants for the Royal Horticultural Society of London in 1845, three years after the Opium War, when westerners were resented and mistrusted. So Fortune, disguised as a Chinese man, dressed in native garb and wearing a pigtail, explored the South China coast with a crew of Chinese workmen in springtime. There he found the countryside filled with forsythia. Although he later named it for the second curator of London’s Chelsea Gardens—William Forsyth—who was also a Scot, golden bell is a more evocative name that was quickly forgotten.

Dandelions also thrived in our driveway and during this longest autumn, I found a dandelion blooming on Butterfly Loop on December 5. It too came over with the colonists who used it as a cleansing herb and pot herb. It probably originated in Asia Minor long before anyone thought to notice it because both the Greeks and the Romans cultivated it. The Chinese called it earth nail and used its long taproot and green leaves for food and medicine while in Japan it was grown as a decorative plant. In Britain, the Celts used it for both food and wine and the Anglo-Saxon tribes that settled in the British Isles after the Romans left valued it as cure for scurvy and as a laxative and diuretic. Here in Pennsylvania, the Germans grew dandelion in their gardens and even today the Amish value and use the plant in early spring. Years ago, I too harvested the leaves every spring and served them with an Amish bacon dressing that I devised.

dandelion seedhead

dandelion seedhead

As the warm weather persisted, so too did Lyme disease ticks and I continued to pick them off my pants throughout December. Even on December 15 it was 54 degrees late in the day.

It rained on the winter solstice and the following day. But it was back to Indian summer the next two days before winter weather finally settled in, at least for a short time. What changes I have seen during my 41 years here on our central Pennsylvania mountaintop. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined, back in the 1970s, when autumn began at the beginning of September and ended at the end of November that the seasons would shift and autumn would become the longest season of the year.

Early Spring

hepatica embrace

Hepaticas blooming at the beginning of April, 2010

Instead of April showers last year, we had unprecedented heat.  On April 2, it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit.  Flowers and trees bloomed days and even weeks ahead of records I’ve been keeping since 1971. By the middle of the month, we had a May woods.  Even the mayapples bloomed in April.

During the first half of the month, it was downright spooky.  Most of the trees and shrubs had leafed out, and yet the woods were silent.  Finally, on April 16, I heard the first ruby-crowned kinglet.  After that, a steady parade of Neotropical migrants returned more or less the same time as usual.

Coincidentally, I read Early Spring by Amy Seidl.  She is a field scientist who has worked around the world studying a huge variety of ecosystems from the Antarctic to the tropics.  Now she lives in rural Vermont.

“The natural world is changing,” she writes.  In the Northern hemisphere, “species are moving on average three and a half miles per decade northward and twenty feet per decade upward in elevation.”

Last year eclipsed 1998 as the hottest year on record.  The last decade — 2000-2009 — was the warmest decade on record.  When I compared my records of several blooming dates, I was surprised to note that in most species 1998 had the earliest blooming date except for 2010, for instance, purple trillium April 12, 1998 and April 7, 2010, rue anemone April 12, 1998 and April 5, 2010, and sweet white violet April 12, 1998 and April 7, 2010.  And for the first time ever, our French white lilacs bloomed on April 15, the date of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination about which Walt Whitman wrote “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.”  I had always thought  that that date for lilac-blooming corresponded to the date in Washington, D.C., but the United States Department of Agriculture has found that lilacs in the United States are blooming two to four days earlier per decade than they did 40 years ago.  Apparently, our lilacs were beginning to follow that trend.

shadbush at sunset

Shadbush stayed in bloom for only a few days

Climate scientists have been hesitant to attribute separate weather events, such as a flood in Pakistan, a drought in northern Africa, or a hurricane in New Orleans, to global warming.  But they have decided, using mathematical models of how the atmosphere would work if carbon dioxide levels had not increased from 278 parts per million before the Industrial Revolution to 389 ppm today, plus using information on ancient climates and historical weather patterns, that our carbon-based economy has led to approximately 75% of the heating of our planet.

In addition, the way it is heating also points to human causes.  If a hotter sun was raising earth’s temperature, they say, it would heat the upper atmosphere.  Instead, the lower atmosphere is heating up while the upper atmosphere has cooled which points to the greenhouse effect.  So too does the warming of the oceans, the unbelievably rapid retreat of arctic sea ice, and the change in rainfall patterns — droughts followed by deluges instead of dependable, gentle rains, a phenomenon we have witnessed here during the last several years.

“Natural causes alone can’t explain this,” Ben Santer, climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, says.  “You need a large human contribution.”

That human contribution includes the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — in vehicles, homes, and factories.  In addition, the destruction of forests — boreal, temperate, and tropical, which act as large repositories for the Earth’s carbon — is contributing twice as much carbon to the atmosphere as all the world’s cars and trucks.  For example, boreal forest in Siberia and North America absorb an estimated 20% of human-caused carbon-dioxide emissions.  They are also the summer home for many of our songbirds.  Yet they, like the tropical forests, are being cut at an unsustainable rate.

But what about us here in the central Appalachians.  How will we be affected by the rising temperatures?  It depends on how high they rise.  According to the Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment done back in 2009, Pennsylvania may warm up as much as seven degrees Fahrenheit, which is the high emissions scenario.  If so, our summers will be like those now in northern Alabama.  Under the low emissions scenario — a rise of three degrees or less — our summers will be more like those in southern Virginia.  This will lead to an increase in precipitation, especially in the winter, to a three-to-five-week longer growing period, a more extreme climate with longer dry periods like last April when our vernal ponds dried up, and harder rains, even in winter, an increase in stream temperatures, and great changes in our forests.

A watchful beech tree

One of our beech trees. By May 10, the trees were fully leafed out.

Many northern hardwood species, such as paper birch, quaking aspen, big tooth aspen, and yellow birch would be greatly reduced even under a lower emissions scenario and possibly extinct in the state.  Other species like American beech, black cherry, striped maple, eastern hemlock, red and sugar maples, eastern white pine, black birch, white ash and American basswood — all of which grow abundantly on our property — would decline.  Oaks and hickories would increase except for northern red oak and chestnut oak, again, the major species on our mountaintop now, which would decline and be replaced by southern oak species.  We might also have other southern species such as loblolly, shortleaf pine, common persimmon, and red mulberry, although scientists aren’t sure how they would get here unless we planted them.

And plant them and other forest trees we will have to do for forest regeneration.  Acid deposition, native and non-native insects and disease, severe storms, and fire would pose even greater threats to our forests than they do today. The assessment also urges that we should stop high-grading diameter-limit cutting, maintain forest buffers along our streams, restore aquatic systems, and minimize groundwater pumping.  Even if our forests were not threatened by global climate change, such recommendations would greatly benefit our forests.

That’s what the eighty people from thirty state and national government, research, and non-governmental organizations concluded at a conference I attended last April called “Weathering Climate Change: Framing Strategies to Minimize Impacts on Pennsylvania Ecosystems and Wildlife.”  Held at the Tom Ridge Environmental Center in Presque Isle State Park, the keynote address by Bruce Stein of the National Wildlife Federation was entitled “The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be: Conservation in an Era of Climate Change.” Stein talked about “global weirding,” the incredible increase in weather extremes, an increase, but the way, that Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer that sells policies to insurance companies to cover their policy holders’ risks, agrees with.  They’ve been tracking climate change, using a database which goes back for centuries and have found that the frequency of worldwide serious floods has tripled since 1980 and hurricanes and other severe wind storms have doubled.

While we could, but probably won’t, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the high emissions scenario, we must focus on preparing for and coping with the impacts by practicing what Stein called “climate smart conservation.”  He urged proactive management of vulnerable species and improving habitat connectivity to allow species to move more easily.  Unfortunately, with the incredible number of roads and spreading suburban sprawl in our state along with the huge increase in gas well pads and industrial wind farms, it will be harder than ever to maintain, let alone improve, habitat connectivity.

cerulean warbler

Will climate change doom "our" cerulean warblers? (Photo by Gregory Breese/USFWS)

Dan Brauning, Chief of Wildlife Diversity for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, spoke about the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP) and Pennsylvania’s responsibility for certain species.  Of immediate concern are the eastern small-footed bat, especially because of the threat of white nose syndrome to that species and the other cave-hibernating bat species in our state, and the Allegheny packrat.  The golden-winged warbler, Appalachian cottontail, and cerulean warbler are of high-level concern, and of maintenance concern are the wood thrush and the scarlet tanager.  In fact, Pennsylvania hosts 18 % of the world’s population of scarlet tanagers which includes an estimated 575,000 males.  Altogether, there are 36 SWAP species of conservation concern — 9 birds, 10 invertebrates, 4 mammals, 6 mussels, and 7 reptiles — as well as 29 plant species, all victims already of habitat loss.

Several other speakers spoke of the threats to our natural resources, and Nels Johnson of the Pennsylvania Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) mentioned the need for long-term research, a more collaborative work culture between government, non-governmental and research organizations, public engagement and education, and focusing on existing stresses, which makes sense even if we are uncertain about the degree of climate change our state will experience over the century. In essence, we must help nature become more resilient by a combination of management, restoration, and protection strategies.

To my great delight, TNC purchased the other end of our Brush Mountain overlooking Altoona on one side and Canoe Creek State Park on the other.  Describing it as 640-acres of a large, intact forest, it will be part of what they call their Working Woodlands Program and is open for hiking, birding, and hunting.  It was logged before its sale to TNC, and they are planning restoration as part of their management strategy.  Unlike our lower end of the mountain, it has a population of eastern timber rattlesnakes, most likely Allegheny packrats in the extensive talus slope, and provides habitat for many other creatures in the SWAP, most notably wood thrushes, cerulean warblers, and scarlet tanagers.

Amtrak at the Plummer's Hollow crossing

Amtrak at the Plummer's Hollow crossing. We need a lot more train travel and a lot fewer cars and trucks!

Our mountain, the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province, is an important fall migration route for raptors.

“In the future,” the Pennsylvania TNC website says, “It may provide the connectivity many animal species will need to migrate away from and adapt to the effects of global climate change.”

Bill McKibben, an environmentalist-writer who has been warning about the effects of climate change for over two decades, says that “The world will never again be as whole as it is even now, and already it’s degraded, altered, impoverished.  So one of our tasks is simply to bear witness.”

I hope that the nature journals and records I have kept here since 1971 will be part of that witness as our climate continues to change.

All photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

October snow

October snowman“Nanna, it’s snowing!”

My first thought was, no, it can’t be.  It’s only the fifteenth of October.  We’ve never had snow this early. Why, last year our first frost was October 19. Surely it won’t last, this spring onion snow in October.

Big, fat flakes fell and Elanor, our four-year-old granddaughter, and her Uncle Dave rushed out to build a snowman.  They wanted to have it finished before a pair of California cousins arrived for the afternoon.

They managed to scrape up enough snow to build a somewhat rickety snowman.  Our son, Dave, who has treasured every snow since he was a small boy in Maine, understood Elanor’s delight in such a rare occurrence.  She came in soaked, cold, but happy with their creation, which they had capped with an orange Hoss’s hat. And her young cousins were mightily impressed by the snow and the snowman. Unfortunately, because they were wearing canvas shoes fit for the sunny warmth of California, they were forced to play indoors while the snow continued to fall.

Everyone, including Elanor and her father, Steve, left at 5:00 p.m. instead of staying for dinner.  Already, a couple of wet inches covered the ground and later, when I settled down to sleep with my window open, I heard the ominous cracking of tree branches outside.  Then, at 3:30 a.m., the power flashed off.  The phone line was also dead.  For the second time in as many days Bruce cranked up the new generator we had bought a couple years ago, because we were convinced that global climate change would lead to many more power outages as strange weather patterns emerged.

Unlike our old, smelly, noisy, diesel-fueled generator, this new, gas-powered one is quiet, odorless, and handles most of our appliances.  Still, I had to do a little juggling whenever I used the stove, making me more mindful of just how much we depend on electricity to power our lives.

As I looked outside, I could see that the top half of our hackberry tree had snapped, one of the front yard black locust trees had lost another huge limb, a branch of the juniper tree outside my bedroom window had broken off, and our lilac and forsythia shrubs were bent over from the weight of several inches of heavy snow.

October snowstorm 1: fallen red maple limbBruce walked the quarter mile down to the forks on our access road while I made breakfast.  On our battery-powered radio I heard dire warnings about staying out of the woods because limbs were crashing down everywhere. Indeed, Bruce was relieved to make it back in one piece after being blocked by a tangle of fallen trees near our little plank bridge.

He called our caretaker on his cell phone, which was our only tie to the outside world, and Troy told him that the previous evening he and his wife, Paula, had driven down the road after dinner to get some groceries.  They had had to move branches out of  their way as they drove back up the road but were stopped halfway up the hollow by a huge red oak spanning the road. He pulled their car into the Dogwood Knoll pullout and retrieved his chainsaw from the trunk.

After he cleared the road, their car wouldn’t start.  By that time trees and branches were cracking and breaking like rifle fire throughout the forest.  They called their daughter in town to rescue them and drive them and their groceries up to their house.  But there were so many branches and trees down by then that Troy spent several hours clearing the road before they made it home.

More trees and branches had fallen overnight, and they set to work cutting their way back down the road, determined to open it for us.  It took them the entire day.  In the meantime, Dave walked up Laurel Ridge, but branches continued to break and fall under what was the earliest and heaviest snowstorm ever in our area.

Later in the morning I chased little birds — yellow-rumped warblers and white-throated sparrows — around First Field as still more limbs and trees crashed down in the woods.  The birds were after the many weed seeds in our 37-acre meadow.  In places I measured five inches of snow with my walking stick.  All the goldenrod and asters bowed over with snow.

As fog rolled down from the spruce grove at the top of the field, I turned homeward.  Eastern towhees called forlornly from the woods.  And Dave reported that a hopeful mourning dove, remembering last winter’s bounty from our bird feeders, had landed below the back porch.  But I didn’t have any birdseed, because I never set out my feeders until early November.

October snow on shadbush (serviceberry) leaves

snow on shadbush (serviceberry) leaves

By afternoon, it had warmed to 34 degrees and snow had melted off most of the gold and orange tree leaves.  Bruce and I walked down the road late in the afternoon.  Troy and Paula had cleared most of the 14 fallen trees and innumerable branches.  We were appalled at the damage — our favorite white oak on the charcoal hearth had shed many branches, several red and black oaks had split and fallen across the road, their branches crowded with still-green leaves, numerous red maples — all gold and red — had either broken completely or shed many branches, tulip poplar tree branches covered with bright yellow leaves littered the road in many places, and a few chestnut oak branches had split off their large trunks and fallen.  Leaves and branches clogged the stream and woods.  But once we reached the hemlock zone, about halfway down the road, there was little damage, so we headed back home.

As we rounded the last curve in our road, we were relieved to see a light shining in the guesthouse.  After 14 hours, our electricity had been restored, although the telephone lines were still down. Surely, the storm and its effects were over.

But the next day, the thermometer was back down to 32 degrees, and a light snow fell that thickened and clung to the leaves once again as we watched from the breakfast table.  A winter wren twittered around the outside cellar door in search of tidbits.

October snow on witch hazel blossoms

snow on witch hazel blossoms

I went out in mid-morning while it was snowing heavily again.  The forest was a palette of white, gold, and green. Black birch and witch hazel trees were bent over and a few black gum trees had broken in the woods both inside and outside the deer exclosure.

Large branches littered the Far Field Road along with occasional whole trees—red maple, sugar maple, hickory, chestnut oak, and a split black cherry. Once again snow piled up on  the leaves and branches of standing trees, and after I had walked over to the Sapsucker Ridge Trail and across the black-locust-bowed Far Field, I heard the smash of a tree or large branch on the Far Field Road.  Nervous about my safety, I tried to hasten along the ridgetop trail but bent over and sometimes broken striped maple and witch hazel trees as well as a few fallen red maple trees blocked my way and forced me to detour around them.

Relieved to reach the sanctuary of the Norway spruce grove unscathed, I stood under the protection of the thickest limbs, and watched heavy, wet flakes sift down as golden-crowned kinglets fluttered near.  A flock of mature and immature cedar waxwings landed on the tallest Norway spruce spire and continually flitted from branch to branch in what appeared to be a dance known only to them.  Or maybe the “dancers” with crests, were trying to encourage the crestless youngsters, who looked miserable, to bear up under the wet snow.

I heard a few more cracks from the forest and after a silent respite in the sheltering grove, I elected to walk down First Field. At the Sapsucker Ridge edge of the field, a Carolina wren and  white-throated sparrow sang briefly while many other little birds, most of which were white-throats,  fluttered into and out of cover.  The forest near the exclosure dripped with melting snow even though it continued snowing.  By the time I returned home, the thermometer was back up to 34 degrees and the snow had thinned, but still it fell even though it no longer clung to the leaves.

a red oak brought down by the snow

a red oak brought down by the snow

The following day it gradually cleared and warmed up.  But when I set out for my walk at 9:00, there were still a couple inches of wet snow on the ground and it smelled like winter.

Margaret’s Woods rang with singing white-throated sparrows. Red maple and striped maple branches blanketed the ground, but most of the large red maple branches, covered with gold, orange and scarlet leaves, were unbroken and unbowed. A fully leaved catalpa tree had split, and numerous black locust trees had broken and fallen.  But sun shone through the forest, and our world was bright and glittering once again.

The first steep slope on Greenbrier Trail, where it is always the coldest during the winter, was blocked with broken tops and branches of red maples, A black cherry and a black locust tree, both with green leaves, also had lost their tops across the trail.  The invasive tree, ailanthus, had fallen and deer had stripped off their green leaves. Hercules’ club, bent and broken, still covered with green leaves and clusters of berries, had had most of their berries eaten by deer, judging by the tracks in the snow.  Witch hazel trees, in full yellow bloom and still retaining green and yellow leaves, had split in many places.

Farther along the trail, the largest black cherry tree was broken in half  One of the few black oaks left by the logging operation in 1991 had also lost many limbs.  Hickories, too, had taken major hits, their butter-yellow leaves clinging to branches on the ground.  A few cucumber magnolias had also toppled.

But all the while I absorbed the damage to the trees, the birds rejoiced in the return of autumn. A ruffed grouse drummed.  Robins “tut-tuted” in the distance.  Eastern towhees called from every direction.  Several golden-crowned kinglets, a ruby-crowned kinglet and a blue-headed vireo foraged overhead in unscathed trees.

Day after day I noted the damage along our trails.  Surprisingly, at the top of the mountain, on Laurel Ridge Trail, only a few branches had broken off.  But halfway down Laurel Ridge, on Black Gum Trail, the scarlet, chestnut, red and black oak branches had been torn from their moorings.  Many trees were topped of 10 to 20 feet.  A few trees had split near their bases.  Several oaks had little left but a 10-foot-tall, branchless snag.  At the confluence of Pit Mound and Black Gum trails, a tangle of topped chestnut and red oaks blocked the way.  An enormous scarlet oak and a smaller red oak sprawled across the trail.  The rest of Black Gum Trail was similarly strewn with oak trees and branches.

As Bernd Heinrich wrote in his book Summer World about an October snowstorm in Maine, “Trees that retained their leaves paid a steep price.  Those that had shed their leaves suffered no damage.  The thin, young maples and oaks in the woods around our house were snapped in half or bent to the ground.  Similarly, old sugar maples with heavy trunks had huge limbs broken off, and many of their other limbs were bent and ready to snap.”

Unfortunately, none of our trees had shed their leaves and so many species were damaged.  Still, from Alan’s Bench, Laurel Ridge looked the same as usual and trees, in their autumnal colors, glowed in the sunlight. I moved to the sunny side of the spruce grove and sat on a log.  A ruffed grouse erupted from the spruces.  Black-capped chickadees called from the deciduous woods below.  Although it was warming fast in the sun, remnants of crunchy snow still remained.

Then suddenly a young black bear ran toward me from the woods.  Although I remained still, it caught my scent at 60 feet, wheeled around, and ran back down the hillside.  I walked down First Field Trail through and over a red and gold tapestry on the trail, in the woods, on the snow, and overhead.  Two hermit thrushes ate wild grapes at the edge of First Field. A pileated woodpecker, unaware of me, landed and foraged on a nearby tree.  The forest filled up with robins.  Autumn had returned after our brush with winter.

autumn foliage bent under the weight of snow

All photos by Dave Bonta. Click on images to see larger versions on Flickr.