Midwinter Cranes

Sandhill cranes at SGL 284 in western PA

Sandhill cranes at State Game Lands #284 in western PA (photo by Dave Inman, CC licence)

I never thought I would see sandhill cranes less than 20 miles from my home in central Pennsylvania. Yet there I was last January, sitting in our car with my husband Bruce, watching five sandhill cranes through our scope as they foraged in a small wetland near State College.

When the word went out on January 4 that Alyssia Church had discovered the cranes at Fairbrook Marsh and on nearby farm fields, I was surprised. At first I didn’t bother to check them out, because I am not what is known in birder parlance as a “chaser.”

Then our son Steve called to tell me that he had seen them on the farm field, so the next time we headed for State College, we took an alternate route and located the cranes where Steve had described. But because they were several hundred feet from the country road where we were parked, and we had not brought our scope, we didn’t get a good view of them.

We decided to try again and on a cold, clear January 23, this time armed with our scope, we scanned the field. There was no sign of them. I was not deterred, though, and Bruce drove slowly along the road for a mile or so toward the marsh while I kept a careful watch out the window. Finally, I spotted large gray blobs that looked like rocks out in the marsh behind a clump of beige grasses.

“There they are,” I said as I peered closer through my binoculars.

Sandhill Crane at Middle Creek WMA, eastern PA

Sandhill crane at Middle Creek WMA, eastern PA (Henry T. McLin, CC licence)

We parked in a church parking lot that overlooked the marsh and set up our scope. One head popped up, followed by a second. One of them preened its feathers. Then the pair spread and flapped their wings, a signal for all five to stand up and walk together on their long, elegant legs. At five feet tall they stood out against the marsh grasses, like gray ghosts, as the water in the wetland steamed in the cold. Next they moved to another spot where they were in the open, giving us an excellent view of them.

Repeatedly, they poked their long, pointed bills into the ice-covered marsh in search of food, most likely worms, insects, and even mice. As they foraged, a crane remained on alert and stood on one leg. The five moved together like a team or a single organism. All were clothed in gray feathers with beige highlights and seemed oblivious to the seven degrees temperature as well as to the busy rural roads on three sides of the marsh. Even more surprising was the housing development complete with road, backyards, and a man walking a leashed dog above the marsh and cranes.

We watched the cranes for nearly an hour, moving nearer beside the rural road overlooking the marsh and setting up our scope. But the cranes remained unperturbed as they fed, preened, and occasionally sat back down on the frozen ground.

Later, I learned that sandhill cranes during the winter spend most of their time in so-called maintenance activities—foraging, moving, resting and comfort and that their comfort activities are preening, head rubbing and scratching, and body shaking, although preening is their most common comfort activity. They use an alert investigative posture when inquisitive about something nearby. Adult pairs or family units are especially alert. Since family units stay together from hatch time in summer until the following spring, the five cranes at Fairbrook Marsh appeared to be a mated pair, two offspring, and a second adult.

I probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the eastern greater sandhill cranes (Grus Canadensis tabida), one of six subspecies of sandhill cranes, had finally arrived in our area of central Pennsylvania. After all, they had been overwintering in northwestern Pennsylvania, where a pair first appeared in spring and summer of 1991 in Plain Grove Township, Lawrence County, for two decades. A second pair, or perhaps the same pair, reappeared in northeastern Lawrence and southeastern Mercer counties again in the breeding season in 1992.

Sandhill Cranes on a crisp December Morning by Dave Inman

Sandhill cranes on a crisp December morning, Washington, PA (Dave Inman, CC licence)

The following winter, on January 3, a flock of 25-30 sandhill cranes fed for half an hour on corn in a partially harvested field in Plain Grove Township. This marked the first time a large flock of sandhill cranes had been seen in Pennsylvania. Since then, they’ve been overwintering in northwestern Pennsylvania and, as the flock has increased over the years, in eastern Pennsylvania especially Lancaster and Lebanon counties. Today they have been spotted in 30 counties at all times of the year and breed not only in northwestern Pennsylvania, but in northeastern Sullivan and Bradford counties. Ironically, according to Doug Gross, Endangered and Non-game Bird Section Supervisor for the Game Commission, they have bred in “Crane Swamp” not far from Sullivan County’s breeding area near Dushore. The swamp, though, was named for great blue herons, which are called “blue cranes” by many rural Pennsylvania folks.

The first evidence of breeding sandhill cranes in the Commonwealth was documented on August 4, 1993 when Nancy W. Rodgers and Lois Cooper found the first young crane with its parents off Plain Grove Road in a pasture near large old trees.

“We could see the red on the heads of the two adults and the third one had a rust-colored head with light area above and below the eye. They were feeding as they walked south,” Rodgers wrote in Pennsylvania Birds.

The following day Rodgers discovered them a mile southeast of the first pasture in a field with a stream. She watched as “one adult caught a small animal and slowly killed it by beating it on the ground and stabbing it with its bill. When the animal finally died and lay on the grass, the second adult ate it.”

In all likelihood, the pair with their young had emerged from a nearby wetland where they had built a large nest of surrounding vegetation, which they had collected and tossed over their shoulders to form a mound above standing water, back in April. In it the female had laid two large, light olive-colored eggs speckled with darker brown. Both sexes had shared incubation duties over a 30 day period.

Even though the young can leave the nest eight hours after hatching, usually they wait 24 hours for the first hatched or continue to wait until the second one hatches before moving. Still, they stay well-hidden within a wetland until the young are 90 days old. If the food supply is abundant, two young survive. If not, only one chick does. Both parents care for and feed their offspring.

Sandhill Cranes in grass by Dave Inman

Sandhill cranes in western PA (Dave Inman, CC licence)

Rodgers had calculated that the pair, if they had young, would be emerging from the wetland in early August, and she was right. Over the following years, despite searching, it took until 2009, when Bonnie Dersham, while surveying for Massasauga rattlesnakes on SGL #294 in Mercer County, found a recently hatched crane chick and unhatched egg on a nest on May 5, according to Gene Wilhelm’s account in the definitive Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. That same year, in the Pymatuning region, Land Management Group Supervisor Jerry Bish and Northwest Region Land Management Supervisor Jim Donatelli discovered a nest with two two-day-old crane chicks.

With so many bird species declining, the spread of the eastern greater sandhill cranes, which originally bred in nests in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and southern Ontario, to as far east as Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York state, has been a pleasant surprise, especially since all other crane species, worldwide, are in decline and sometimes number very few birds including our whooping crane.

Doug Gross and other ornithologists attribute their great expansion to more understanding of the importance of wetlands as well as the cranes’ ability to feed on waste grains and whatever small prey is available in their nesting and wintering areas. Most eastern greater sandhill cranes still migrate south in the winter to southern Georgia and central Florida, but, as our wintering cranes have shown, even temperatures far below zero, as we experienced last January, do not faze them. Their sharp beaks repeatedly broke through the ice and their feathers insulated them from the frozen ground they sat and walked on it. This particular little flock left Fairbrook Marsh at the end of January perhaps for warmer climes.

Decades ago Bruce and I had traveled both to Willcox, Arizona and Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to watch thousands of wintering sandhill cranes, knowing we would never see this species in Pennsylvania. How wrong we were!

Sandhill Crane over SGL #284 by Dave Inman

Sandhill crane over PA State Game Lands #284 (Dave Inman, CC licence)

Vernal Pond Adventures

The largest of our vernal ponds in early April.

The largest of our vernal ponds in early April.

Once again I’m sitting beside our mountaintop vernal pond and wondering if this will be the year the wood frogs will make it out of the pond before the water disappears. A wood frog’s life span is about seven years, and for six years the pond has dried up before the wood frogs’ have fully developed. Some years their eggs are left high and dry; other years their tadpoles are.

A vernal pond is a temporary, fish-free wetland that fills in late winter or early spring and dries out by early summer in a good year. This pond is only several yards across and several yards long, depending on rainfall, and, unlike the tiny, 6-foot-wide pond at the base of First Field, I can’t get close enough to watch the courtship and mating of the frogs. I can hear their quacking calls, though, and I enjoy watching a wide variety of wild creatures that visit it even when I’m sitting quietly beside it, my back against an oak tree.

I find it incredibly peaceful to watch the pond as it reflects the trees in its still water. But this early March day a skim of ice over it glitters in the sunlight. Its surface has a medley of half circles and triangles artistically rendered by the ice-maker overnight.

On the thirteenth of March, as I near the vernal pond, circles appear in the water. I wonder if they can be disappearing wood frogs. I study the still, dark water and spot one small mass that I look at through my binoculars. A golden eye returns my gaze. I move closer and see a male wood frog stretched out in the water. Next to him is a stick with two clumps of wood frog eggs clinging to it. This unusually bold wood frog dives into the water but quickly resurfaces. Since I am still standing there, he sinks back under the water.

The vernal pond has already contracted, and I hope that the dark clouds rushing across the Allegheny Front will drop some rain on us and fill up the pond. But it doesn’t happen. Nevertheless, two days later, I find two wood frog egg masses in different areas. The gelatinous, fist-sized blobs contain several hundred eggs with black embryos.

By the 22nd of March, I count four separate egg masses, but the vernal pond is still shrinking. If the rain comes soon enough, the eggs may survive. And come it does, raining hard from 1:00 a.m. until mid-morning on March 24, filling up the vernal pond again.

The vernal pond in mid-March.

The vernal pond in mid-March.

It’s almost a month before I return to the pond. At the beginning of April, while hiking on Sapsucker Ridge with my sixteen-year-old granddaughter Eva, she steps on a branch and I trip over it, my left leg landing hard on a pointed rock. Nothing is broken or fractured the doctors tell me, but my leg and foot swell up and turn black and blue. I have, after all, injured my tibia, the bone just below my knee. After days of being veranda-bound and more days of slow, short walks, I finally make it back to a vernal pond seething with insect life, most notably water striders walking atop the water and looking for mosquitoes resting on the water just after they have emerged from their “wriggler” larval stage.

Various species of diving beetles also swim in the water on the hunt for invertebrate and vertebrate creatures, including the wood frog tadpoles. I have always marveled at how these insects find a vernal pond, especially this one, isolated on a mountaintop half a mile from the nearest stream and that one intermittent near its source. Apparently, they are able to fly to it from such water. But some species of diving beetles actually overwinter in the basin formed by a dried up vernal pond.

The wood frog eggs have long since disappeared from sight, colonized by the symbiotic algae Oophila amblystomatis, which turns them green. It’s been cold most of the month, delaying the hatching of the eggs. But near the pond I stop to admire the patch of spreading spring beauties, the only place they grow on our property. This is an open, mixed-oak forest close to our neighbor’s logging operation that took place several years ago. Not much has regenerated and the vernal pond is not as shaded as it used to be.

It’s now the fourth of May and torrid summer weather has returned. I practically stumble over a porcupine as I approach the vernal pond and send the creature scrambling up a large red oak tree. The vernal pond is a veritable tadpole soup—tadpoles by the dozens wherever I look, floating near the surface to warm themselves up now that the trees have leafed out and are shading the pond. They need the solar heat to develop quickly into frogs before the pond dries up. First they graze on the symbiotic algae still clinging to their gelatinous cradle, and then they feed on algae and leaf material on the pond’s bottom. They also may feed on each other, those that hatched first preying on the latecomers.

Three days of hard, cold rain follow, and once again the vernal pond is overflowing and seeping over into a series of wallow-sized pools. My pond-watching becomes an almost daily discipline as I sit and watch the tadpoles eating, swimming, and basking in patches of sunlight. In mid-May I hear clucking as a hen turkey circles behind me. Maybe she is hoping to catch some tadpoles for brunch.

water striders

Water striders

Often the tadpoles join in aggregations of ten on a submerged stick. Then there is a sudden flurry and they separate, but in a few seconds they gather together again, performing their own watery tadpole ballet. In addition to basking in the sun, perhaps they are finding refuge from predators in a crowd like flocks of birds do.

By the twentieth of May a few of the larger tadpoles are developing back legs. I sit close to the water and watch as the tadpoles continually surface to feed on the detritus floating on the water, then submerge, each tadpole swirling the water into a circle. I try counting the circles to figure out how many tadpoles still inhabit the pond, but the confusion of circles quickly confuses me. Instead, I settle back and enjoy the ambiance of the pond and surrounding woodland having long ago learned to tune out the occasional train whistle and the constant traffic noise on Interstate 99 at the base of the ridge.

A mourning dove sings without ceasing. Red-eyed vireos, eastern wood pewees and a scarlet tanager frequently add their songs to that of the doves. Water striders skate along the water. A common green darner dragonfly buzzes over the pond. Then an American crow flies in like a kamikaze fighter plane, veers when it sees me, and silently retreats.

There are more days of rain and again the pond overflows. The pond water is so dark that I can’t glimpse the tadpoles, but dozens of circles that gradually subside as I sit in front of the pond indicate their presence. Sitting beside the pond, a sudden nearby gunshot startles the tadpoles as much as it startles me. Not only do they have sharp eyes but sharp ears too.

Near the end of May, I’m serenaded by a robin and scolded by a hairy woodpecker while I sit beside the pond. I also see a dark-eyed junco, which should have been breeding farther north on the Allegheny Front or beyond by now. A mourning dove flies in to catch insects from the pond and goes off in a flurry when it realizes I am there. A black-and-white warbler sings. Chipmunks scold. Mosquitoes that probably have hatched in the pond circle me and force me to move on after I catch a glimpse of a few more tadpoles with back legs.

My vigil continues in June. By then, I wonder if those tadpoles will ever change into bandit-masked wood frogs. On June 8 many heads pop up from the water and stay up even though most tadpoles still have tails. Two male robins hold a song fest while a female chases all comers to the pond as her spotted youngster bathes. Later a tufted titmouse takes a bath. Chipmunks chase around the pond and one scampers up to me, pauses at my feet to look, and then continue its race with its rival. A pileated woodpecker pounds on a nearby tree trunk.

Wood frog in mating season

Wood frog in mating season (in the tiny, spring-fed pool at the bottom of First Field)

All the while a pleasant breeze blows, keeping biting insects away. The pond is slowly shrinking, but it is still a bathing and watering hole for birds and mammals alike.

The following day I spend another session at the vernal pond serenaded by the same two robins. Little mouths surface to catch detritus spread atop the pond, and once I see a tiny froglet hopping over a small section almost as if it could walk on water. Froglets are supposed to be between a half and 7/8th of an inch when they metamorphose. Their watery life is ending and none too soon.

A chipmunk approaches me with much trepidation, and when I don’t move, it goes to the pond and drinks. Then it scampers off.

Suddenly, the robins begin high octane scolding as if, after half an hour, they finally notice me. On and on they scold, but at last they subside.

When I am too stiff to sit any longer, I get up and walk back to the field path. There I find an enormous pile of fresh bear scat that wasn’t there before. It looks as if the robins were scolding a bear.

A couple days later, as I’m sitting by the pond, I hear crashing in the woods that sounds like a bear. Sure enough, one approaches the pond, and I ponder my position. It’s obviously hoping for a drink and doesn’t see or scent me. At last I stand up, and the bear looks up, sees me, and flees.

The vernal pond continues to fill every time it rains, and slowly the froglets depart, although I don’t see them. But there are fewer circles in the water, less little heads surfacing, every time I visit. How wonderful that after so many springs when the pond dried up too soon, our aging population of wood frogs will finally get some newcomers. The young frogs will spread out, traveling up to several hundred meters in all directions, making new homes in the leaf litter, and preying on a variety of arthropods.

But even as the pond shrinks and the froglets leave, I still seek quiet time beside it. One day, late in June, I encounter an eastern box turtle, floating in a couple inches of water, its eyes closed. At first I think it is dead, but when I touch it, it opens its eyes. Later, I learn that eastern box turtles like to soak and feed in vernal ponds.

Wood frog found under a rock in Plummer's Hollow Run in September

Wood frog found under a rock in Plummer’s Hollow Run in September

On another day, two doe wander past me and water at the pond while I sit a few feet away. Then they continue on their way. They never do detect my presence.

I can only wonder how many other wild lives are impacted by this small pond. Even though knowledgeable foresters will steer logging operations away from such places, most loggers either don’t know or don’t care about such refuges. Or they begin their logging operations in the fall when the ponds are dried up and they don’t recognize them for what they are.

My own life has been enriched by our vernal pond this water-full spring. Even after it is completely dried up, in broiling hot, droughty July, I wander back to sit under the oak shade. Where have all the wood frogs gone?

One day, on my daily walk, an adult wood frog hops across my path.

“There you are,” I say out loud as it hops quickly out of sight.

Grasses Wear Robes

learning a new grass

learning a new grass

We never get very far when we go on a Pennsylvania Native Plant Society field trip.  But we always learn and see more than we bargained for.  Take the grass field trip to Rothrock State Forest in central Pennsylvania that my son Dave and I joined last July.  Let by Sarah Miller of the Penn State Cooperative Wetlands Center, who is an expert on wetland plants and ecology, fourteen people from as far away as Lewisburg rendezvoused with her along Pine Swamp Road deep in the heart of the forest.  When Miller handed us the draft of a key she had devised entitled “Do I Have a Grass, Sedge or Rush,” we realized that we would be identifying not only the grasses but also the sedges and rushes along the trail.

A quick glance at the intricately-designed five sheets of paper, and I knew that my dependence on the old jingle, “Sedges have edges and rushes are round and grasses are hollow and move all around,” would not suffice.  In truth, I always forget what grasses are in that jingle so later I googled it on the Internet.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who can’t remember the exact wording of the grasses part because I found several versions of it including “grasses have nodes from the top to the ground,” “grasses are hollow right up from the ground,” and “grasses wear robes all the way to the ground.”

Despite the multiple versions of the grass line in the jingle, it turns out that they are the easiest to sort out.  If the stems are round, hollow, and jointed, with its leaves 2-ranked or 2-dimensional when viewed from above, it is a member of Poaceae — the Grass family.

three-way sedge

three-way sedge

Sedges and rushes, on the other hand, are not as simple as the jingle implies and, in fact, took up the remainder of Miller’s key. For instance, the three-way sedge — Dulichium arundinaceum — which is common in bogs, swamps, marshes, lake margins and ditches, shares all the same characteristics as a grass except that its leaves are 3-ranked or 3-dimensional.

Still, there were several botanical terms I had to absorb as Miller launched into her identification of a couple grasses growing beside the road.  “Node,” it turns out, is another word for the joints on a grass stem, which is called a “culm.”  Those 2-ranked, alternate, parallel-veined leaves of grasses have two parts, the “sheath,” which surrounds the culm, and the “blade” which sticks out from the culm. Where the blade joins the sheath at the culm, on the inside usually is a papery structure or ring of hairs called a “ligule.”

I should have identified the first grass Miller showed us, but I was so intent on grasping the botanical terms that I didn’t even recognize the notorious Japanese stiltgrass until Miller named it.  Also known as “Nepalese browntop,” “Mary’s grass,” “Nepal grass,” and “Japanese grass,” Japanese stiltgrass, Microstegium vimineum, was accidentally introduced into the United States in Tennessee, probably because the dried grass was used as packing material for porcelain.  Since then, this invasive has spread to eastern states from New York to Florida.

Japanese stiltgrass in late September, Plummer's Hollow

Japanese stiltgrass in late September, Plummer's Hollow

Japanese stiltgrass thrives in disturbed areas.  In the last several years, it has invaded the poorly-logged portion of our property that we purchased after it was cut 18 years ago.  It spreads both by rooting at its nodes and by its seeds.  Each plant produces between 100 and 1000 seeds that remain viable in the soil for at least three years.  A native of not only Japan, but also Korea, China, Malaysia, and India, it seems to thrive in eastern North America almost everywhere from forests to fields, wetlands to roadside ditches, gas and powerline corridors to lawns and gardens.

Japanese stiltgrass doesn’t flower until late summer or early fall, but it was easy enough to identify the silvery stripe of reflective hairs down the middle of the upper surface of its alternately-arranged, asymmetrical, lance-shaped leaves.

To identify the next grass, the terminology was even more complex for my aging brain to grasp, and I never did sort it out until much later when I sat down with Agnes Chase’s excellent First Book of Grasses. First published in 1922, the Smithsonian Institution printed a third edition in 1959 in honor of Chase’s ninetieth birthday. My own 1977 hardcover copy was the second reprint of that edition. Despite nearly 60 years engaged in productive scientific work that resulted in more than 70 scientific papers, she is best know for this little gem of a book.

Chase was a self-taught botanist, but she became the dean of agrostology (grasses) after many years at the United States Department of Agriculture working for Albert Spear Hitchcock. She helped him compile the Manual of the Grasses of the United States, which she illustrated lavishly with her drawings, and then she revised all 1040 pages of the book after his death.

She also made two exploring trips to Brazil and another to Venezuela in the 1920s and 30s when she was in her fifties and sixties.  Botanical collector Ynes Mexia, who spent a couple days collecting with her in Brazil, described her as “almost a human grass, who lives, sleeps, dreams nothing but grasses…”

Chase’s clear drawings and explanatory material finally made sense of Miller’s insistence that we must look carefully at a grass flower in order to identify it.  A grass spikelet is the equivalent of a leafy flowering branch and consists of the flowers themselves or “florets,” which are held in the axils of small green bracts called “lemmas.”  They, in turn, are enclosed in a second bract — the “palea.” The equivalent of a stem is called a “rachilla.”  Below the grass flowers are two bracts without flowers — the “glumes.” All of these terms are important because often a grass can only be identified by its spikelets and their arrangements, for example, the shape of the glumes and the lemmas.

As we worked our way through the next grass, examining the spikelets in detail, Miller eventually identified it as Poa trivialis or rough bluegrass, a native of Europe but often cultivated here and found in wet meadows, swamps, and wet forests.

Rattlesnake Manna Grass, by Petroglyph on Flickr (CC BY-NC license)

Rattlesnake Manna Grass, by Petroglyph on Flickr (CC BY-NC license)

Another spikelet she showed us was that of poverty grass, Danthonia spicata, in which a long hair emerged from between a pair of stiff hairs or teeth at the tip of each floret.  And we admired the wavy branches of rattlesnake mannagrass, Glyceria canadensis — an easy way to identify this distinctive wetland grass.

We shuffled onward as folks stopped to look at every grass, sedge, and rush.  Rushes (Family Juncaceae), Miller told us, have miniature flowers with three petals and three sepals, an arrangement called “tepals” that enclose a capsule containing three or more seeds.  As an example, she showed us soft rush, Juncus effusus. This perennial native has densely-clustered stems and clumps of flowers that grow from the side of the stem.

Because the flowers of the soft rush “are individual, they are prophyllate, if they are in heads, they are eprophyllate,” according to Miller’s key, and that’s where the botanical terminology defeated me.  I knew I would need many more hours to sort out and memorize words I had always avoided.

I had never had a botany course and tended to rely on pictorial field guides to identify wildflowers as well as the more common grasses, sedges, and rushes with the help of Ernest Knobel’s Field Guide to the Grasses, Sedges and Rushes of the United States and Lauren Brown’s Grasses, which also includes sedges and rushes.  For an amateur like me these guides are invaluable. Still, they do take some work and occasional glances at botanical glossaries.

The rest of the plants we looked at were sedges (Family Cyperaceae), which usually have triangular solid stems, small flowers, and 1-seeded fruits or nutlets that are often called “achenes.” There are 15 genera of sedges in Pennsylvania, 160 species of which are in the genus Carex.  This is, by far, the largest genus of flowering plants in the state.  A couple that we saw with Miller was Carex folliculata and Carex torta, both common, native, wetland perennials and both known commonly as “sedge.”

We also looked at Scirpus cyperinus, another sedge with the common name “wool-grass,” which should explain why botanists prefer to use the scientific names.  Other members of the Scirpus genus also have variations on the name “bulrush,” even though they are neither grasses nor rushes.

Botanizing at the Beaver Dam in Rothrock State Forest

Botanizing at the Beaver Dam in Rothrock State Forest

After more than an hour, we reached the Beaver Dam as the wetland is known by the locals.  Miller called our attention to another grass, Calamagrostis canadensis or Canada bluejoint, a denizen of bogs and swamps, as some of us deftly moved from sphagnum hummock to sphagnum hummock over the former impoundment and tried to avoid the places where knee-deep water flowed swiftly.

But one elderly man, in an attempt to catch a praying mantis, fell into the water.

“Bob’s down,” son Dave said.  “Are you okay?”

As if in answer, he scrambled to his feet and showed us the mantis he held between forefinger and thumb.  This was, after all, a group of amateur naturalists interested in every aspect of the natural world.

Next, a younger woman plunged in up to her knees and emerged muddy but cheerful.  After that, we were even more careful.

Then Miller showed us another grass.

“It’s a Panicum,” she said.

“What is the species?” I asked.

“I have no idea.  I have trouble with Panicum,” she answered.  With that honest reply from an expert, I felt better about procrastinating trying to learn all the grasses, sedges, and rushes even on our mostly dry, mountaintop property.  The least I could do, I resolved, was identify those plants.

ebony jewelwing damselfly at the Beaver Dam

ebony jewelwing damselfly at the Beaver Dam

The Beaver Dam wetland is a lovely place.  Masses of purple steeplebush bloomed in the middle of it, and we knelt in the mud to examine the delicate flowers of blooming sundews with our hand lens. Ebony jewelwing damselflies flitted over the water, a wide expanse of cotton grass grew on the far side of the wetland, and large white pines towered over its edges.

But I was distressed to see the telltale tire marks of an all-terrain vehicle imprinted in the mud.  It had been driven heedlessly through the sedges and rushes.  Such incursions, especially in wetlands and along streambeds, continue to destroy habitat and frustrate those of us who value such places.

At last, we were marshaled back to our cars, and off we went.  But the adventure was not over.  The lead car suddenly braked to avoid a tiny porcupette crossing the road.  Everyone stopped their cars and rushed to get a better look at it as it scurried into the underbrush.  Son Dave scared it up a tree, which it looked as if it was climbing for the first time. At the first branch, barely six feet from the ground, it paused to rest, and eager naturalists and photographers gathered around to admire and take its picture. Only Dave had ever seen one before and that was on our property several years ago.

Then, farther along, at the side of the road, Dave spotted a wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) in bloom.  By that time, our car was on its own.  All four of us got out to photograph that gorgeous, deep orange, purple-spotted wildflower standing erect on a stem above whorled leaves.  This last, unexpected floral gift from Rothrock State Forest ended our grass field trip on a high note.

Lilium philadelphicum

Lilium philadelphicum

All photos were taken by Dave on the day of the outing, except where noted otherwise.

Hiking the Ghost Town Trail

Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail

Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail (click all photos to see larger versions)

No trace of December’s snow remained.

“It might as well be spring,” I thought as I hummed the lines of an old song. But it wasn’t spring.  It was January 7 and a balmy 60 degrees.  Seduced by the perfect day, my husband Bruce and I set out to hike portions of the Ghost Town Trail in Cambria and Indiana counties.

This 36-mile trail over a former railroad bed winds through the Blacklick Creek Valley and is named for several coal-mining towns that were abandoned in the 1930s.  Two separate sections, one near the western end of the trail in Indiana County and the other in Vintondale in Cambria County, go through gamelands.

First, we tackled the western section, leaving our car in the Heshbon parking area.  Water gushed over and around massive rocks in the river-sized Blacklick Creek below us on our left.  Across the creek, a mixed hemlock and deciduous forest stretched as far as we could see.

Spotted wintergreen along the Ghost Town Trail

Spotted wintergreen along the Ghost Town Trail

After several hundred feet, we crossed into SGL#276. The only tracks in the packed limestone trail were those of white-tailed deer. Healthy-looking hemlock trees and rhododendron shrubs grew on the hillside to our right.  It seemed an idyllic setting until we reached Auld’s Run.

A small waterfall tumbled over layers of orange rock, was channeled beneath the trail, and flowed into Blacklick Creek.  We could see coal spilling from the hillside and beyond that an enormous flattened hill of coal waste striped orange, red, brown and black.  We looked a little closer at Blacklick Creek and its seemingly pristine water.  Orange and blood-red puddles pooled in the creek’s backwaters.  The “ghosts” of coal mining, in the form of acid mine drainage or AMD, still haunted the trail.

But we were soon past the area.  Once again, the hillside was wooded, although it had steepened and was strewn with boulders as big as shacks.  One was perfectly square and from a distance, I thought it was a shack.

Coal waste along Blacklick Creek

Coal waste along Blacklick Creek

In another tangle of boulders, this one above the creek, where even white-tailed deer feared to tread, I found a lovely bed of spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata). Their white-striped evergreen leaves adorned the winter forest floor where it was protected from deer browsing.  Green clubmosses, not a deer food, were abundant in the open stretches of woodland.

In open places beside the trail, the dried seed heads of goldenrod, asters, and meadowsweet reminded me of late summer’s colorful abundance.  Staghorn sumac still held aloft their pyramidal-shaped clusters of red seeds.  Tulip trees, growing tall and straight in a floodplain forest, offered their seeds to a pair of black-capped chickadees.  Along the creek oak trees still clung to clusters of dried, brown leaves. A belted kingfisher emitted its rattling call as it flew downstream.

Once we glimpsed a black gray squirrel, a melanistic color phase more common in the northern part of its range, scamper across the trail in front of us. Translucent water, sparkling in the sunlight, dripped from beneath thin layers of rock on the hillside and red sphagnum moss mopped up the moisture.  I heard the “peter-peter” of a tufted titmouse and the call of a hairy woodpecker emanating from the forest above.

Acid mine drainage in Auld's Run

Acid mine drainage in Auld's Run

After three-and-a-half relatively level miles, we turned around and chose a picturesque spot on one of the benches overlooking the creek to eat our trail lunch.  Afterwards, as we approached the parking lot, we encountered the first people we had seen all day on that section of the Ghost Town Trail.

One-half mile east of Dilltown, still in Indiana County, we took a shorter hike over a network of trails in the Blacklick Valley Natural Area, which is across Blacklick Creek from the Ghost Town Trail.  The Blacklick Trail beside the creek was particularly lovely, although in this area the water was flat.  Black-capped chickadees welcomed us and cedar waxwings keened in the treetops.

David and Penny Russell had donated this 713-acre plot of land to Indiana County back in 1995, and its varied habitats, including a series of mature evergreen tree plantations, are no doubt magnets for wildlife and songbirds.  But despite the unseasonable warmth, it was mid-afternoon on a winter day–the nadir of both the day and the year–and we mostly enjoyed the quiet ambience of the place.

Vintondale, Pennsylvania

Vintondale, Pennsylvania

By then we had walked more miles than I liked to think about, and Bruce promised me that our last stop would be brief but unusual. We drove into the old coal town of Vintondale in Cambria County.  Unlike the “ghost towns,” Vintondale is still very much alive.  But it has only a quarter of the population (528 in 2000) that it had back in 1910 (2,053) when the Vinton Colliery was at its height of production.  At that time, 32 languages and dialects were spoken in the town.

By the early 1980s, long after the long-wall coal mines had closed and the coal company absconded around 1956, leaving behind the usual acid mine drainage, the site where the Vinton Colliery buildings had stood had become a dump.  That’s when a Rural Abandoned Mineland Project had covered the site with waste coal four-to-eight feet thick.

Then, in 1994, T. Allan Comp, an historic preservationist working for the National Park Service’s National Heritage Areas Program, approached Vintondale with a plan that combined art and science to clean up the industrial site. He called it AMD&ART. He wanted a park for the people that would showcase their history and the natural beauty of the area. The citizens wanted a ball park.  Working with them and with a dedicated group of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteers as well as with a host of innovative designers and artists, the AMD&ART Park, beside the Ghost Town Trail, was dedicated in 2005.

Etched image of the Vinton Colliery, part of the Great Map installation

Etched image of the Vinton Colliery, part of the Great Map installation

Winning numerous awards, this remarkable site was a joy to visit even on a winter day.  Young couples with children played in the four-acre recreation area while we wandered past the six keystone-shaped ponds that change the orange water pouring out of mine portal No. 3 from a ph of 2.8 to 6.1 before it flows through a wetland and into Blacklick Creek.  Lining the first treatment pond with limestone that pulls the iron out of the water, each successive pond filters pollutants from the water and turns them into solids that a seven-acre wetland, planted with 10,000 wetland plants and attracting wood ducks, killdeer and other birds in season, captures and retains.

Furthermore, citizens rallied to plant trees in what is dubbed the Litmus Garden back in 2001.  The idea was to choose native trees and shrubs that would turn the same color in autumn as the pool around which they were planted — from red to orange to yellow and finally to clean blue-green at the end of the treatment pools.  White ash, red maple, sweet gum, black cherry, shadbush, sassafras, sugar maple, tulip poplar, big tooth aspen, American hackberry, black willow and sycamore — one thousand trees in all were planted by 150 volunteers including former Vintondale natives who had returned to help.

Plaque explaining the AMD treatment process

Plaque explaining the AMD treatment process

Those folks who bike or walk this section of the Ghost Town Trail, which is surrounded by State Gameland #79 except for the town of Vintondale, can stop to read the excellent signs that explain the AMD process.  They can also view the ART part of the project.  One is a nine-by-fifteen foot mosaic modeled on a 1923 Sanborn Insurance map of the Vinton Colliery by artist Jessica Liddell. Framing the map are 131 granite tiles, 54 of which have been laser-etched with community images, newspaper headlines, and text in addition to the word “hope” inscribed in the 26 languages spoken in Vintondale at the time. The Great Map Project is so accurate that “folks that lived in the town and worked in the mine walked up and pointed out the homes that their families had lived in for generations,” artist Liddell told writer Erik Reece in his excellent article for Orion magazine about the project.   It was that article, published the month before, that persuaded us to visit Vintondale.

But the most affecting art piece is across the trail from the Great Map. In a perfect reconstructed six-by-twelve-foot Mine No. 6 Portal entrance, where miners entered the coal mine back in its heyday, are the ghostlike images of nine miners emerging from the portal during a shift-change in 1938.  Taken from home movie footage contributed by Vintondale resident Julius Morey, artist Anita Lucero diamond-etched in polished black granite the life-sized portrait of miners wearing head lanterns and carrying their lunch pails. From a distance, all we could see was what looked like a black hole framed by mine timbers.  As we walked closer, the images emerged like phantoms from another, lost world.

The Great Map mosaic at Vintondale

The Great Map mosaic at Vintondale

Finally, across the park from the Miner’s Memorial, is the Clean Slate, which was designed by University of Pennsylvania landscape architecture students Claire Fullman and Emily Nye who were the winners of a national student design competition.  Two long pieces of rough black slate, one beneath the culvert where the clean water flows into Blacklick Creek after passing through the wetland, and another higher up on drier land, which serves as a viewing platform and the beginning of a path of 10 slate steps leading visitors through what is planned to be a Carboniferous Garden when ferns were the trees of the earth.  On warmer days, visitors can stand on the wet slate and let the purified water wash over their bare feet before it flows into Blacklick Creek.

Even visiting in winter, we could appreciate the blending of art and science, human and natural landscapes.  What was once a blighted, neglected area is now enriching both the lives of Vintondale citizens and the many visitors to the Ghost Town Trail who pause to learn about this innovative approach to acid mine drainage. On those 35-acres of reclaimed mine land, Comp says on the AMD&ART website that … “we’ve established a model of holistic renewal that brings the perspective of history to mix with the discipline of science, the delight of innovative design, and the energy of community engagement.”

Mine No. 6 entrance, diamond-etched in black granite by Anita Lucero

Mine No. 6 entrance, diamond-etched in black granite by Anita Lucero

All photos are by Bruce Bonta. For more information and maps of the Ghost Town Trail and the Blacklick Valley Natural Area: www.indianacountyparks.org or call 724-463-8636.  To learn more about AMD&ART: www.amdandart.org. See also “Reclaiming a Toxic Legacy Through Art and Science,” by Erik Reece, in the November/December 2007 issue of Orion magazine.