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.

June Surprises

June is often the most exciting month of the year. Then I can count on close encounters with black bears on our trails. Not only are last year’s cubs on their own, but their mothers are being hotly pursued by eager males.

northern brown snake

northern brown snake (photo by Paula Scott)

We also add new species to Bioplum, a natural inventory of our property. But last June 5 we added a record three species in one day. Our caretaker family — Troy and Paula Scott — found a northern brown snake in their yard and promptly photographed it. Formerly named DeKay’s brown snake—Storeria dekayi dekayi—its species name still honors nineteenth century naturalist James Edward DeKay. According to Amphibians and Reptiles of Pennsylvania and the Northeastby Hulse, McCoy, and Censky, the northern brown snake “reaches its greatest densities in and around abandoned human habitation.” That made sense because the Scotts’ home is directly above the derelict home of our deceased neighbor, Margaret McHugh.

Later in the day, the Scotts saw a painted turtle on our road. It was probably a female looking for a nesting site because from late May to early July they leave slow-moving water in search of a gentle slope exposed to the sun in which to deposit their eggs.

I was disappointed to miss those two new species, but I was able to see the third new one of the day. Our friend, Lucy Boyce, who specializes in native plants, spent several hours with our son Dave in our three-acre deer exclosure, searching for new plants. The phone rang, and Dave told me to come and see two wild coffee plants — Triosteum perfoliatum — blooming in the wet, overgrown section of the exclosure.

Frankly, I had never heard of wild coffee, also called perfoliate horse gentian, fever-root, feverwort, and tinker’s-weed. Its erect stem has several pairs of large, opposite, oval, pointed leaves that meet and surround the stem. In the axils of the leaves grow reddish-brown or greenish elongated, bell-shaped flowers. It likes rich, moist woods and thickets, such as ours, and flowers in May and early June.

Wild coffee plant

Wild coffee (photo: Dave Bonta)

But even better than finding new species and seeing bears on our trails last June was my unexpected encounter with a rare animal. On a gorgeous day in mid-June, I slowly ascended Big Tree Trail on Sapsucker Ridge. It was a pleasant 63 degrees at 9:00 a.m. as I continued my walk along our forested ridgetop.

Suddenly, I saw what I thought was a small gray squirrel coming towards me. It ran to a tree, climbed about three feet from the ground, and clung to the tree trunk. But instead of a fluffy tail, its tail was very long, thin, and sparsely-haired. Then it turned its head toward me and it didn’t look like the face of a squirrel, but like that of an overgrown white-footed mouse. I had only time to notice its large, roundish, shell-shaped ears, and its big, dark eyes before it jumped off the tree and disappeared. But I was almost certain that it was an Allegheny woodrat.

Years ago, on October 4, 1989 — my husband Bruce and our eldest son Steve had a perfect view of an Allegheny woodrat while driving up our hollow road at 10:45 p.m. What the woodrat was doing there was a mystery because its habitat, as described then in the literature, didn’t fit the supposed requirements of an Allegheny woodrat. They live in caves and talus slopes and the nearest talus slope on the far side of Sapsucker Ridge was farther away than a woodrat’s range.

Cal Butchkoski often squeezes into tight places in search of Allegheny woodrats

Cal Butchkoski often squeezes into tight places in search of Allegheny woodrats (photo: Bruce Bonta)

Their intriguing sighting led me to learn more about this native packrat. And, the following autumn, Bruce and I accompanied PGC Wildlife Technician Cal Butchkoski, as he climbed a hundred foot high rock outcropping in an old-growth hemlock forest. As part of a study by the Game Commission that began in 1982, he had set 40 live traps baited with apples for woodrats in the caves and crevices the evening before and wanted to release any captives as quickly as possible to minimize stress on the animals.

But when he released a male on my lap so Bruce could take photographs, the woodrat seemed anything but stressed. He spent several long, camera-clicking minutes climbing on my jean-clad legs before leaping gracefully to the floor of the cave and disappearing under a dead pile of leaves that was, in reality, his home. Made of sticks, shredded bark, grass and dried leaves, woodrat homes range in shape from cone-shaped to flattened.

At that time, Butchkoski showed us pencil-eraser-sized droppings in its latrine site under a nearby ledge which serve as a signpost for anyone looking for woodrats. These droppings last for decades and, depending on their condition, researchers can determine whether or not woodrats are still in residence. Needless to say, Bruce and our sons combed the talus slopes on Sapsucker Ridge but didn’t find any latrines.

Male Allegheny woodrat posing on author's lap

Male Allegheny woodrat posing on author’s lap (photo: Bruce Bonta)

While Bruce’s and Steve’s sighting seemed unusual because of the woodrat’s distance from its rock habitat, mine was equally surprising because Allegheny woodrats are nocturnal. On the other hand, even though it has been 20 years since I last looked into the ecology of Allegheny woodrats, researchers are still puzzled by many aspects of their lives.

Much has changed too. Back then the Allegheny woodrat was considered to be a subspecies of the eastern woodrat (Neotoma floridana) which ranges south to Florida and west to Colorado. It had lost its original species status Neotoma magister in 1957 when researchers had relegated it to subspecies status based on comparative studies of eastern woodrat skulls and skins. But using new molecular methods, researchers conducted mitochondrial DNA analyses of 114 woodrats from 33 locations and proved that Allegheny woodrats are indeed a separate species from eastern woodrats. In 1997 they were once again listed as Neotoma magister in the Revised Checklist of North American Mammals.

Furthermore, Allegheny woodrats are ecologically distinct from eastern woodrats because they live almost exclusively in caves, boulder fields, and talus slopes consisting of sandstone and/or limestone—so-called rock habitats. They build their nests on cave ledges, like the one we saw with Butchkoski, or in rock crevices

Cal Butchkoski weighs an Allegheny woodrat

Cal Butchkoski weighs an Allegheny woodrat (photo: Bruce Bonta)

Females claim the best habitats to construct their nests and raise their young. They breed as early as mid-March in Pennsylvania, and, after about 35 days, give birth to one to four naked, blind young. Their eyes open at two-and-a-half weeks, and they nurse until they are a month old. Then, although they may remain with their mother for a while, they begin to do their own foraging for leaves, fruit, mast, fungi, and even twigs. Once they are on their own, they build individual nests, because woodrats are solitary animals except during the breeding season. They don’t hibernate so they are busy collecting and drying food, such as fungi and fern fronds, to stuff into crevices for winter consumption. For the most part, they “exhibit high site fidelity and low dispersal rates,” according to researchers.

But Dr. Janet Wright and her students of Dickinson College, radiotracked an adult male for two years. He moved suddenly 3.6 miles along a ridgetop to a new site. She also discovered that woodrats will travel “considerable distances beyond the protection of rock slides in search of food and mates.”

Another researcher, Dr. Petra Bohall Wood, in West Virginia, found that woodrats, particularly males, do move away from their birth site between their juvenile and adult years. From these studies and others I looked at, I hypothesized that the woodrat I encountered still had its grayer youngster coat and was either searching for food or dispersing. The previous fall had been a terrific mast year when woodrats are especially prolific so perhaps young woodrats were more inclined to find a new home. And that woodrat Bruce and Steve saw years before was probably also dispersing.

There is another extensive talus slope less than a mile away on our neighbor’s property. Unfortunately, it had been heavily logged the previous year which may have sent any woodrats living there in search of a new home, because recent studies seem to indicate that the best habitat surrounding rocky areas should include an oak/hickory forest rich in mast. In fact, a large intact forest buffer 1.2 miles from the forest edge is ideal, something we don’t have below our talus slopes but do on our ridgetop.

Pennsylvania is thought to have five percent of the world’s population of Allegheny woodrats. Most of the population is now in the Appalachian south, although more study of populations needs to be done in those areas. It has gone extinct in Connecticut, New York, and the southeastern portion of Pennsylvania where it used to be common. Pennsylvania has relegated Allegheny woodrats to threatened status, and they are protected under the Game and Wildlife Code. Game Commission biologists, including Butchkoski, have been engaged in long-term monitoring to find out how dense populations are at each site. Previously, from 1982 to 2006, Pennsylvania biologists conducted 1,255 surveys at 802 habitat sites and found evidence of current or former woodrat occupation at 443 sites. Of those sites, 246 were still active and 197 were not. They hope to maintain breeding populations in the Appalachian Plateau, Ridge and Valley Province, and the upper Susquehanna River drainage.

The Allegheny woodrat returns to his home after release

The Allegheny woodrat returns to his home after release (photo: Bruce Bonta)

But why are Allegheny woodrats disappearing? That question has haunted researchers from the beginning, and over the years a number of suggestions have been made. After all, their rock habitats are not very accessible to most people. Researcher Kathleen LoGludice summed up biologists’ hypotheses in The Allegheny Woodrat; Ecology, Conservation and Management of a Declining Species edited by J.D. Peles and Janet Wright. First and foremost, is a decrease in food that began with the disappearance of the predictable, yearly crop of American chestnuts and then the woodrats tried to adjust to boom-and-bust acorn cycles, especially during years of heavy gypsy moth infestation when oaks are too stressed to produce any acorns.

Habitat fragmentation caused by new or widened roads, quarries, industrial wind farms, utility lines, communication towers, and natural gas drilling rigs makes it increasingly difficult for woodrats to move safely from one rock habitat to another.

Finally, as packrats, they collect both edible and inedible material. One “midden,” as it is called, examined in Centre County in 1941, contained three quarts of deer pellets. Three other middens discovered by the same researcher yielded a baseball cover, can labels, a cigarette pack, cloth, a shoe heel, yarn, rusty tin cans and pieces of string. None of these items pose a threat to Allegheny woodrats. But as their habitat fragments and residential and agricultural fields move closer, generalist species, especially raccoons, increase. With raccoons come raccoon roundworm which is fatal to woodrats that collect and eat raccoon feces.

Raccoons also prey on woodrats as do great horned owls, coyotes, weasels, fishers, and black rat snakes. We certainly have abundant numbers of these creatures on our property. And hopefully my sighting is a sign that we have a population of Allegheny woodrats too.

Female Allegheny woodrat with two babies by Alan Cressler

Neotoma magister, female and two babies, Lowe Gap cave, Bledsoe County, TN (Creative Commons-licensed photo by Alan Cressler)


For more information on this charismatic animal, consult the Pennsylvania Game Commission website. The Allegheny Woodrat: Ecology, Conservation and Management of a Declining Species, edited by J.D. Peles and Janet Wright, is also an excellent source.

Wildflower Drive

wildflower hunters along Route 22

Wildflower hunters along Route 22

A chorus of birds greets me this cool, foggy day — song sparrows, eastern phoebes, dark-eyed juncos, robins, and northern cardinals — all predictable on the tenth of April. And then, from the top of First Field, the imitative song of a brown thrasher unwinds. At last a sign that this late spring is underway.

At least I certainly hope so. My son, Dave, and I are leading members of our Juniata Valley Audubon Society on an early wildflower drive a few miles south in Huntingdon County, and I’m worried. Not even our trailing arbutus has bloomed yet. Will we see any wildflowers at all?

The previous spring, on this date, Dave and his wildflower aficionado friend, Lucy, had taken our planned route and seen scores of wildflowers, even the elusive and increasingly rare twinleaf. On this day the weather looks unpromising as we rendezvous with fellow members in an abandoned parking lot beside an auto parts dealer on the outskirts of Huntingdon.


Bloodroot blooms among the roadside litter next to the Huntingdon strip

Why there, I wonder. But the moment we park our car, I understand. The high, steep, wooded bank behind the line of stores is blanketed with budding bloodroot, Dutchman’s breeches, and early meadow rue. We scramble up a portion of the slope amid the rocky rubble, searching for at least one opened flower to show the increasing number of participants pulling up, parking, and rushing over to see what we’ve discovered.

We’re all eager for signs of spring, and when one person finds a blooming bloodroot, we clamber up for a look. Meanwhile, cars and trucks stream past on U.S. Route 22, vehicles filled with people who have no idea about the miracle of spring we are admiring.

Bloodroot — Sanguinaria canadensis — is named for its reddish stem that leaves orange-red juice on your fingers if you pick it. Its leaf will bleed also when cut or bruised and its thick, fleshy root contains orange-red juice. But its flower displays seven to 12 long, narrow, snow white petals that surround a yellow center of 20 stamens and one large, yellow-tipped stigma. So fragile are these flowers that a wind or rain will tear them apart. However, they can withstand more cold than many wildflowers because, like other early bloomers, bloodroot stored energy and food in its thick roots the previous year.


The first bloodroot to flower, still wrapped like a mummy

Bloodroot, also known as Indian paint, coon root, snakebite, sweet slumber, red root, corn root, turmeric, tetterwort and red puccoon, was once renowned as a cure-all for coughs, colds, and skin diseases. Native Americans used its red juice to treat cramps, stop vomiting, induce abortions, and repel insects. They also mixed the juice with fat to paint their faces and bodies and dye their baskets and clothing.

More recently, an extract of bloodroot, called sanguinarine, has been added to some toothpastes and mouth rinses to fight plaque and gum disease. In addition, a few doctors have been using bloodroot to treat minor ear and nose cancers.

But on this warming spring day eleven people from four counties — Perry, Huntingdon, Blair and Centre — are more interested in the beauty of this and other wildflowers we plan to track down.

Our next stop is at the base of The Thousand Steps on Jack’s Mountain, east of Huntingdon in Jack’s Narrows, still along U.S. Route 22. There we find another rocky mountainside covered with blooming Dutchman’s breeches, cutleaf toothwort and more bloodroot. A few adventurous folks climb a hundred feet above us, and soon we hear a happy shout. They have discovered some twinleaf growing amid a patch of cutleaf toothwort.



I don’t have my hiking boots on. I hadn’t thought we would be climbing up steep hillsides to find wildflowers. I should have known, though, that such places are natural refugia from white-tailed deer herbivory. But I am desperate to see twinleaf, a wildflower I have somehow missed during my 70 years. Finally, a way is found across a stream and up the back side of the hill for the less sure-footed of us to reach those twinleafs.

And there it is. Another white-petaled flower that resembles bloodroot. But it is named for its large leaves almost divided in half atop their tall stems and resembling angel wings or a butterfly in shape. Twinleaf — Jeffersonia diphylla — was named in honor of Thomas Jefferson by his botanist friend Benjamin Barton.

Its leaves are unique enough and its eight waxy-white petals encircling erect, yellow stamens around a green ovary are lovely enough, but I wish I could see its fruit — a green, pear-shaped capsule with a hinged lid that pops opens and spills out seeds when they are ripe, hence its alternate names “helmet pod” and “ground squirrel pea.”

Twinleaf is also called rheumatism root because of its purported medicinal uses. Native Americans concocted infusions to treat urinary tract problems and as a poultice for sores and inflammation. A decoction of the plant treated liver problems and diarrhea. American settlers utilized the entire plant as an emetic, general tonic, antispasmodic, and diuretic. More recently, scientists found that its roots contain berberine, an anti-tumor alkaloid. All in all, another useful and beautiful wildflower.

Dutchman's breeches

Dutchman's breeches

Dutchman’s-breeches — Dicentra cucullaria — has been one of my favorite wildflowers ever since my father showed it to me many years ago in Montgomery County near his hometown of Pottstown. As a child it wasn’t difficult to remember the name of the spray of yellow-tipped, white, pantaloon-shaped flowers nodding at the tip of a curved stem. Other folks imagined other shapes and called them soldier’s caps, white-hearts, eardrops, monk’s head, butterfly banners, kitten breeches, bachelor’s breeches, and little boy breeches.

But Victorian admirers of wildflowers were not amused by the term “breeches,” especially those who knew that the original meaning of the word was “buttocks” or “rump.” Naturalist F. Schuyler Mathews, at the end of the nineteenth century, admitted that the name sounded “A bit unrefined,” but “I like the name because of its knickerbockers flavor, and although it is suggestive of a bit of rude humor, it is not without a certain poetic significance.” On the other hand, its scientific name means “two-spurred” and “hooded.”

Those upside down blossoms, though, protect its pollen from the weather and from most non-pollinating insects. Only long-tongued native bumblebees can reach its nectar and hence the pollen of Dutchman’s breeches.

It, too, like bloodroot and twinleaf, prefer rocky, calcareous, wooded hillsides and forms sizable colonies. Also, as nineteenth New York state naturalist/writer John Burroughs pointed out, “As soon as bloodroot has begun to star the waste, stony places…we are on the lookout for Dicentra.” Perhaps, even he was embarrassed to use its common name.

cutleaf toothwort

cutleaf toothwort

The more pedantically named cutleaf toothwort — Cardamine concatenate — has a spray of nodding white or pinkish, four-petaled, cross-shaped flowers on top of a stem of three deeply-cut leaves.

Sources differ over why it is named toothwort. Some say it refers to the tooth-like appearance of its rhizome or underground stem. Others insist that it was used to cure toothaches, thus its name “toothache root.” Crinkleroot is still another description of its iconic rhizome. So too are pepperwort and pepper-root because the rhizome is edible and has a spicy, radish-like flavor that gives a zippy touch to a spring salad. Even its species’ name honors the rhizome because concatenate is Latin for “joined together,” yet another description of the root. I’ve not been able to account for other nicknames — lady’s smocks, crow’s toes, and milkmaids — but Cardamine is Greek for bittercress, which is appropriate for a member of the Mustard family.

Tired of the constant stream of traffic on U.S. Route 22, we retrace our tour and turn off on the two-lane, little-traveled River Road that winds its way along the Raystown branch of the Juniata River. We stop often to admire rock formations on the right side of the road from which sprays of maidenhair spleenwort ferns dangle. And we finally hit another jackpot of wildflowers when we pull into the Corbin’s Island Recreation Area, a half mile below Raystown Dam where the river still flows strongly, and we catch our first glimpse of migrating waterfowl swimming on the water.

Juniata Valley Audubon members on the River Road

Juniata Valley Audubon members on the River Road

It’s sandy at this flat area, and our group spreads out in search of new wildflowers. First they find the spotted, elongate leaves of trout lilies and then whole beds of them. Sure enough, on this day that has gradually warmed and sunned, their single, nodding, bell-shaped, yellow flowers have opened on innumerable stems. After seeing so many white flowers, the trout lilies seem positively exotic.

The trout lily — Erythronium americanum — is indeed a member of the Lily family and has finally been given a proper common name. The purple blotches on its leaves look like some trout species, and the flower appears just as trout season opens. But if you look at older wildflower books in search of trout lily, you will find it under dog’s tooth violet or adder’s tongue. However, it is not a violet, although its underground corms are pointed somewhat like a tooth. Mary Durant, in her book Who Named the Daisy? Who Named the Rose?, says that a European variety of trout lily has dog-toothed roots and is violet colored, hence the probably origin of dog’s tooth violet.

Adder’s tongue is a little harder to decipher, although some authorities say that the marks on the leaves look like snake markings. Others think that its twin leaves resemble a snake’s forked tongue or conversely that the leaves pop out of the soil and “Whoever sees the sharp purplish point of a young plant darting above the ground in earliest spring… at once sees the fitting application of ‘adder’s tongue,’” one expert writes. Really?

trout lily

A JVAS member taking a trout lily's picture with her phone

If you don’t like any of those names, fawn lily was John Burroughs’s choice because he thought the spotted leaves resembled those of a fawn. “Its two leaves stand up like a fawn’s ears, and this feature with its recurved petals, gives it an alert, wide-awake look.” So it is a flower that should appeal to fisher folk and hunters as well as naturalists.

Other names include yellow lily, yellow bells, rattlesnake tooth violet, rattlesnake violet, yellow snakeleaf, lamb’s tongue, deer’s tongue, snake root, star-striker, and scrofula root, the latter because it was thought to cure that skin disease. Early Pennsylvania settlers were said to favor yellow snowdrop.

Whatever the name, though, trout lilies are flower as delicate as those of bloodroot and last only a few days. We are lucky to have found so many ephemeral spring wildflowers on what one member calls our “voyage of possibilities.” All our possibilities have come true, and we leave, pleased with a day that has blossomed with the sun.

trout lily

trout lily

All photos by Dave Bonta (click on them to see larger versions at Flickr)

Hiking the Bells Gap Rail Trail

Bell's Gap Rail Trail hikers

On the last day of October, twenty friends and members of the Juniata Valley Audubon Society hiked down the Allegheny Front beginning in State Gamelands 158, following the remains of the Bells Gap Narrow-Gauge Railroad. Back in 1872, it was built from the railroad station in the Logan Valley town of Bellwood to Lloydsville, nine miles uphill, to haul coal from the mines on the mountain summit down to the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad.

It also served as an excursion train for summer tourists, “on account of the grand and romantic scenery along its course, its mountain peaks, deep gorges, cuts and windings,” according to an Altoona journalist writing for a Pittsburgh journal, as quoted by J. Simpson Africa in his 1883 History of Huntingdon and Blair Counties, Pennsylvania. He had seen the “wilder gorges in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but nothing to compare with this in softness of beauty, graceful outlines, and richness of foliage.”

The cars, he wrote, were pushed up the mountain by a locomotive but descended using gravity and brakes. For a round-trip ticket, tourists paid the train company a mere 65 cents.

Winter on the Bell's Gap R.R.

ca. 1875, from a series of stereoscopic "Views among the Alleghenies: Penna. Railroad" by R. A. Bonine

Near the top they alighted from the train at extensive picnic grounds containing walks, rustic seats, and a large covered pavilion called Rhododendron Hall “on account of the abundance of this flowering shrub on the mountain. There is a large bubbling spring of living water on the grounds, which is pure and cold,” as well as a pond and fountain. “These beautiful grounds are situated in the heart of a primeval forest, and beneath the umbrageous shade of widespreading hemlocks, oak, beech… Ferns and laurel abound…”

Over the years, the forest primeval was logged and the lumber hauled down to the valley railroad. The pure, cold, living water was heavily polluted by the mining operation.

Today it doesn’t cost anyone to hike, bike, or ride a horse up or down this railroad bed, now known as the Bells Gap Rail Trail. And while the forest primeval is gone, an extensive secondary forest covers the slopes as it did back in 1872. Rhododendrons still abound and so do oaks, beeches, and hemlocks along with many other tree species including mountain maple.

view of Bellwood reservoir and Brush Mountain

view of Bellwood reservoir and Brush Mountain

Indeed, even the view at Point Lookout, which the journalist described, hasn’t changed much — “bounded on either side by graceful mountains, clothed from base to summit with dark-green foliage, and away beyond for six miles the view is exceedingly fine, until it is shut out by Brush Mountain [the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province where I live], which rises like an immense green curtain to form the background of the picture.” With most of the leaves off the trees during our hike, the lookout also included a view of the Bellwood Reservoir, which is like a blue eye in the extensive forest.

The four mile portion through the gamelands is a wide, grassy trail, and the descent is barely perceptible because the engineers who designed the railroad kept the grade at less than four percent.

Almost immediately, on the left of the trail, we reached a series of four ponds called the Lloydsville Run Site A/B Passive Treatment System designed to neutralize acid mine drainage in Lloydsville Run, which had been affected by both strip mining and deep mining coal extraction. Altogether, it covers seven acres and includes an anoxic limestone drain, a limestone vertical flow pond, sediment ponds, and aerobic and anaerobic wetlands. Finished in 2001 by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, its partners in restoration included the Altoona Water Authority and the Environmental Alliance for Senior Involvement (EAST). Although the EAST is now disbanded locally, many of the same volunteers continue to monitor the watershed.

staghorn sumac at the AMD remediation ponds

staghorn sumac at the AMD remediation ponds

A Growing Greener grant of $337,515 and a further $166,455 from the United States Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining’s Clean Streams Initiative paid for its construction. I find it ironic that industry made the mess and took the profits over a century ago and that citizens today not only had to pay to clean it up through their taxes, but volunteered to monitor it. However, the investment was worth it because in 2000 its pH level was an acidic 4.1. By 2007 it had risen to 6.92. In addition, its concentrations of heavy metals had dropped significantly.

Our fellow hikers poked about at the edges of the ponds and found newts and tadpoles in them. Last spring, on a Mother’s Day hike with my husband Bruce, the wetland area was alive with singing red-winged blackbirds.

Soon we reached a series of calcareous sandstone outcrops probably formed when the workers cut into the mountain to build the railroad. While the bed itself is wide, we could always peer down the steep slopes to the right at forest below. On the left, the mountain also rises, and it is there that the outcrops overhang the trail, some more dramatically than others.

columbine on the cliffs next to the trail

columbine on the cliffs next to the trail

Blossoming witch hazel, wild hydrangea shrubs, Hercules’ club, and common nightshade covered with red berries hung from the outcrops, and we wondered what other treasures we might find there in spring. On Mother’s day columbine, early saxifrage, Canada violets and Solomon’s seal bloomed on the outcrops, and we also saw doll’s eyes or white baneberry plants. Red-berried elder shrubs grew on and next to the outcrops.

Banks and banks of rhododendron often lined the trail and grew in thickets below the trail too. Large and small hemlocks looked healthy, because the hemlock woolly adelgids haven’t reached them. Clumps of paper birch signaled the colder climate atop the Allegheny Front.

Probably the most exciting find on our October hike was a porcupine in a tree. Many of the hikers had never seen one before, and it starred in several photos by the photographers in the group.

After four miles in the gamelands, we crossed on to the 2.1 miles managed by volunteers of the Bells Gap Rail Trail who keep it mowed under the direction of 87-year-old Bud Amrhein.

“He’s wonderful. I don’t know what we’d do without him,” Hazel Bilka told me.

porcupine along the Bells Gap Rail Trail

porcupine along the Bells Gap Rail Trail

It was due to Bilka and a group of concerned Bellwood citizens back in the mid-1990s that the rail trail was developed. That group called itself the Bellwood Antis Community Trust and, in an effort to promote the area, surveyed the citizens in Bellwood and the surrounding township and asked them what the area needed. Overwhelmingly, the citizens wanted more recreational opportunities.

After raising money for a feasibility study to develop a Bells Gap Rail Trail, they were able to persuade major landowners, including the Altoona Water Authority and township supervisors, to turn over their property along the railroad. They then received funding for the work on their 2.1 miles from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. On July 8, 2007 the trail, beginning at Root’s Crossing outside Bellwood was officially opened to the public, and later was connected to the gamelands. A further spur of it down into Bellwood is shared with cars and trucks.

“I think it makes the area accessible to those who otherwise wouldn’t go up there,” Bilka says. “I hear from people all the time who tell me how much they like it.”

In addition to biking, hiking, and horseback riding, Bilka says that cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are popular winter activities on the trail.

cinnamon ferns in a wetland below the trail

cinnamon ferns in a wetland below the trail

But I was eager to do a spring hike with Bruce, who hadn’t been on the October hike, and Mother’s Day was ideal. We parked at the top of the mountain in a gamelands pull-off and were immediately welcomed by singing chestnut-sided warblers, American redstarts, and ovenbirds. Eastern towhees, black-and-white warblers, dark-eyed-juncos, wood thrushes, common yellowthroats, black-throated green warblers, blue-headed vireos, scarlet tanagers, worm-eating warblers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, black-throated blue warblers and common ravens sang and called along the trail and below in the forest during our six mile hike.

At 2,160 feet in elevation and 1,107 feet above Bellwood at the start of the trail, the trees, shrubs, and wildflowers were at least a week behind our mountain at 1200 feet and even further behind the fully leafed-out trees in Bellwood. Shadbush and red-berried elder bloomed and golden catkins dangling from black birch trees lit up the forest.

On the trail itself we stepped carefully to avoid beds of purple, sweet white and Canada violets as well as wild strawberry flowers. Along its edges, mayapples, columbine, and long-spurred violets blossomed, and once we found a cluster of eight blooming jack-in-the-pulpits.

At the magnificent curve over Shaw Run, known as the Horseshoe Bend in the railroad days, where the train had crossed on a trestle 76 feet high, we walked down to the rushing stream and followed a deer path upstream to eat our trail lunch in a bed of foamflowers and cut-leaved toothworts beside the picturesque run.

dolls' eyes (white baneberry)

dolls' eyes (white baneberry) are common along the trail

Behind us loomed the Shaw Run outcrop, a calcareous opening/cliff natural community which, according to the Blair County Natural Heritage Inventory, hosts limestone cliff specialties such as walking fern, maidenhair spleenwort, fragile fern, purple cliff brake, wild ginger, and bishop’s cap, although we did not climb it to find out.

On our way back to our car, we watched common sulphurs and blue azure butterflies fluttering over the wildflowers on the trail.

During our five hours there we never encountered another person. And we scarcely noticed the gentle incline.

Spring, summer, autumn, winter — the Bells Gap Rail Trail is a trail for all seasons.

All photos (except for the historical one) are by Dave Bonta. See his complete set of Bells Gap Rail Trail photos on Flickr.