Monday, September 24, 2012

Heaven on Earth

I had to work yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, which caused Mary and me to delay a walk until 5 p.m.  Fortunately, the low, early evening autumn light was perfect for capturing the magic of the grasslands and meadows in the Pennypack Preserve.

If you enlarge the image above and examine the stems of the sumac clone on the left side, you'll see that bucks have already begun to savage woody vegetation of the appropriate caliper.

It just doesn't get any better--autumn is heaven on earth.

One Trail Twelve Times - September

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and Goldenrod (Solidago spp.
I had two newcomers during the September 16 installment of "One Trail Twelve Times."  They were a husband and wife that I knew slightly from seeing them walking in the preserve.  The claimed that they'd looked for the Beech Springs Trail several times but couldn't find it; I don't think they tried very hard because the trail map is pretty accurate and the trail is very well marked.

Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida) presaging autumn
Flowering Dogwood fruit
The Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida) trees still bore many fruits.  Migrating birds typically strip the trees bare pretty quickly, so this must mean that migration is not yet in full swing.  In the woodlands, in contrast, where I expected to see Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) shrubs heavily laden with berries, but the branches were bare--not a fruit to be had anywhere.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)
Goldenrod is in its full glory right now.  The preserve has eight species; I don't even bother trying to distinguish among them.

Goldenrods (Solidago spp.), bull thistles (Cirsium vulgare) and native grasses
Aster spp.
Horse-nettle (Solanum carolinense)
Horse-nettles (Solanum carolinense) are a native, weedy member of the tomato family.  The fruits are supposedly edible, and some people use them to make jam.  I was tempted to try one, but the fruit had a strong, off-putting, unpleasant tomato-y scent, so it never got any further than the bottom of my nose.

Rose hips (Rosa spp.)
New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae)
Nearly all of the "action" is in the meadows now.  The woods are quiet and much less dramatic.

We came across the poor American beech tree pictured below.  It was completely surrounded by a dense carpet of beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana), a parasitic, non-photosynthetic plant of the Broom-rape family (Orobanchaceae).

Beech drops flower spike (Epifagus virginiana)
The Beech Spring runs held no flowing water, just soggy soil.

Looking for something in the woods to show the group, I overturned a downed log, hoping to find some redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus).  Instead, I found these two, large, handsome "tiger" slugs snoozing on the cool, damp ground.  There was also a colony of termites sharing the log with the slugs.

Then it was back into the meadows.

Indian-grass stems (Sorghastrum nutans)
Bumblebee on bull thistle
Handsome 'hopper
The ginger spines on this two-inch caterpillar must be good protection; otherwise, what bird could resist such a tempting treat?  Our Caterpillars of the Eastern United States key, an excellent but expensive book, has been mis-shelved, misplaced, or stolen, so I can't even hazard a guess to the caterpillar's identity.

Black Knapweed (Centaurea nigra)
Ever since I've been guiding this monthly hike, the walkers and I have been coming across knapweed, a European import that has been blooming since late spring.  I contended that it was Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), but one of the walkers was just as adamantly sure that it was Brown Knapweed (C. jacea).  So, during September's walk, I finally decided to try to key-out the plant.  Identification is based partially on the shape of the leaves, but even most definitively on tiny bracts pressed against the globular base of the flower heads.  While I didn't have a hand lens with me, the walkers and I felt fairly confident in identifying the knapweed as...Black Knapweed (C. nigra).

My new walkers loved the Beech Springs Trail and vowed to bring some of their friends back with them to enjoy the walk.

P.S.  The Pennypack Preserve experienced a tremendous windstorm on September 18.  My staff reported that the crown of a huge tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) blew out of the canopy and fell across the trail just inside the woods near the wooden bridge, effectively blocking the path.  It will take a few days to clean up the jumbled debris.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Snake Savior

My wife Mary had to work late last evening, so I went to the supermarket for the week's groceries. (I do all the cooking.)  As I was carrying the bags from the car to the house, I looked down and saw a fairly sizable Eastern Garter Snake alongside the path; in fact, I nearly stepped on it.  Odd...

The path is bordered by a 1-1/2-foot tall wire mesh fence that the previous resident of the house had installed.  It's been there ever since I've been in the house and I never give it much thought.  I have no idea why it's there; its only function seems to be to accumulate leaves in the autumn (though there are some sorry sedums growing between the fence and the house; perhaps the fence was put in place to keep deer away from the sedums).

In any case, I made two more trips to carry the rest of the groceries inside, but the snake didn't move, so I went to investigate.  Upon closer inspection, this is what I found:

The snake had made its way through one of the small holes in the mesh fence, but its body was too big to go all the way through; it was snared.

I went to my toolbox, got my wire snips and extricated the 2-foot-long serpent, but not before it bathed my hands in foul-smelling musk.   Ingrate...!

(The images aren't great, but they were done quickly so that I could extricate the snake as quickly as possible.)

Monday, September 10, 2012

The End of Summer

By 4:00 p.m. last Saturday afternoon, Mary and I had finished our weekend errands and had helped clean up at the conclusion of Pennypack's Native Plant Sale, so we decided to take a walk through the Raytharn Farm grasslands and meadows.  Severe weather was in the forecast, and the sky was mostly cloudy, but we decided we could get in a short walk

Once we crested the first hill, though, it was clear that we were going to have to cut our walk short.  The wind was blowing, the sky was lowering, and the air was becoming increasingly cool with each passing gust.  Was it too much to hope that this was the end of summer...?

The clouds continued to roil, sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, so we pressed on - always with an eye on an "escape" route.  The weather was just too delicious to pass up.

Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and Purpletop (Tridens flavus) in the Raytharn grasslands

The Midwestern prairies must have looked like this in the advance of an autumn storm, with the tall grasses moving in majestic sweeps under a leaden sky.

At one point, a raptor screamed across the sky, seemingly out of nowhere, intent on harassing a Turkey Vulture that was taking advantage of the strong updrafts.  The vulture disappeared behind a treeline, but the raptor reappeared, joined by a second, and the two wheedled around the sky for several minutes.

Eventually, it was clear that rain was imminent, so we hightailed it back to the house, pelted en route by ripe persimmons falling off trees lining the trail.

Just in time!  The heavens opened up for about 10 minutes, then settled down into a more gentle rain that lasted for about six hours before finally moving out about 10:00 p.m. Saturday night.  I opened the windows of the house and welcomed in the cool fall air.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Futher Downstream

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)
On Saturday (September 1), my wife Mary and I returned to Pennypack Park downstream of the Pennypack Preserve to walk another section of the trails paralleling the creek.  This was only a three-mile walk, unlike last Saturday's six-miler.  We started out on the dirt path on the east bank at Krewstown Road, crossed a bridge over the creek, and returned on the paved recreation path.

The dirt path in this section of the park doesn't get anywhere near as much use as the pleasant path does upstream of Krewstown Road.  As a result, the vegetation grows rankly, is not beat back, and overhangs the trail.  We had to battle through patches of stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), and greenbrier (Smilax spp.).  Mary was not amused. 

A fallen tree excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus).  The rectangular holes are a dead giveaway.
There's a stand of really old trees in this part of the park - perhaps 250 years old or more - but invasive porcelain-berry vines (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) are threatening to encroached onto this wonderful woodland.

A wooded slope shrouded with invasive porcelain-berry
Decorative ironwork on the recreation trail bridge spanning the creek

The streambank along this reach of the creek is heavily infested with Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica).  Though I included an image of knotweed with my last post, Mary said, "This is a particularity 'attractive' stand.  Don't you want a picture?"  I obliged.

Japanese knotweed
A father and his two sons enjoying the creek
Steepest hill on the recreation path - a "blast" on a bike
The gentler slope on the other side of the steep hill
Probably Cinnabar-red Chanterelle (Cantharellus cinnabarinus)

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Downstream, Part 2

Krewstown Road Bridge (1800)
...Welcome to the second half of Mary's and my walk along the creek downstream of the Pennypack Preserve last weekend (August 25).  We had begun our walk by exploring the dirt footpath paralleling the east bank of the creek in Pennypack Park. When we reached Krewstown Road, we crossed to the west bank and returned upstream on the paved recreation path.  The historic Krewstown Road bridge was built in 1800.
Just a few hundred feet upstream of the Krewstown Road bridge, a freight railroad line crosses high above the creek on what is known locally as Ninety-foot Bridge, a concrete structure of indeterminate age that looks to me like it could use some repairs.

Ninety-foot Bridge
While the wide, paved recreation path is often very heavily used, last Saturday there was only moderate bicycle and pedestrian traffic, so the walking was pleasant.

Bicyclists crossing tiny Slater's Run on the recreation path bridge
Invasive exotic Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) has become established in many places along the creek.  It has just begun to flower.

Japanese knotweed
One of the well-known landmarks midway along the creek are these two huge midstream rocks.  The official Friends of Pennypack Park map identifies them with the prosaic designation "Big Rocks."  They are very popular as fishing platforms when trout season opens in April.

Big Rocks
 Here's another view of "The Falls" (i.e., Verree Road Dame) from the recreation path.

"The Falls" dam
I spotted some Beech-drops (Epifagus americana) growing on the dry American beech woodland slope above the creek.  Beech-drops, in the Broom-rape family (Orobanchaceae), have no chlorophyll and parasitize the roots of their host beeches.
As we approached the end of our walk back in Montgomery County's Lorimer Park, we came across a meadow full of thistles - and butterflies!
 Submitted by David Robertson, Executive Director, Pennypack Trust