A Walk in Penn’s Woods

Last autumn, on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon in early October, my son Dave and I led a Walk in Penn’s Woods on our property. This program, begun in 2017 by the Center for Private Forests at Penn State, has attracted support from both private and public land owners eager to share their forests and the trees, shrubs, wild flowers and wild creatures that inhabit them.

Black birches in Plummer’s Hollow

Black birches in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Our walk was the only one scheduled in Blair County, and we did not advertise it ahead of time. Still, we had one man from Centre County, another from our county, and a couple from Indiana County.

From our 10 miles of trails, Dave and I had chosen the walk up our mile-and-a-half entrance road paralleling our Plummer’s Hollow stream, through a mostly diverse hardwood forest that also has a stand of hemlocks affected by hemlock woolly adelgids. Many of the trees in the hollow date from the 1840s when it was last clearcut to feed the iron furnace at the base of our road known as Upper Tyrone Forge.

Since visitors to our property first drive across an old couty bridge over the Little Juniata River and then bump across the main railroad line from New York to California, we are able to point out the remnants of the watering tank near the bottom of our stream which was used by the steam locomotives beginning in 1850. It was first overseen by the original William Plummer who came here in 1832 to work as a forge man and ended his life working on the railroad.

Beech trees below the driveway

Beech trees below the driveway (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Human history that impacted our forest was important, but so was learning about our forest today and the plants and animals that live in it. Because the trees are old and the understory on the steep slopes of Laurel and Sapsucker ridges fairly diverse, we were able to show our visitors a wide variety of native tree species and their fruits from cucumber-tree and American basswood to American beech, red, black, white, chestnut and scarlet oaks, white pine, sugar and red maples. All of these species and more provided dense shade that made the walk pleasant.

A Sunday afternoon in early October was not the best time to see or hear the many songbirds that live in this forest, but we could at least mention the red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, Acadian flycatchers, Louisiana waterthrushes, wood thrushes, black-throated green, hooded and worm-eating warblers and other birds nesting here in spring and summer, and the year round species such as black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, and downy, hairy, red-bellied, and pileated woodpeckers, for instance.

Beechdrops in Plummer’s Hollow

Beechdrops in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The wildflower season was also waning, but I did show them blooming beechdrops, wavy-leaved asters, and blue-stemmed goldenrod. In addition, I identified native shrubs—maple-leaf viburnum, red-berried elder, wild hydrangea, spicebush, mountain laurel, and my favorite rhododendron–while Dave pointed out the various tree species.

Halfway up the road we were able to feature a large white oak growing atop the flat remains of a charcoal hearth as well as the chunks of charcoal beneath the thin layer of topsoil.

Since our goal is to let our forest mature into old growth, when trees die, we let them fall and rot to provide more soil and have so many dead snags that birds, bats, gray, fox and flying squirrels and other mammals have no trouble finding nesting holes. We also told our bear, fisher, and coyote stories and mentioned the success of the Game Commission’s program to bring back the extirpated fishers. In addition, the Commission’s efforts to increase bald eagle numbers has led to nesting bald eagles on game lands at the other end of our mountain. This was a gift we had never expected to see in our lifetimes.

We led our visitors to the base of Guesthouse Trail to point out the small rhododendron exclosure Dave had built to keep the deer away from this shrub that is a favorite of theirs especially during the winter months.

One of our deer exclosure fences showing the abundance of vegetation inside it

One of our deer exclosure fences showing the abundance of vegetation inside it (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

And finally we went on to our three-acre exclosure in a part of our forest with a white oak and several red oak trees that date to 1812. Despite our successful hunter program with excellent hunters on our land from the beginning of archery season in October to the end of flintlock in mid-January, our visitors could still see the difference between the open forest outside the exclosure and the dense understory inside including the numerous oak, white pine, black gum, and maple saplings.

In the heavily forested portion of our property, primarily on Laurel Ridge, we have little trouble with invasives, but our 37-acre meadow and the 125 acres we purchased on Sapsucker Ridge after it had been high-graded back in 1991 are infested with barberry, mile-a-minute, stiltgrass, multiflora rose and other pernicious non-native plants, most of which provide little or no nourishing food for birds and mammals, unlike our native trees and shrubs.

Invasive plants and diseases, tree, shrub, and wildflower identification, wildlife, including birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, and forest management seemed to be the dominant themes in the 68 walks in 48 counties attended by 1,136 people last autumn.

For instance, at the 50-acre Laura Olsen Memorial Sanctuary walk in Crawford County, hosted by Presque Isle Audubon Society and the Foundation for Sustainable Forests, they entitled their walk “Exploring Forest Bird Habitat” where as many as 51 species have been documented in this forested wetland.

The Musser Gap walk in Centre County, which attracted 66 participants, had 10 stations leading into Rothrock State Forest. There were handouts at the parking lot and leaders at every station that covered forest management, natural or cultural topics.

The Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust in Montgomery County led a walk around the wooded areas of Pennypack Creek that featured a native persimmon tree with fruit and the fruit of a black walnut tree. Visitors saw an American kestrel and sharp-shinned hawk and identified bird and animal calls. The leaders explained why they had wrapped trees in preparation of the deer rut. At a pond everyone heard frogs and saw a beaver lodge.

A Walk in the Woods in 2018 on the Jackson’s property, Bedford County

A Walk in the Woods in 2018 on the Jackson’s property, Bedford County (Photo by Laura Jackson, supplied by the Center for Private Forests)

In Bedford County, Mike and Laura Jackson led 22 people over their mostly wooded property. They walked through part of their woods that was high-graded back in the 1980s and talked about how that type of logging creates an unhealthy forest. They pointed out invasive species and the impact of too many deer on the forest even though Mike does his best during hunting season.

They also have a shelterwood cut that was done in the autumn of 2014 and enclosed by an eight-foot-high fence. On a trail through the exclosure, they identified the native trees and shrubs that have appeared such as sassafras, both hornbeam species, and quaking aspen in addition to stump sprouts of tulip poplar, black cherry, oak, elm and red maple that are already almost 20 feet tall.

The large seed trees that were left after the shelterwood cut included shagbark and pignut hickory, black cherry, sugar maple, tulip poplar, white and red oaks, butternut and American basswood, all of which provide excellent wildlife food.

Another view of the 2018 walk on the Jackson property

Another view of the 2018 walk on the Jackson property (Photo by Laura Jackson, supplied by the Center for Private Forests)

That was the second Walk in Penn’s Woods the Jacksons’ hosted. On each walk, like most folks on these walks throughout the state, walkers were interested in learning how the Jacksons have managed their woods for wildlife and what birds and animals live there.

In Lancaster County the Game Commission’s Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area sponsored a walk on a nature trail with 10 stations featuring wildlife and forest management techniques and tree identifications.

State Game Lands #37 in Tioga County, hosted by the Tioga County Group Effort, attracted 27 people who learned about game food plots, timber harvesting, wildlife and general forest management principles.

Young and old enjoying a walk in the woods at the Montour Preserve, Montour County

Young and old enjoying a walk in the woods at the Montour Preserve, Montour County (Photo by Henry Williams, supplied by the Center for Private Forests)

A few of the walks were stroller and wheelchair accessible and, as such, attracted over 30 people. One was in Montour County at the Montour Preserve where they were led on the Goose Woods Trail by Jon Beam who has been associated with this preserve for decades and once showed me the signs of American woodcock during a visit.

At Tuscarora State Park in Schuylkill County 33 people walked on a wheelchair-accessible paved path around Tuscarora Lake where they learned to identify the trees and shrubs of this forest and were told about the forest benefits to humans and wildlife.

Two young people participating in a Walk in the Woods at the Wolf Creek Narrows Natural Area in Butler County

Two young people participating in a Walk in the Woods at the Wolf Creek Narrows Natural Area in Butler County (Photo by Andrew Zadnik, supplied by the Center for Private Forests)

Because of the popularity of wheelchair and stroller accessible walks, this year’s organizers of the Walk in Penn’s Woods on October 6 hope to have more such walks in what they are calling Walk and Roll in Penn’s Woods. But many of the same walks as last year plus new walks are featured on their website.

For most walks there is no reason to sign up ahead of time. Just pick your walk anywhere in the commonwealth and go. You are bound to learn something new about Penn’s Woods and meet knowledgeable people both leading and attending the walks.

 

 

I See Change

Everyone sees change over their lifetime. I certainly have.

The main house and, to the left and partially hidden by some trees, the guest house (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The main house and, to the left and partially hidden by some trees, the guest house (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

This year was my 45th living on our mountaintop property in central Pennsylvania. My husband Bruce and I also celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary. The three sons we raised on this mountain are middle-aged and we are old.

During our tenure here we have seen many changes, both good and bad. Now that the trees are leafless these bleak December days, every time we drive our mile-and-a-half hollow road, we notice how close to death the hemlocks are that line the stream.

Since we moved here in August of 1971, we have lost a couple tree species, first a scattering of butternuts, followed by American elms. Now our hemlocks and ashes are succumbing to the insects and diseases that have come from abroad.

Dead mountain laurel in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Dead mountain laurel in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Once Laurel Ridge had a thick understory of mountain laurel shrubs that provided nesting habitat for a variety of songbirds, especially wood thrushes, as well as cover for white-tailed deer. Every June we had a glorious wild garden of blooming mountain laurel that stretched for miles on the ridge, but now many of the shrubs are twisted skeletons with few or no leaves clinging to them, dying or dead of a leaf fungus.

Other native shrubs and tree saplings are white-tailed deer preferred food, and like well-trained botanists, they are able to tell the natives from the invasives, rejecting Japanese stiltgrass, barberry, privet, and garlic mustard, for instance, and browsing on maple-leaf viburnum, wild hydrangea, rhododendron, red-berried elder, oak, black gum, and flowering dogwood seedlings and other natives. Our son, Dave, encloses every native shrub and tree he plants in his yard and ours with a fence until they rise above deer level.

Orange jewelweed (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Orange jewelweed (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Those are the bad changes, but we still have over 200 species of wildflowers, 150 of which are natives. Wood nettle, which first appeared back in 2006 along our stream, has rapidly spread in the woods, creating a thick cover that keeps stiltgrass out. Jewelweed, also called touch-me-not, does the same where it is allowed to thrive. And the tree species that are still disease-free, including white and red oaks dating back to 1812, are growing larger every year.

Since we moved here, songbird numbers have been cut in half throughout the continental United States. Even though we provide nesting habitat for at least 71 songbird species, we have far fewer of most species, such as wood thrushes, or have lost golden-winged warblers despite perfect habitat at the edges of First Field.

Habitat loss both on their nesting and winter grounds has been and continues to be a major problem. In the heavily populated eastern United States, roaming domestic cats, window strikes, and lately the many wind installations on mountaintops and along the Great Lakes where the birds migrate are big killers of birds.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome (Photo by Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The wind farms are even worse for our dwindling bat population, especially our cave bats, which are already dying from the dreaded white-nose syndrome, brought here from Europe less than a decade ago where the bats have built up a resistance to the disease over many centuries. Not many people care about bats because they are ignorant of their amazing mosquito-killing abilities. Just last August our son Dave and his partner, Rachel, were lying out in First Field watching a meteor shower. Rachel is highly allergic to mosquito bites and was delighted that three bats continued to flutter above them eating mosquitoes.

Last summer I had the opportunity to educate one woman, who owns an old, Victorian mansion she has turned into a tea house and bed and breakfast, about the disease. She and her husband were tender-hearted enough to shoo the occasional bat out of their house instead of killing it but had no idea about the disease killing them. When I gave her the statistics though—99% of most bats dead in their hibernating caves and the disease spreading rapidly across the United States and Canada, she was appalled. When I added that a female bat has only one pup a year, she understood why most scientists believe it will be 500 years, if ever, that cave bats will recover the numbers they had before the disease, and that some of the already rare species, such as Indiana bats, soon may be gone forever.

The hacking tower on Haldeman Island in 1989 (Bruce Bonta photo)

The hacking tower on Haldeman Island in 1989 (Bruce Bonta photo)

Still, through all this litany of loss I have seen terrific success stories here in Pennsylvania over the years, and many are due to the work of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Back in the nineteen seventies, eighties, and even nineties, seeing ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles were rare and treasured experiences. I remember visiting Haldeman Island and watching the workers feed the young bald eagles they were raising before releasing them in the hope that they would thrive and return to breed in Pennsylvania. I also talked with and watched biologists monitoring peregrine falcons breeding on bridges over the Delaware River.

Today you can watch peregrine falcons nesting in our cities on webcams and seeing osprey and bald eagles is possible in many areas of our state. A couple summers ago, while hiking at a nearby state park, Bruce and I watched an osprey catching fish in the lake. And a pair of bald eagles now nest at the other end of our mountain. This raptor-recovery from the DDT years has been an unexpected pleasure for those of us who sit on mountaintops in fall and watch a steady procession of them heading south.

A porcupine in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

A porcupine in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

When we moved here, we observed what we thought were a wide variety of mammals—woodchucks, gray squirrels, eastern chipmunks, porcupines, raccoons, gray and red foxes, white-tailed deer, striped skunks, opossums and several vole, mice, and shrew species.

Then, in 1983 we had our first black bear sighting and in 1989 our first eastern coyote. In this century both species have become far more common, breeding and living on the mountain year round. Bobcats have always been rare but present. Our sons saw one in the 1970s as they walked up our road from school, and I glimpsed another in January of 1990. I long for a better view of this elusive species, but several of our hunters sitting in their tree stands have had longer sightings of bobcats.

A beaver near our house in Plummer’s Hollow, February 2000 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

A beaver near our house in Plummer’s Hollow, February 2000 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Although we’ve never seen an otter here, despite the successful increase in their population due to Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists, during the winter of 2000 we did have an enterprising beaver swim up our flooded, first-order mountain stream a mile and a half, probably in search of a new home. This century we have also seen an increase in mink, long-tailed and short-tailed weasels, but I never suspected that we would see fishers on our property when I visited with the PGC researcher back in the nineties and she took me on a whirlwind tour of northcentral Pennsylvania where the PGC had recently released the animals.

The fishers were supposed to stay north of Interstate 80, but apparently they didn’t know this, so imagine my disbelief when I spotted one beside our stream in September of 2005. Since then our caretaker family and I have had several more sightings of these beautiful animals.

Our north-facing access road on January 28, 2008 (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Our north-facing access road on January 28, 2008 (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

“I See Change” is the name of a website you can access and record the changes you have seen in your natural world. In addition to the changes I have seen in our plants and wild creatures, I’ve also noticed a change in our seasons. For more than two decades, all the leaves were off the trees by the first of November, and winter began near Thanksgiving with the first snowfall. Shortly after that, I did not drive down our north-facing access road until the beginning of March when it melted.

In this century, the oaks hold their leaves until mid-November, and cold weather and snow comes as late as Christmas or even early January. Then spring, instead of starting slowly in March, doesn’t start until April except for a warm spell that prematurely brings out tree blossoms and then freezes again. Finally, May warms up quickly to summer temperatures and early June ushers in true summer. Spring is my favorite season, and it seems to be shortened on either end, whereas autumn goes on and on often through rifle season and beyond.

Spring beauties (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Spring beauties (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Even though the seasons seem to have shifted by two weeks or more in both late fall and early spring, 1988 still remains the hottest summer we have ever experienced here and the winter of 2014-15 one of the coldest and snowiest despite its late start.

I know all this and more because of the detailed nature journal I’ve been keeping since 1971. I don’t only see change, I know change. On balance, our years here have been a joy despite the loss of tree species and bats and the increase in invasive plants. Every time I see a bear, coyote, fisher, or bald eagle, I am grateful for the positive changes. I look forward to more years of nature-watching and close encounters with the many creatures with which we share our mountain.

 

Food for Wildlife

After three lean years, our oak trees finally produced a bumper crop of acorns last September. Forewarned by hordes of blue jays screaming from the treetops as they plucked ripe acorns from the oaks, I had to be careful on our steep trails not to slide on the fallen nuts that were more hazardous than marbles.

grey squirrel

Grey squirrel eating an acorn (Juraj Patekar image on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Still, not every section of forested Pennsylvania had a good acorn crop, despite predictions from folks that should know better. Dr. Marc Abrams, a forestry professor at Penn State says there’s “no way to predict it,” calling a heavy mast year “one of the amazing mysteries in nature that we still do not have a handle on.”

Dr. Warren G. Abrahamson, a Bucknell University professor who conducted a long term study of acorn production from 1969 to 1996 with Jim Layne of the Archbald Biological Station in Florida, agrees, although he says that “the production of acorns definitely is not forecasting but hind casting the weather.” In their September 2003 report of their work they claimed that the size of the acorn crop each year is partly controlled by precipitation which affects acorns during different stages of development in prior years.

Other experts think that the group behavior of masting trees called synchrony most likely depends in part on the temperature during pollination in late April or May. Since oaks are wind-pollinated, meaning the wind must transfer pollen from staminate (male) to pistillate (female) flowers, a period of rain might disrupt the process.

For instance, a cold, wet spring in 2012 affected red oak production in 2013 because all the oaks in the black oak group (those with pointed lobes on their leaves) take two years to mature. Those in the white oak group (those with smooth lobes on their leaves) take only a year and would be affected by a late spring frost during pollination.

Still others believe that synchrony occurs as a way to outsmart nut predators by producing more nuts than the predators can eat, ensuring that at least some nuts will grow into trees. But whatever the causes, it is cyclic and occurs every three to five years.

On our dry mountaintop we have mostly chestnut oaks with an occasional white oak in the white oak group. Deer prefer these tastier acorns and squirrels eat them almost immediately because they spoil more quickly than those in the black oak group, which include scrub, black, northern red, and scarlet oaks here. Those acorns the squirrels store.

hickory nut

Hickory nuts form 10 to 25 percent of a squirrel’s diet in a good year (image by Peppysis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Acorns are not the only hard mast fruit. Others include the squirrels’ favorite—hickories, especially pignut, mockernut, and shagbark—which consists of 10 to 25 % of their diets in a good year and ripen before acorns. But like oaks, as well as the other hard mast producers—American beeches and black walnuts—they are also wind-pollinated.

Hard mast is high in fat, carbohydrates, and protein and is important to at least 180 species of birds and animals in fall and winter, but since it is highly variable in production from year to year, wildlife must depend also on a wide variety of soft mast throughout spring, summer, and fall. These fleshy, perishable fruits high in sugar, vitamins, and carbohydrates include a wide variety of native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species.

Foresters and wildlife biologists, in fact, consider mast to be the woody plant fruits and browse of native trees, shrubs and vines even though the word mast comes from the Old English “maest” which meant the forest tree nuts on the ground that fattened domestic pigs and other animals.

A wide variety of soft mast allows many mammals and birds to survive the lean years of hard mast. Of course, there are always some nuts every year, but ever since the extinction of American chestnut trees which, because they were insect-pollinated and didn’t bloom until summer, reliably produced an excellent crop of nuts, wildlife has had to adjust to a feast or near famine hard mast situation.

Consequently, encouraging biologically diverse meadows and forests, stocked with native trees, shrubs, and woody vine species produces food for wildlife throughout the year. And diverse food leads to diverse wildlife, as we’ve discovered on our property.

Other examples of trees that are insect-pollinated and produce a huge number of seeds every year as well as foliage, twigs and bark are red and striped maples. Striped maple, also called moosewood or goosefoot, has fruit that matures in early fall and is eaten by ruffed grouse, rodents, and songbirds. In addition, it produces browse for deer and bark for rabbits and beaver.

Elk eat the buds, foliate, twigs and bark of red maple, songbirds gorge on the seeds, and squirrels and mice store them for winter.

Basswood is another insect-pollinated tree, producing seeds squirrels and chipmunks consume while deer and rabbits browse its foliage.

The best of the soft mass fruit is that of wild black cherry trees. It fruits abundantly every third or fourth year in August and is pollinated by solitary bees. Seventy bird species feed on the fruit including grouse and wild turkeys. Black bears, raccoons, foxes, rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and mice relish the dark cherries.

witch-hazel fruit and flowers

Witch-hazel fruit and flowers (Image by Rodger Evans on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The fruit of sassafras trees, which is high in fat, is eaten by turkeys, bobwhite quail, black bears, pileated woodpeckers and gray catbirds. Rabbits and deer browse its twigs, black bears like its stems and deer its leaves. Despite its popularity, we have many sassafras trees in our forest.

Common witch-hazel, which flowers in late fall, develops woody capsules the following spring and summer. Those capsules contain a pair of shiny, black hard-coated seeds that shoot out in autumn before the next flowering. But squirrels, turkeys, quail, and grouse go after them, especially if the acorn crop fails. Deer browse heavily on witch-hazel, but it persists in growing above the deer line here.

Common spicebush (my personal favorite) produces brilliant spicy red fruits eaten by grouse, pheasants, and quail. It also provides shoots for rabbits and browse for deer, but it too survives and thrives, especially in wet areas along our stream. Our son Dave has planted it as an attractive shrub in our yard and his.

Both red-berried elder, which blooms the same time as the invasive barberry, has red berries available for birds in June or early July, although it only lives on steep slopes here because deer are fond of its browse. Deer also like common elderberry. It blooms in late June or early July and hangs heavy with clusters of dark purple berries favored by birds and humans in late August.

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit

White-throated sparrow with staghorn sumac fruit (Kelly Colgan Azar photo on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Staghorn sumac is making a recovery on our property, living on the sunny edges of meadows and forests. Blooming in late June and early July, its greenish-yellow, fragrant flowers morph into bright red, cone-shaped clusters of fruit that last through the winter, providing food for squirrels, songbirds, grouse, pheasants, turkeys and quail. Deer and rabbits browse on this shrub as well.

Wild berries are a popular summer food. First come the lowbush blueberries as early as mid-June on our powerline right-of-way, followed by the huckleberries. Black bears are particularly fond of them, but so are songbirds, grouse, chipmunks, pheasants, and mice.

Black raspberries ripen in early July and blackberries in early August. Both are incredibly important fruit for songbirds, skunks, opossums, foxes, squirrels, chipmunks, and black bears, while rabbits like their cover and rabbits and deer browse on their stems. Of course, the wildlife must also compete with me, especially in the blackberry patches.

Opossum eating wild grapes

Opossum eating wild grapes (photo by pverdonk on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Greenbrier of several species has bluish-black berries eaten by songbirds and gamebirds and deer browse them. They browse wild grapevines too, but wild grapes are among the most important and valuable food for wildlife including songbirds, gamebirds, foxes, skunks, raccoons, opossums, squirrels and deer. The vines provide winter shelter for animals and birds too. I remember one winter when the hard mast failed and deer spent the season among the grapevines of the Far Field thicket, yarding up like they do in northern New England.

My list of native trees, shrubs and vines could be greatly expanded. In other parts of Pennsylvania, particularly south of us, still other wildlife food, such as common papaws, are important. But diversity remains the key to providing abundant wildlife food, even in years when hard mast is scarce.

Little Brown Bats

little brown bat in a crack on the side of a house

The Guest House portico bat in 2007

Living, as we do, in an old country house, we often hear strange noises.

On an August evening, my husband Bruce and I sat in the living room reading. Shortly after 8:00 p.m., we heard unusual sounds coming from either the kitchen or sitting room.

We looked up at each other and then resumed reading. Both of us were engrossed in our books and didn’t feel like moving.

After all, many times we had investigated a noise and found nothing.

Then, there were more noises.

“I hope it’s not a bear,” I whispered to Bruce, remembering an attempted bear and cubs break-in back in June. “We’d better check it out.”

Because it was a wet night, it was already dark, and we couldn’t see a thing until Bruce switched on the sitting room lights. Then we ducked as a bat circled the room, narrowly missing the plates on our seven-foot-high plate rail.

Bruce opened the veranda door, but the bat continued its circling flight inside. As the minutes passed, I worried that mosquitoes, which had earlier driven us from the veranda, might get into the house.

But the bat was probably scooping up any that dared to enter and paid no attention to our feeble attempts to herd it out the door.

location of the bat in the previous photo

Location of the bat in the previous photo

Twice the bat barely missed the open door and once it landed for a few seconds on the wall, giving us a good look at its lustrous brown fur, but mostly it kept circling at plate rail height.

Bruce and I moved closer, he on one side of the door, I on the other, and I ducked reflexively every time the bat neared my head, even though I knew that its echolocation ability would keep it from hitting me.

Finally, it swooshed through the open door, and we breathed a sigh of relief. I was also elated that at least one little brown bat had escaped the white-nose syndrome (WNS), a fungus that has killed at least 95% of little brown bats throughout eastern North America since February 2006 when the disease was first discovered in a cave in Schoharie County, New York.

This cold-loving fungus Pseudogymnoascus destuctans only affects hibernating cave bats, which include the already Federally-Endangered Indiana bat, as well as the State-Threatened eastern small-footed bat, big brown bat, eastern long-eared bat, and tri-colored bat, but the little brown bat, also called little brown myotis, common bat, and cave bat, along with the eastern long-eared and tri-colored bats, is especially susceptible to the disease.

Dee Ann Reeder, A Bucknell University professor who has been studying bats in her bat vivarium even before the disease appeared, has been trying to understand how bats are affected and has been using little brown bats as her test subjects.

In a two-year captive study, she found WNS affected female little brown bats more than males and that bats kept in colder temperatures survived longer than those in warmer temperatures.

Little brown bats hibernating at Woodward Cave in central PA, February 2006

Little brown bats hibernating at Woodward Cave in central PA, February 2006

Reeder has worked closely with Greg Turner, PGC’s Endangered and Threatened Mammals Section Supervisor, to try to mitigate the disease, but this fuzzy white fungal growth around a bat’s muzzle, ears, and wing membranes thrives in winter hibernaculums—natural caves and old mines in Pennsylvania, such as the gated Hartman Limestone Mine at Canoe Creek State Park.

Back in 2008, when the PGC conducted its biannual count of bats at that mine, there were thousands of healthy, hibernating, mostly little brown bats. Three years later, they counted 38 total bats. And other hibernaculums throughout the state also contained few live bats.

Because bats cluster together in winter hibernaculums, the disease spreads easily from bat to bat. WNS causes them to rouse every few days instead of every few weeks as they used to do. The small size of little brown bats means they have less fat reserves to begin with so they quickly lose their fat reserves and starve.

They also lose more water through evaporation, and when they emerged, starved and dehydrated, for instance, from the Hartman Limestone Mine, they ate snow. In addition, little brown bats have suppressed immune systems during hibernation, which makes them more vulnerable to the fungus. Thus, once nicknamed the common bat, they are now rare.

Hibernating bats among the stalactites in Woodward Cave

Hibernating bats among the stalactites in Woodward Cave

Scientists say the best case scenario would be a full recovery of the bat population in 200 years! As of April 2015, the cave bats in 26 states and 5 Canadian provinces have been infected with WNS and still the disease rages westward at a frightening pace.

This is a huge wildlife disaster, certainly the worst in my lifetime, and all because some cavers, probably from Europe, where cave bats have evolved with the disease, brought the fungal spores over on their clothes.

Lately, there have been a few bright spots in this dismal picture. In 2014 the Hartman Limestone Mine cave bat count was 155, and this year 71 bats. Although the numbers are still low, according to Greg Turner, bats are coming into hibernation heavier, even the few juveniles, and they have fewer skin lesions on their wings. They also spread themselves out in hibernaculums. But all such changes may be due simply because there are few bats left to compete with for food and space.

Knowing all this, I welcomed our little brown bat visitor. One bat eats between 800,000 and 1 million insects a year including moths, wasps, gnats, midges, beetles, mayflies and especially mosquitoes, scooping up prey with its wings while flying or grabbing prey with its mouth.

Little brown bats have both day and night roosts during spring, summer and early fall. They like to roost near ponds, lakes, rivers or streams in buildings or trees, under rocks and woodpiles, and in caves. Females and their young occupy warm nursery roosts in natural hollows, buildings, such as old churches, at Canoe Creek State Park, for example, and attics.

A bat on the side of a concrete block

A bat on the side of a concrete block outside our barn, 2007

They sleep almost 20 hours in a 24 hour cycle, saving their energy for when insect prey is most abundant—from dusk to two to three hours later and again for a shorter period before dawn. Flying at between 13 and 22 miles an hour, they hunt their prey using echolocation, a process in which they orient themselves by emitting high-frequency sounds and then interpreting the reflected sound waves.

They mate in autumn before hibernation, but fertilization occurs after the females emerge from hibernation the following spring. After a gestation period of 50 to 60 days, a single pup is born to a female in late May or early June.

Born with their eyes closed, the young hang in the nursery roost while their mothers hunt for food. The rest of the time, for two weeks, they cling to their mother’s nipple until they are two weeks old. At three weeks of age they learn to fly, and a week later they are adult-sized—between 3.1 and 3.7 inches with a wingspan of 8.6 to 10.5 inches.

Female little brown bats are larger than males, but all adults need to eat half their body weight each night, and new mothers more than their body weight. One study in New Hampshire of pregnant and nursing mothers found that they ate 7 insects per minute.

Before WNS, we could sit out on our unscreened veranda even after dark and rarely see or hear a mosquito. A few male little brown bats roosted in our barn and in openings under our roof and the guesthouse portico roof. We often watched them flying over our field and imagined them scooping up water from our stream.

Close-up of the little brown bat in the previous photo

Close-up of the little brown bat in the previous photo

Now the mosquitoes force us inside every evening. Farmers, who may not have realized how many harmful insects bats eat, will be forced to use more pesticides.

Little brown bats have few predators, although occasionally a snake, raccoon, skunk, or cat may enter a hibernaculum and kill a few. They’ve also been caught on barbed wire fences or in burdock bristles.

Before WNS, humans wiped out entire cave or attic nursery populations, but bat education by dedicated people such as Cal Butchkoski, a wildlife biologist for the PGC who spent countless hours at Canoe Creek State Park and other venues, presenting excellent programs on bats, and Environmental Educator Heidi Mullendore at the park who organized several successful Bat Festivals there, had begun to change peoples’ minds about bats. The PGC had also gated many vulnerable winter hibernaculums throughout the commonwealth.

Now it is illegal to kill even one bat of any species. With 6 million gone, “every bat we find is precious and needs to be conserved,” Dee Ann Reeder says.


All photos by Dave Bonta.