Everyone sees change over their lifetime. I certainly have.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.