Pennsylvania Hiking Week

By the time my husband Bruce and I learned that our 13-year-old granddaughter Eva was going to spend the summer with us, most of the state park cabins were booked up.  But we were able to snag a few days at Hills Creek State Park between Mansfield and Wellsboro in north central Tioga County.

Six-spotted tiger beetle at Hills Creek State Park by Eva Bonta

Six-spotted tiger beetle at Hills Creek State Park (all photos by Eva Bonta)

We had hoped to celebrate Pennsylvania Hiking Week the last nine days in May, when the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources teams up with the Keystone Trails Association and offers nearly 100 organized hikes and walks throughout Pennsylvania in state parks, forests, and other publicly-owned lands. But our cabin wasn’t available until May 31, and we spent most of that day en route, although we did stop at Little Pine State Park to picnic and hike their Lakeshore Trail on our own.

It turned out that no organized hikes had been offered at Hills Creek State Park anyway.  But the park proved to be a jewel of a place lightly occupied by a few campers who know a good park when they see it and aim to keep it that way. The 407-acre park has a 137-acre lake as its focal point, and it was around that lake that we hiked the following day on Lake Side Trail.

Once again we were in the Allegheny Plateaus area, and once again we saw wildflowers and birds that don’t blossom or nest on our Ridge-and-Valley mountaintop. Luckily for us, Eva was as interested in the plants and wildlife as we were so technically our hike was more of a ramble with frequent stops to admire the wildflowers and wild creatures we encountered both on the trail and in the lake.

Underneath the large hemlocks and white pines, we found what I always think of as “northern wildflowers” because they all grew in the conifer forest beside the central Maine lakeshore property we owned from 1966 until 1971 when we moved here — starflower, painted trillium, goldthread, clintonia, Canada mayflower and bunchberry.

Clintonia borealis

Clintonia borealis

Starflower (Trientalis borealis) with its terminal whorl of various sized, shiny, tapering leaves are topped by one to three small, six or seven pointed, white, star-shaped flowers on thin stalks.  Also called “chickweed” and “wintergreen,” starflowers thrive in moist woods and bogs.  Once, after a blowdown in our hollow, I found a starflower that was protected by fallen limbs, but after the limbs rotted, the starflower disappeared.  Every spring I walk the stream banks hunting for another, but so far, I’ve been unsuccessful.  Yet at Hills Creek State Park, we found dozens of them, many with three blossoms.

Goldthread has only one small, white, star-shaped flower.  As Joseph Harned writes in Wildflowers of the Alleghanies, “The beauty of this plant lies in its shining leaves, which partly hide among bog moss or grow in large numbers about the roots of old pine trees in moist woods.”  Those evergreen leaves are divided into three parts and resembles jagged-edged three leaf clovers.  Both its genus name Coptis, which is Greek for “to cut” and its species name trifolia or “three-leaved” describe the leaves.  But its common name refers to its threadlike, bright yellow rhizomes below ground.

I was probably the most thrilled to see clintonia in bloom — the Clintonia borealis, also known as “corn-lily,” “dogberry”, and “blue bead lily.”  This was not the clintonia that grows in our hollow — Clintonia umbellulata — with its umbel of white flowers, but the clintonia of the north woods sporting a cluster of yellowish, bell-shaped flowers.  It was this clintonia that was named for DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York from 1796 until 1828.  Nature writer, Henry David Thoreau, once complained in his journal “What is he to the lovers of flowers in Massachusetts”… Name your canals and railroads after Clinton, if you please, but his name is not associated with flowers.”  Thoreau was wrong.  Clinton may have been a politician, but he was also an enthusiastic naturalist who published books on natural history and science. Both clintonia species have the same two to three broad, shining, basal leaves and their flowers grow on a single, leafless stalk.  But Clintonia borealis produces in mid-August a unique shade of deep blue berries, “like polished lapis-lazuli,” one author says, “Persian blue mixed with a little white,” another maintains, hence, its alternate name “blue-bead lily.”

Bunchberry flowers by Eva Bonta

Bunchberry flowers

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) or “dwarf cornel” also produces berries in late August, but they are small, compact clusters of scarlet berries that Inuit supposedly relish. Closely related to flowering dogwood, it has four, showy, white bracts that surround a cluster of tiny, greenish flowers elevated on a short stem above a whorl of six yellowish-green leaves.

Beds of Canada mayflower (Maianthemem canadense) reminded me of the thick ground cover this wildflower formed in Maine and here in our small deer exclosure.  Also known as “false lily-of-the-valley,” it, like clintonia, is a member of the Lily family.  Its terminal cluster of small, four-pointed, white flowers blossom on a zigzag stem above two or three, heart-shaped leaves that clasp the stem. It grows from Labrador to Tennessee, and, in late autumn, birds eat its small, round, red or speckled berries.

One flower was new to me, which is always a thrill — herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum), also called “red-shanks” and “dragon’s blood,” because of its reddish stem. I was reminded of our four-year-old granddaughter, Elanor, who loves dragon stories, when I learned about “dragon’s blood.”  How much more child-pleasing that name would be instead of the rather dull “herb-Robert.” Closely related to the more common wild geranium, it has paired small, pink flowers and fernlike leaves.  In Pennsylvania, it likes to grow in moist, wooded, rocky slopes and ravines.

Jack-in-the-pulpit and Indian cucumber root, both common in our hollow, completed our flower list on land, and yellow bullhead-lilies floated on the lake.

Painted turtles

Painted turtles

As residents of a dry mountaintop, we were especially charmed by the lake residents. Eva stalked the large and small midland painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) basking on logs in a backwater near the water’s edge, but no matter how quietly she moved, they always tumbled into the water before she crept close enough for good photos.  It was a clear, cool day so the turtles were basking.  After spending the cold months hibernating in the mud at the bottom of the lake, midland turtles need a water temperature of 50 degrees to become active.  But feeding and most courting and mating don’t happen until the water temperature reaches 68 degrees.  No doubt, those bullhead lilies provided some of the vegetable food for the turtles.

We also looked at the birds attracted by the water. A pair of mallards accompanied by seven golden ducklings swam near the shore.  Farther out, posing on a snag in the middle of the lake, sat a double-crested cormorant.  An osprey fished overhead, and a great blue heron stood and hunted in the shallows.

We had picked up a brochure — Common Birds of Hills Creek State Park — at the park office and managed to check off 31 species in the fields, forest, and lake.  But we also saw or heard several species not on the list—blue-headed vireo, chestnut-sided warbler, golden-winged warbler, least flycatcher, blackburnian warbler, and veery.  Of those species, only the blue-headed vireo is a common breeder on our mountaintop, although it is far more common in the northern half of the state and prefers a mature deciduous forest with hemlocks mixed in.  So too does the fiery-throated blackburnian warbler.  But it is also partial to white pines.

Both the golden-winged warbler and chestnut-sided warbler prefer overgrown fields and are most abundant in the Allegheny Plateaus region as is the least flycatcher.  But the least flycatcher is a denizen of woodlands with an open understory. All those habitats can be found at Hills Creek State Park.

To finish our hike we followed a few connecting trails, including Tauscher’s Trail, which goes through moist woodlands with a dense understory.  That habitat is ideal for the veery.  It too is a breeder in the northern portion of the state.  And later, we sat outside our cabin and listened to a regular chorus of their spiraling song, another poignant remembrance of our Maine years.

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillar

Our butterfly list was not as impressive as the bird list.  Only tiger swallowtails and spring azures flew that cool day.  But Eva spotted a caterpillar on a beech leaf that looked like a bird dropping.  It was one of the first three instars of a spicebush swallowtail butterfly that feeds principally on sassafras and spicebush.  This amazing caterpillar actually changes into a snake mimic through the rest of its instars, and instead of sitting in plain view on top of a leaf as it does during its bird-dropping stages, it forms a leaf shelter by pulling the edges of a leaf over its green and brown body with only its large, black, yellow, and white eyespots and snake-like head showing.  Such a sight is usually enough to deter any hungry bird.

Altogether, that day we hiked five miles and spent the rest of our time exploring other, short trails until it was dark.

The next day, despite lowering skies, we drove to Leonard Harrison State Park.  We were determined to show Eva the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, even though we knew it was no match for Arizona’s Grand Canyon where we had taken her when she was eleven.  Still, she was impressed by its green beauty and enjoyed the views of the gorge from Overlook Trail.  But suddenly clouds and fog enveloped the gorge, which obscured the view, and a light mist fell.  Still, she desperately wanted to walk the winding Turkey Path down into the gorge.

Pine Creek Gorge from Leonard Harrison State Park

Pine Creek Gorge from Leonard Harrison State Park

“Just a little way,” we said, worried not only by the worsening weather and the park brochure warnings that this was a difficult trail, but also by our own ability to climb back up.  We had remembered the trail as rough and steep from our visit years before.  But it had been improved, and when I saw two waterfalls marked on the park map, I couldn’t resist hiking that far, a descent of 550 feet and only 100 feet from the bottom of the gorge.  The waterfalls on Four Mile Run were worth the climb and the real rain held off until we reached the rim of the gorge.

That hike and torrential rains the next couple of days truncated our Hiking Week, but even so, we felt as if we had honored the occasion despite missing the exact dates.  After all, the point of Hiking Week is to get out and hike on a few of Pennsylvania’s many long and short distance trails, and we had certainly done that.

For information about Hiking Week 2010 (Saturday, May 29 – Sunday, June 6), check the DCNR website. They have several guided hikes scheduled in every region of the state.

Sunday, Sweet Sunday

sun through fogSunday is my favorite day of the week.  That’s because traffic is light on Interstate 99 at the base of our mountain on the Logan Valley side and the industrial-sized limestone quarry on the Sinking Valley side is closed for the day.  Other businesses are also quiet, and I revel in the peace of “Sunday, Sweet Sunday” as the song goes in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song.”

Of course, the trains still whistle at every valley crossing, including our own, a sound that dates back to 1850 when the main line from New York City to Chicago was built through the gap at the bottom of our mountain. Once folks lived in a small, iron forge village next to the rail line where we have built a parking lot for our hunters.

When we moved here back in 1971, the cellar holes of four dwellings were popular bottle-collecting areas.  Even today, a few of the people who lived in those homes as children, nostalgic for the sights and sounds of their youth, sometimes visit and set up lawn chairs to watch and listen to the trains.  It’s a sound they have adapted to and enjoy.

Despite my 37 years here, I have not adapted to the clamor from the valleys.  Increasing noise pollution, especially in midsummer when all our windows are open, has forced me to wear ear plugs at night.  I wonder, along with nature writer Joseph Wood Krutch, who wrote in the mid-twentieth century, “How long will it be before… there is no quietness anywhere, no escape from the rumble and the crash, the clank and the screech which seem to be the inevitable accompaniment of technology?”

But this sweet Sunday in late July is almost silent as we sit on our elevated front porch among the trees, warmed by the rising sun, and enjoy my husband Bruce’s cornmeal/whole wheat waffles.  Serenaded by song sparrows and a tufted titmouse, we are entertained by the antics of a family of red-bellied woodpeckers that recently fledged from a nearby black locust tree.

On this day, I choose to walk beneath the filtered, green light of Black Gum Trail.  Already the spined micrathena spiders are spinning their orb webs across the trail, and I stop frequently to carefully pull aside a couple anchoring strands of silk so I can avoid their entangling webs.  Fresh coyote scat and not so fresh bear scat provide ample evidence that I am not the sole user of this deep woods’ trail.  The only persistent singers this late in the summer are the low-keyed, monotonous red-eyed vireos and eastern wood pewees.

gypsy moth cocoonsScarlet tanagers have replaced their hoarse, robin-like songs with their “chit-bang” warning call, and I hear several during my walk.  Once I sit and watch a male scarlet tanager foraging for caterpillars on the top of black gum leaves, flying from tree to tree and flashing his black and red colors like some exotic tropical bird.  Insect damage riddles many of late spring’s perfect leaves and a handful of black gum leaves have turned red and pink, which reminds me that autumn isn’t far off.

I see a few gypsy moth egg masses on chestnut oaks and am also reminded of a new term I learned the other day — throughfall — which is defined as all the stuff that rain washes down on the forest floor from the foliage above such as insect frass, bodies, and leaves.  Although the term was applied to the rainforest, such a concept is also important in our forest.

At the end of Black Gum Trail, I pick up Rhododendron Trail where white-breasted nuthatches “yank” and chipmunks “chip” and “cuck.”  In the distance a black-throated green warblers sings while a slow, propeller plane drones noisily overhead, momentarily disturbing Sunday’s peace. Unfortunately, even deep in our hollow, I cannot escape the technological sounds from above, such as frequent helicopters, jet fighter planes, and private airplanes that fly over or along our mountaintop.

As I wend my way past the many tall rhododendron shrubs for which the trail is named, black-capped chickadees scold.  I notice that most of the shrubs’ flower heads have set seed.  Because of our vacation in Newfoundland, I missed their blossoming, but it must have been glorious.  The trail edges its way past a steep, mossy hill covered with three-year-old rhododendrons.  They are shooting up fast–a result of our deer management program that encourages our hunters to harvest more deer to improve the health of our forest.

I descend Laurel Ridge on Rhododendron Trail and near the stream, Acadian flycatchers call “pit-see.” On our gravel road, five deer snort and bound up Sapsucker Ridge.  Beds of wood nettle (Laportea canadensis) bloom beside the stream, a species that has only recently appeared on our property and one that botanists claim is a favorite of deer despite its numerous stinging hairs.

longhorn on wild hydrangeaOn the other hand, the deer I disturbed have been dining on wild hydrangea, especially the young shrubs growing on the road bank.  They have also been snacking on jewelweed and Virginia creeper.

But other wildflowers are untouched such as the clump of Indian pipes and sprays of black cohosh.  Common enchanter’s-nightshade (Circaea lutetiana) has sent up racemes of tiny white flowers that have already turned into green stick tights at their bases.  Named for the enchantress Circe, I assume the name honors the delicate flowers and not the bur-like, bristly fruit that clings to animal fur and pant legs.

The road is a highway of deep woods’ butterflies this cool, clear, summer morning.  Red-spotted purples flutter past.  These blue-black butterflies flash an iridescent blue on their hind wings and are named for red-orange spots on their undersides.

spicebush swallowtail shadowSpicebush swallowtails bask on the road.  They are the same blue-black with iridescent blue on their hind wings as red-spotted purples, but they sport elegant tails and the edge of their wings has a line of large white dots.

Spicebush swallowtail caterpillars, as their name implies, feed on spicebush leaves and also on sassafras tree leaves, whereas red-spotted purple caterpillars prefer the leaves of black oak, black cherry, poplar and aspen. Both have caterpillars that resemble bird droppings.  Those of the red-spotted purples are grotesquely horned; those of the spicebush swallowtail only look like bird droppings in their first three instars.  Then they turn bright green with large yellow and black eyespots that mimic snakes.

I am surprised to see a great-spangled fritillary basking on a sunlit leaf because usually I see these showy, orange and brown butterflies in the fields.  On the other hand, their larvae dine on violets.  Sometimes the female butterflies, which lay as many as 2000 eggs per butterfly in the fall, manage to lay at least a few of those eggs on violet leaves.  Their orange-spotted black caterpillars, bristling with black spines, hatch two or three weeks later, drink water, but don’t eat until the following spring when violet leaves appear.

royal walnut moth 2

My best winged discovery of the day, though, is a regal or royal walnut moth (Citheronia regalis) lying on the road.  It is alive but unable to fly.  This large, spectacular moth has a fat, orange body horizontally striped in yellow, yellow-spotted, orange-veined gray front wings and orange hind wings patched in yellow. But it is better known in its caterpillar form as a hickory horned devil, armed with outsized, orange and black horns on a knobby, brown body that turns lime-green shortly before it pupates.

Once common as far north as Massachusetts, it is now primarily a southern species ranging from New Jersey to Missouri and south to Florida and eastern Texas.  Its caterpillar consumes a wide range of food plants such as ash, butternut, cherry, cotton, hickory, lilac, pecan, persimmon, sumac, sweet gum, sycamore, and walnut leaves.  Because this is a new species for our mountain, I carefully pick it up, place it on a leaf, and carry it home so our son Dave can photograph it.

royal walnut moth 1My sweet Sunday ends as peacefully as it began.  As we sit on the veranda in the evening, I watch the mulch heap near the barn through my binoculars.  Bruce has trampled down the field grasses in front of it to give us a ringside view of our pugilist woodchuck and its chief rival.  The evening before I had heard growling and squealing and had gone down to the mulch heap to see what was making the commotion.  A woodchuck emerged from the weeds with a pawful of something and sat on its rear end to eat it, giving me what could only be described as a baleful, defiant look.  That woodchuck was a fighter even though it was smaller than its portly opponent who feeds every afternoon on the barn bank grass.

This evening the small pugilist appears first, sitting on its bottom and beginning with a moldy, whole wheat tortilla that it holds in its front paws as a child would.  But soon the corn cobs are too much for it to resist even though we thought we had cleaned them thoroughly.  Picking the first cob up, it holds it horizontally in its front paws and systematically gleans what bits of kernels are left.  All the while, it is on high alert.

As it starts on its second cob, the fat woodchuck emerges from its den under the barn to eat grass on the barn bank.  Then it lifts its head, sniffs in the direction of the mulch heap, and barrels toward the tasty leftovers.  The pugilist, still gripping its second cob, disappears in the opposite direction.  Its protagonist hunkers down on all fours to chow down, unlike its rival.

But unlike the previous night, the woodchucks preserve the Sunday peace.
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All photos were taken on the mountain by Dave Bonta (move cursor over them to read the titles, and click on them to see at larger sizes). The last two show the very moth described here.