Year of the Sinking Valley Eagles

Bald eagle with fish by Ron Holmes-USFWS

Bald eagle holding a fish in its talons by Ron Holmes/USFWS (license)

I’m sitting on Alan’s Bench this breezy first day of November, watching for migrating raptors along our ridge top. Since we live on the westernmost ridge in the Ridge-and-Valley Province, I am up here most breezy autumn days.

Suddenly, a large bird flies past above Sapsucker Ridge. It’s a mature bald eagle.

The next day I’m at the same place, but it’s mid-afternoon instead of late morning. Another mature bald eagle flies high and slowly above Sapsucker Ridge. Two bald eagles in as many days seem like a good omen. I wonder if they are migrating or local birds.

Then, on the 30th of January, my husband Bruce and I, along with an enthusiastic young birder, Michael David, who is working on his year-long, Blair County bird list, set out on our Winter Raptor Survey in Sinking Valley. Our mountain, locally known as Brush Mountain, almost entirely encircles this rural valley. Partly farmed by Amish and mostly by English, its rolling fields are open to the winds of January.

We’ve picked a cold (five degrees) but clear day for our count. Ever since Greg Grove started this count, back in 2001, we’ve driven the same route that Bruce mapped out after studying the back roads that wander through Sinking Valley.

It’s a slow day at first for raptors, but Michael points out American robins feeding on staghorn sumac berries and an American tree sparrow amid the dried grasses beside the road. I later spot a pileated woodpecker in a small patch of woodland. We are looking for American kestrels on telephone wires, but all we turn up are mourning doves. On a large farm field in the middle of the valley, we count 26 horned larks so close to the road that we see every marking on them.

Rusty blackbird by Nicole Beaulac

Rusty blackbird by Nicole Beaulac (license)

Near a stream next to a tree I notice a suspicious lump. It turns out to be a seated great blue heron. Just as we are musing over that strange sight, a golden eagle flies overhead. But mostly it’s a day for red-tailed hawks. On every tree line across a field are perched from one to a handful—26 by the end of our 32-mile, three hour, slow ride.

At one farm we stop to look at a large flock of brown-headed cowbirds because Michael thinks there may be a rusty blackbird among them. He gets out of the car and walks down the road to scan the flock which keeps flying ahead of him. I follow half-heartedly, knowing I’m not going to be able to pick out a rusty from the throng of cowbirds high in the trees.

Instead, I notice a huge tree far across a field. In it sits a large bird that looks as if it has a white head. It’s a mature bald eagle. Sitting on a branch above it is a second mature bald eagle. I’m excited and call Bruce, who’s been sitting patiently in the car, to bring our spotting scope for a better view. After several years of seeing one mature wintering bird eagle in the valley, I wonder if they are a pair and nesting somewhere nearby.

Back in 2011, when an Amish youngster who watches birds in his spare time first told us of a wintering bald eagle during our Winter Raptor Survey, I speculated about possible breeding. But I thought that because there was no river or lake nearby, bald eagles wouldn’t nest in a place without fish to eat.

A hard winter and late spring keeps me from returning to the valley until mid-May in search of fresh rhubarb and asparagus from Amish farmers. That’s when I learn that a pair of bald eagles is nesting on the other end of our mountain. My Amish friend has spent time watching them from afar across a steep, wooded ravine on State Gamelands #166.

Bald eagle family

Bald eagle family at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Philadelphia by Bill Buchanan/USFWS (license)

They have two eaglets, he tells me, and once he saw a parent feed them a gray squirrel.

“It took them exactly 20 minutes to eat that squirrel,” he says.

Returning back across the valley on my usual circuitous route, I pass the tree where I had seen the eagles perching in January. One eagle sits in it. Later, when I take out maps and do the calculations, I realize that the tree is about one mile, as the crow flies, from the nest. I assume it is a favorite hunting area and learn from another resident that he had seen an eagle fly overhead with a rabbit in its talons.

According to Patti Barber, a biologist with the Game Commission’s Endangered and Nongame Bird Section, bald eagles are opportunists. In the winter they often live on carrion, and in Alaska even go into dumpsters. On the other hand, friends of mine who monitored three bald eagle nests in a nearby county saw them feed nothing but fish to the young, although they observed only four feedings. But once, in the middle of a road, they saw a bald eagle eating a dead woodchuck.

All of their nests were in very large white pine trees. Two were on steeply forested ridges and the third on a farm fence row. One was near a river, another near a lake, and the third near a small, wooded stream.

My Amish friend is amazed at the size of the nest.

“I once heard it described as like a Volkswagen upside down in a tree,” Barber says. “It’s the biggest nest of any bird in Pennsylvania.” And they continue to add to the nesting material every year they use it.

Bald eagle by  e_monk

Bald eagle by e_monk (licence)

The number of bald eagle nests in the state keeps climbing. When I contact Justin Vreeland, Wildlife Supervisor of the Game Commission’s South Central Region, he tells me that 15 new nests have been reported in his 12-county region this year, and that our nest is the second one for Blair County. The other one is on a heavily forested slope above the Frankstown Branch of the Juniata River near Water Street.

Altogether, Vreeland knows of 70 nests in his region, but when he started working here in 2005, only 12 had been reported.

The number of bald eagle nests in the state continues to climb, Barber says. The 2014 mid-year inventory of nests was 254 in 59 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. But as Game Commission Director R. Matthew Hough said at that time, “The all-time high numbers illustrate Pennsylvania’s bald eagle population is better than ever. But these are only ones we know about. There are more.” And our nest is one of them.

At some point the state will reach a saturation number, but we’re nowhere near that, Barber tells me. For example, along the Susquehanna River in one area are two nests four miles apart. Then another pair nested between the two nests.

I have yet to see the Sinking Valley nest. My Amish friend tells me it’s a steep climb. But before I knew about this nest, we took our granddaughter Elanor to the Nature Center at Bald Eagle State Park in mid-April to watch a nest in a white pine tree halfway up a wooded mountain and across an arm of the lake from the Center. We set up our scope and had an excellent view of one parent sitting on the nest while the other flew low above the water in search of fish.

At a time when so much of the news about the natural world is dismal, the return of the bald eagle in Pennsylvania from three nests in 1983 to 254 and more to be counted in 2014 is a heartening story. If anyone would have told me when we moved here in 1971 that bald eagles would be nesting on our mountain, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Gamelands Tour

view of SGL#108

view of SGL #108 on last October’s tour (all photos in this post by Bruce Bonta)

I’ve always preferred to walk rather than drive through the fields and forests of Pennsylvania. Still, I was tempted last October by a driving tour in nearby State Gamelands #108 and persuaded my husband, Bruce, to accompany me. It was a lovely autumn day when we found our way to a gamelands access road in Cambria County, not far from Prince Gallitzin State Park, and lined up behind a couple dozen cars.

At the gate we were greeted and handed several information sheets and a map that designated stops along our 7.5 mile, self-guided, one-way tour. We also tested our outdoor knowledge along the route by guessing the identity of marked trees and wildlife mounts including fisher, mink, ring-necked pheasant, black bear, barred owl, and bald eagle.

But we especially enjoyed stopping and talking to the agency personnel. I noticed the incredible abundance of pokeweed and staghorn sumac along the road and was assured by Joe McAnulty, one of the Food and Cover crew members, that they purposely widen roadsides to let in the sun, which encourages the growth of wildlife food, for example, the pokeweed and sumac, as well as blackberries and sassafras. They also allow wild grapevines to grow.

“We manage for animals,” McAnulty assured us.

With the help of special machines, also on display, they create wildlife openings in the forest to support native plants, legumes, or annual grains. They had just finished a prescribed 87-acre burn to encourage scrub oak to grow, which almost always produces a large crop of acorns every fall. In addition to the 23,086 acres of SGL#108, four workers are responsible for managing the 23,000 acres of four other nearby gamelands, McAnulty told me.

At another stop, we talked to a couple law enforcement personnel who showed us the amazing array of tools they need to foil lawbreakers. A deer exclosure, a couple shelterwood cuts, and a vernal pond were also highlighted on our route, but I was particularly eager to see a rehabilitated strip-mined area, which had been converted to a small-game and grassland nesting bird habitat.

Samara Trusso

Game Commission biologist Samara Trusso with short-eared owl habitat

There I talked to biologist Samara Trusso who told me that short-eared owls winter on the grasslands in February and March. This is important because there is a chance that they might breed there too, although so far no breeding has been recorded. The short-eared owl is one of Pennsylvania’s rarest breeding birds and is listed as endangered in the state. Pennsylvania is the farthest south this mostly circumpolar species nests and then only rarely.

Trusso also said that the rehabilitated strip-mined area provides grassy habitat for grassland birds because the sites have acidic, nutrient-poor soils that produce grasses and legumes and have a slower rate of plant succession. But she assured me that the 40% shrub component of this large acreage has no impact on grassland breeding birds that have been documented for the site—grasshopper, Savannah, and Henslow’s sparrows, northern harriers, eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks.

That was our last stop, but we drove a couple more miles through the grasslands.

“This looks like harrier country,” I commented to Bruce just as a northern harrier flew up and over the grasslands.

Then, as the area grew more shrubby and medium-sized conifers, including larch and red pine, as well as deciduous trees provided more cover; two cock ring-necked pheasants strolled out in front of our car and fought. It seemed a fitting end to what had been a worthwhile tour and one that has been given every fall except for a year when it snowed.

wildlife opening on SGL #108

wildlife opening on SGL #108

To my surprise, we emerged at a gate on State Route 865 near Blandburg at the top of the Allegheny Front, a mere 26 miles from our home. I immediately made plans to return and see the breeding grassland bird species. Snow in late winter foiled my attempts to hike in and see the wintering short-eared owls, but one lovely Sunday in late June, hoping to see the documented grassland breeding birds, we parked at the Blandburg entrance and hiked back the way we had driven on the auto tour. Bruce was armed with gameland maps he had gotten off the web and had plotted out a circular route for us.

The first couple miles, amid the conifers and deciduous trees, we heard common yellowthroats, field sparrows, and song sparrows. But then, alternating with the singing of song sparrows, I heard the dreamy, lisping tsit-tsit-tsit-teee-taay of a Savannah sparrow. He remained hidden in the shrubs, but his song was unmistakable. A few minutes later, I heard the thin, dry buzzy tumble of notes of a grasshopper sparrow. He too remained out of sight in the shrubs.

Sassafras on SGL #108 (seen on the October tour)

sassafras on SGL #108 (seen on the October tour)

We passed a large field white with daisies and heard a common yellowthroat sing both his familiar “witchity” song in addition to one of the less common variations of his song. A sudden breeze carried turkey vultures and a red-tailed hawk past. The hawk was then sent on its way by several red-winged blackbirds.

Eventually we reached the largest open section of grassland. The sun was hot and bright, and already it was late morning. I began to wonder if I would see any of the grassland birds. And then our luck changed. A Henslow’s sparrow sat in a dead shrub near the road and sang his quiet tsi-lick hiccup of a song. He was so close that we could watch him open his beak and sing over and over. I noted his short tail, flat, olive-colored head, big pale bill, finely striped breast, and reddish wings through my binoculars before he flew away.

Henslow’s sparrows are found mostly in the western part of Pennsylvania on rehabilitated strip-mined areas because they like a buildup of dead litter and perennial stalks, according to Andrew M. Wilson in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania. The State Wildlife Action Plan lists the Henslow’s sparrow as a species of High Concern because we have about nine percent of the world population. This native of the tallgrass prairie has lost much of its habitat to agriculture in the Midwest.

I was especially pleased to see favorites of mine—bobolinks that rose from a couple shrubs beside the road, the three males scolding, their buff-yellow napes and white wingbars a striking contrast to their black bodies. Then a brown-backed female with a brown stripe on her head joined the agitated males.

timber rattlesnake coiled to strike

the timber rattler that Bruce insisted on photographing

At the same time I noticed a timber rattlesnake crossing the gravel road in front of us. Bruce rushed up to snap several photos before it slid off into the field, causing still more anxiety on the part of the bobolinks. We watched them for as long as we could as we continued our hike past the grassland. Just as I was lamenting that I hadn’t heard or seen an eastern meadowlark, a male flew up from the middle of the field, flashing his yellow chest and throat, the latter with its black V necklace. Both the bobolinks and the eastern meadowlarks prefer to nest in hayfields, the bobolinks particularly in fields at 2,000 feet on the Allegheny Plateau. But early mowing has led to the demise of many young birds and so this high-altitude unmowed field is of great importance to those species.

From the top of the open grassland, we had a view in every direction encircled by mountains and forest. Despite the dry day, it was hot in the grassland, and gratefully we descended a trail down to a series of forested ponds. We sat on rocks beside one pond to eat our lunch. At another pond a female wood duck with her ducklings swam into cattail cover when they saw us. Singing woodland songbirds included wood and hermit thrushes, black-and-white and black-throated green warblers, ovenbirds, scarlet tanagers, cedar waxwings and indigo buntings.

Looking down on still another large pond from a small planting of red pines, we flushed a great blue heron. A ruffed grouse with half-grown young flew from the edge of the woods.

We spotted the first monarch butterfly of the season nectaring on yellow hawkweed, but it was near large areas of common and poke milkweeds growing beside the access road. That was where it would no doubt lay its eggs because monarch caterpillars only eat the leaves of milkweed species.

The last half-mile of our six-and-a-half mile hike was along State Route 865 where we saw and heard our first sign of people since we had parked our car. We were impressed by the remote peace and lack of even one piece of trash on this section of the gamelands. It was as far from the madding crowd as any place near our home—a prairie on a mountaintop where increasingly rare grassland birds thrive.

Pancake Flats

Rhododendron along Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Rhododendron along Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

On a cool, breezy day in late July, my husband Bruce and I decided to hike on Green Springs Trail. Following precise directions from our friend, Ruby Becker, we drove up the Allegheny Front, locally known as Wopsononock Mountain, on Wopsy Road, seven miles beyond the Penn State Altoona campus and parked in a State Game Lands #108 parking area. Since it was a seven-mile hike, and we are in our seventies, we planned only to hike the first portion, which our son, Dave, who had hiked the trail back in the spring with Juniata Valley Audubon Society members, said was the best part of the hike.

But we hadn’t counted on the seductive beauty of this trail. After a short walk on a gated road lined with a hedge of elderberry shrubs on one side and a bog on the other, we crossed a bridge over Tub Run and entered a mature second growth, mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. Most impressive were the healthy hemlock trees with not a sign of the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation. We followed a footpath through a tunnel of huge rhododendrons, many of which were still blooming. Black-throated green warblers sang “trees, trees, beautiful trees,” expressing our feelings for the impressive hemlocks.

painted trillium fruit along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

painted trillium fruit along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

The ground was a boggy sponge on either side of the trail and mossy hummocks provided habitat for a wide diversity of spring wildflowers, their leaves evidence that if we returned next spring, we would see blooming painted trilliums, starflowers, Canada mayflowers, Indian cucumber-roots, and trailing arbutus, among others. Beds of partridgeberry and a potpourri of club moss species, as well as lady ferns and cinnamon ferns also favored the wet ground while clumps of white Indian pipes lit up the dark understory.

In addition to black-throated green warblers, occasionally we heard the singing of the brilliant red and black male scarlet tanagers, the persistent red-eyed vireos, and twice a black-throated blue warbler. But a succession of ethereal hermit thrushes provided a continuous choir of music that followed us throughout the five miles of the hike within the forest. Once a hermit thrush and hooded warbler sang at the same time in an unintentional duet.

As we penetrated deeper into the forest, Bruce, armed with a map and compass, kept asking me if I wanted to turn back. He knew that I hate to retrace my steps, and I knew that the complete trail was circular, which is my favorite kind of trail. Furthermore, unlike our hilly home grounds in the ridge-and-valley, this trail was almost flat in an area aptly named Pancake Flats and thus was much easier than I had expected. For that reason, I saw no reason to turn around.

A view of the stream from Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

A view of the stream from Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Eventually, the trail became rocky, and below us we could hear the gurgle of Green Springs Run. On the woods’ floor were several huge flat rocks with rugs of moss and an understory of wood ferns. Dark-eyed juncos scolded us, and an eastern towhee exhorted us to “Drink your tea.” At last we had a view of Green Springs Run through the hemlocks and rhododendrons and descended to a bridge of large boulders that crossed the water.

We emerged out on to a grassy flat area that was, in reality, an overgrown road. As Bruce moved to examine the taller grasses on the opposite side of the road, he heard the unmistakable rattle of a timber rattlesnake. Although we stayed on the road edge and searched with our eyes to see the elusive reptile, we never did see the creature, but it rattled whenever we approached the underbrush. Finally, we took the hint and plunged back into the deep forest following Green Springs Run along the cleared footpath.

Beside the trail we spotted a pile of feathers—an indication that a predator had found its prey. A rock that had been wrenched out of the ground was evidence that a black bear had been searching for ants. We also paused to admire an enormous white pine beside the trail.

Tub Run from the trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Tub Run from the trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

We stopped to picnic next to a picturesque small waterfall under a welcoming hemlock tree and then continued on through a forest with many young hemlocks and a nice stand of mountain laurel beneath the larger trees. Apparently, the leaf fungus that has killed many of our mountain laurel shrubs had not reached this game lands.

Cinnamon ferns and unfortunately also the invasive Japanese stiltgrass formed a portion of the understory. But I was delighted to find blooming dewdrops, also known by its genus name Dalibarda. Still another common name is star-violet because its leaves resemble those of violets, but its single, white, five-petaled flowers do not look like violets. In fact, this lover of bogs, peaty barrens and cool, mossy woods is a northern flower that grows at higher elevations on the Allegheny Front, according to Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block in their definitive book The Plants of Pennsylvania. In addition, I noticed the three-leaf, clover-like leaves of northern wood-sorrel, another five-petaled, white flower, that one with pink veins, which lives in the same habitat as dewdrops in Pennsylvania.

The last two miles of the trail were on the gated road. Even though the foot trail looked heavily used, we had seen no one on it, perhaps because we were there on a weekday. But on the road we did see a few people walking past us near the middle of the afternoon.

The trail was also remarkably trash-free except for an upright balloon caught on a sapling, wishing a happy birthday to a one-year-old, that had floated in from who knew where. Billed as “biodegradable” balloons, they still can be ingested by wildlife and last for years. We know this because often we find them on our mountain land above Tyrone, especially after their St. Patrick’s Day celebration when they release 3,000 balloons. We learned years ago that whatever pollution is released in the air eventually returns to earth and the same is true of balloons.

Dalibarda (dewdrops) in bloom along Green Srpings Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

Dalibarda (dewdrops) in bloom along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

The sunny, open road, in contrast to the dark forest, where we saw only a couple common wood nymph butterflies, was a haven for butterflies—great-spangled fritillaries, spicebush swallowtails, common sulphurs, red-spotted purples, and tiger swallowtails. Common and tall milkweed provided nectar for the butterflies, but sadly we saw no monarch butterflies, despite their milkweed food source.

It had been a terrible year for monarchs, and I had seen not a single one on our property despite abundant milkweed in our First and Far fields. Much later we learned that the population of migrating monarchs in their Mexican winter quarters had been reduced by 80%, an appallingly low number. Not only are their wintering trees being illegally logged in the Mexican mountains, but herbicides, such as glyphosate, used by industrial agriculture in our country, are killing off native milkweed species, the only plants on which the monarchs lay their eggs. So we applauded the managers of this state game lands for providing food and habitat for this rapidly declining butterfly.

The healthy forest and wetland also provide food and habitat for a wide range of birds and mammals. Best of all, from our standpoint, is that this enormous game land provides a refuge for those of us who appreciate wild Pennsylvania.

Christmas books for nature-lovers

Christmas is coming and even in this super-technological world, some of us still like to curl up with a good book. If you are such a person or if someone like that is on your Christmas list, you might be interested in one of the following books.

Cerulean BluesCerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon tells you everything you might want to know about cerulean warblers as she follows researchers at the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area in West Virginia’s northern panhandle and the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area a few miles south of the Cumberland Gap in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. Both areas are thought to be in prime cerulean warbler habitat, which researchers say stretches from southwest Pennsylvania through all of West Virginia and into eastern Kentucky and Tennessee.

Along the way, Fallon profiles the prominent senior cerulean warbler researchers — Paul B. Hamel and Petra Wood — as well as the graduate students and others who search for cerulean warbler nests during late spring and early summer. She spends days in the field with them and days in the library researching the history of the cerulean warbler beginning with the early bird artists Alexander Wilson and John James Audubon. Wilson, known as “the father of American ornithology,” was a Scots man who immigrated to Philadelphia. In his Volume II of American Ornithology, he calls the cerulean warbler “one of our scarce birds in Pennsylvania,” but he saw it “on the borders of streams and marshes, among the branches of the poplar” in the Philadelphia area early in the nineteenth century.

Fallon also discusses the threats to cerulean warblers on their breeding and wintering grounds — mountaintop removal coal mining and habitat fragmentation in their core breeding areas and sun coffee agriculture and logging in their wintering habitat in the Andes Mountains of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and maybe even as far south as Bolivia.

She even travels to Colombia to attend the Cerulean Warbler Summit and visits the Cerulean Warbler Reserve — a 500-acre forest created through a partnership between ProAves and the American Bird Conservancy in 2005. This was the first reserve in South America created for a bird that breeds in North America.

Because Fallon is a creative writing teacher, her book is lively, and she records numerous adventures both here and abroad. Black and white photos of habitat and people are sprinkled throughout the book such as one of boys dressed as warblers in San Vicente, Colombia, as part of a parade celebrating ProAve’s Fifth Annual Migratory Birds Festival. ProAves, which means “for the birds,” is a nonprofit Colombian organization formed in 1998 “to protect birds and their habitats in Colombia through research, conservation action and community outreach.” Fallon also includes dismal photos of the remains of what used to be Kayford Mountain in southwestern West Virginia, and, of course, a photo of the beguiling bird itself perched on the finger of a West Virginia researcher.

Her Epilogue entitled “Help Save the Cerulean Warbler” includes a plea to buy shade grown coffee because the forest canopy above the coffee shrubs provides a winter home for cerulean warblers and many other migratory and resident songbirds. She also asks readers to speak out against mountaintop removal coal mining which Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. calls “the worst example of what human beings can do to their environment when they behave irresponsibly.”

The End of CountryHere in Pennsylvania many folks feel the same way about Marcellus shale gas drilling. That brings me to my second book The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone by Seamus McGraw, a 51-year-old journalist whose mother contacts him and his sister about whether or not she should sell gas-drilling rights on her property near Dimock, Pennsylvania in Ellsworth Hill.

McGraw sets out to discover all he can about the natural gas rush in the commonwealth. As he said in a later interview, “the risks are real and profound and cannot be minimized,” but he also thinks that there are real benefits to those who strike it rich and to our greater society looking for a clean energy future.

Unfortunately, the extraction of natural gas is neither clean nor quiet as neighbors discover. And in Dimock, at least, some wells are polluted with methane due to improper drilling by one company. But, on the other hand, at least one person, Ken Ely, strikes it rich.

McGraw has written a book that satisfies neither the gas industry nor the conservationists opposed to gas drilling. Mostly, it is about how the drilling affects individual lives, namely Ken Ely and his neighbor Victoria Switzer. Ely sells off his gas rights, figuring he’ll never see another penny. To his amazement, the Ely well produces so much natural gas that he is a millionaire overnight. And that’s only the beginning.

Perhaps Tom Brokaw best summed up the book when he wrote, “The End of Country is an elegantly written and unsettling account of what can happen when big energy companies come calling in rural America. This cautionary tale should be required reading for all those tempted by the calling cards of easy money and precarious peace of mind. The result too often is bitter feuds, broken dreams, a shattered landscape.” I can testify from friends living in fracking land that it does mean “the end of country” and all that might imply.

But, needing the money and assured by the gas company that the risks are minimal, like many of her rural neighbors, McGraw’s mother signs over her rights for $2500 an acre, far more than many of her neighbors received who took offers as low as $25.00 an acre earlier.

And Ken Ely? You’ll have to read the shocking (to me) ending to find out.

Among the AncientsAmong the Ancients: Adventures in the Eastern Old-Growth Forests by Joan Maloof is a book I wish I had written. Imagine visiting old-growth forests from Alabama to Maine and New Jersey to Michigan — twenty-six forests in all — in each state east of the Mississippi River. Actually, I was surprised at how many we have visited — the Sipsey Wilderness in Alabama’s William B. Bankhead National Forest, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, West Virginia’s Cathedral State Park, Michigan’s Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park, and Pennsylvania’s Cook Forest State Park.

Some are more impressive than others. Maloof is especially disappointed by Mississippi’s Bienville Pines Scenic Area in the Bienville National Forest, “a forest gone missing,” she calls it after a fruitless search for what was described on the Internet as a scenic area of 180 acres containing “the largest known block of old growth pine timber in Mississippi.” The advertised trail is gone and no local person knows anything about it. When she finds it she sees that it has been logged, a ‘mechanical reduction’ to lower the risk of fire near a populated area that is “standard forestry practice.” Mississippi does not look good in Maloof’s account and neither does the National Forest Service or forestry practices in general.

But Maloof has a list she calls “Other Forests of Interest” at the back of her book, and the alternate for Mississippi — Sky Lake Wildlife Management Area–is an excellent remnant of old-growth forest according to our son Mark who has lived in Mississippi for several years and just finished writing a book on the natural places of the delta area of the state. Sky Lake WMA, in the Mississippi Delta, has a board walk through old-growth bald cypress forest and is heavily promoted and visited by local people proud of it, unlike the citizens near Bienville Pines Scenic Area who are either unaware or scared of the place. Incidentally, Maloof’s other choice in Pennsylvania is Snyder-Middleswarth Natural Area.

Along with a map, travel directions, and a photo, each chapter also has fascinating natural and human history material, for instance, on wildflowers and beetles, butterflies and crabwood, bluebead lily, Lucy Braun, nesting hawks, the Bealls, Henry Ford, tulip poplar trees, Bob Leverett, and, in Pennsylvania, the family Cook. People, she stresses, have saved these forests. Many have been private landowners and others, such as Lucy Braun and Bob Leverett, have studied and promoted old-growth.

She concludes by naming her top four old-growth forests — the Porcupine Mountains, the Sipsey Wilderness, Congaree National Park in South Carolina, and our own Cook Forest. “These are the places I keep urging others to visit so they, too, will see and understand what our land aspires to be, and what it can perhaps be again in more places, given enough time.” Maloof, a professor biology and environmental studies, is well-qualified to write such an eloquent, opinionated, and convincing book about the worth and beauty of old-growth forests.

The Forest UnseenAt last, we come to the ideal book for the nature nerd on your list: The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature by David George Haskell. He too, is a biology professor who chooses to sit for hours at a time observing one square meter of old-growth Tennessee forest on the Cumberland Plateau. He calls it his “mandala” which he explains is “a re-creation of the path of life, the cosmos, and the enlightenment of Buddha. The whole universe is seen through this small circle of sand,” a mandala he saw that was created with sand by two Tibetan monks on his campus. But he sits on a flat slab of sandstone on a forested slope in steep, rock-strewn terrain that kept the loggers away.

There he sits through the four seasons many times a week and covers a vast number of subjects in great detail such as how deer digest their food, the lives of Plethodon lungless salamanders, the biology of ticks, the reproduction or rattlesnake ferns, medicine from nature, sharp-shinned hawk, in summary, something for everyone who has an interest in some aspect of the eastern forest.

His account can be poetic, i.e. “lightning-white fungal strands crackle over black leaves,” and introspective, “the world does not center on me or my species. The causal center of the natural world is a place that humans had no part in making. Life transcends us. It directs our gaze outward.”

He also makes frequent comments about conservation, some so subtle that you have to read them again to appreciate them. For instance, in a section he calls “Chainsaw” he asks, “How should we treat our forests, as a gift to be wisely and sustainably managed or as an ‘industrial process’ in which we run down nature’s capital, mining the soil, and then discarding the spent land?…Our laws and economic rules place short-term extractive gain over other values.”

Finally, maybe the most controversial point he makes as an ecologist has to do with white-tailed deer. “Most of the scientific studies of eastern North America forest ecology in the twentieth century were conducted in an abnormally unbrowsed forest…’Overbrowsing’ by deer may be returning the forest to its more usual sparse, open condition,” he writes. Haskell quotes from old letters and diaries about the great abundance of deer in the 16th and 17th centuries and mentions that Native Americans cleared and burned forests to provide food for plentiful deer.

Merry Christmas and good reading!

Marcia's library

Marcia’s library is dominated by nature books and field guides