October Memories

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Wisps of clouds and soft colors defined a warm and peaceful sunrise

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Natural rhythms were interrupted by unusually warm, dry and erratic weather patterns

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Early leaf drop and muted colors in woodlands shifted attention to the landscape underfoot

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The Harvest Moon reminded all of the landscape overhead

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Harvested fields were crowded with hungry geese

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Gulls as well as geese foraged in dense, low fog on cold mornings

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Searches for fall landscapes led to familiar haunts, like the old mill pond

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Driven more by photoperiod than the tricky warm weather, a mature male beaver prepared for winter by harvesting an aspen tree and stashing branches at the family lodge

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Staghorn Sumac was on fire!

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A large ash tree, dead for many years, returned to life. An impressive mass of “Chicken-of-the woods” fungus fruited on the base of the snag and lit up a drab woodland scene.

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October reflections

Photos by NB Hunter (October 2017). © All Rights Reserved.

 

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Pond Life

Small, warm-water ponds are a nice change of pace and delightful mid-summer escape.

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Adult merganser and snapping turtle at rest… young mergansers might be a meal for this snapper!

Last week I was invited to a private woodland pond to observe and photograph a family of beavers. There was plenty of time to spare in between beaver sightings and I soon became entranced with the cold blooded creatures hunting the shoreline and shallow waters. Most prominent were the bullfrogs. Dozens dove into the pond from the weedy bank as I scouted the water.  Soon after I had taken a seat and steadied the camera, they began to pop up to the surface, bulging eyes announcing their presence.

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Huge dragonflies were patrolling the waters with grace and beauty. This one stopped on a dime and hovered in front of me, seemingly to show off its amazing flying skills and pose for documentation.

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An adult beaver finally appeared on a far bank. It had been foraging in a thicket above the water line and would soon be heading back to the lodge with a freshly cut tree branch to feed its young.

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A conversation about beaver and the aquatic habitats that they create is incomplete without mention of the Red-spotted Newt. Two of the three stages of the complex life cycle of this salamander are dependent on clean, quiet waters like beaver ponds. The middle stage, an immature adult (“Red Eft”), is terrestrial. They inhabit the moist, shaded habitat of the forest floor and can be found wandering around at any time of the day or night.

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Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.

Wetland Haunts: a Canal Towpath/Trail

Fertile, slow-moving waters tend to be unsightly and uninviting in summer. Annual accumulation of nutrient-rich sediments and leachates (agricultural runoff and septic systems respectively) creates eutrophic conditions that support dense mats of aquatic vegetation above and below the surface. On larger surface waters large weed harvesting machines must actually be employed to maintain access for recreational uses.

First impressions of a scene like this canal waterway, its surface covered with duckweed, can also be misleading. Sometimes it’s best to lace up your boots, grab some gear and investigate before passing judgement.

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A school of small fish find shelter under duckweed.

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A muskrat sits on a small log in the middle of the canal, literally gulping duckweed by the handful.

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The muskrat eventually disappeared in thick vegetation at water’s edge. When I stood up to resume my walk, I realized I wasn’t alone on the towpath. A doe and fawn, 70 meters ahead, had their eye on me.

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Green Herons forage along the edge of the canal, usually concealed by dense riparian vegetation. I suspect this one was hunting frogs before I unknowingly disturbed it, forcing flight to a perch on the far side of the water to get a better look at the threat.

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The Fragrant Water Lily: so common, but too photogenic to pass up.

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One drawback to linear trails is the return trip – retracing a familiar, and disturbed, corridor. This morning proved to be an exception. I had no sooner turned around to walk back to my truck when I heard a sound 70 or 80 meters ahead; a sound best described as someone heaving a 30 pound rock into the canal. In fact, my first reaction was to scan the trail for people. Nothing. No one around. Then I heard it again, then again. Getting closer: a beaver was drifting downstream, in my direction, signaling danger by slapping its broad, flat tail  against the surface of the water.

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I’ve been “tail slapped” by beavers many times, usually in late evening while fishing too close to a lodge or bank den. I don’t have the words to describe that experience, the booming explosion, in fading light and completely unexpected, but I can say it is an honest test of the strength of your heart and cardiovascular system. This image, the middle one in a 5 shot sequence, shows the full scope of a violent tail slap; the camera captured an experience that I had never actually seen, or appreciated, in full.

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”   – John Muir

Photos by NB Hunter.©All Rights Reserved.

Eastern Elk Country

The springboard for my career was graduate studies of elk and other herbivores in the heart of a region that is now marketed as the “Pennsylvania Wilds”. The experience also spawned a 40-year friendship with my field research mentor, a retired forester and author of works on forest history and elk. Return trips to visit, hike, fish and photograph are always mutually rewarding and memorable. It is this connection that brings to mind a quote of Aldo Leopold: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.”

Covering a dozen counties and roughly 2-million acres in the northcentral portion of the state, the PA Wilds region is largely forested and under State or Federal ownership. Outdoor recreation and tourism are the backbone of local economies. Historically, deer hunting was the main draw to the area, and may still be, but new outdoor recreation activities with growing participation rates are rapidly altering the landscape, and the experience.

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Appalachian Mountains/Allegheny Plateau in northcentral PA

When visiting, I stay in my friends log cabin and seamlessly slip into a refreshingly different world of backcountry wildlife, mountains, tumbling brooks, endless forested landscapes and rich land use history. On a cloudy night the experience is enhanced by environmental qualities that are nearly extinct in the civilized world: the virtual absence of human noise and the disorienting, but enlightening, experience of total darkness.

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Beaver, feeding on the bark of a twig (probably willow).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the region was a bustling network of logging camps, sawmills, tanneries and related industries. Extensive stands of virgin White Pine, valued for lumber and ship masts, helped one local city lay claim to being the “lumber capital of the world” in the late 1800’s. A pine log destined to be used as a ship mast had to be straight and at least 90 feet long and 18 inches across – at the small end! Using only horses, oxen, hand tools, the power of water (and later, railroads), loggers harvested and transported these massive timbers with incredible ingenuity. One example was the use of a series of “splash dams” to move large logs down small streams. Gated dams were constructed from nearby timber and rocky substrate to created a reservoir that was filled with logs hauled off the mountain. When the gate was opened, the logs shot downstream, buoyed and propelled by the artificial flood water. 

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Remains of a 140-year-old splash dam on a small mountain creek; the foundation of Hemlock logs is waterlogged and remarkably well preserved.

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Old, historic railroad bridge in the heart of the PA Wilds region

The last native PA elk was killed in the latter part of the 19th century. However, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the reintroduction of elk and a wild, free-ranging herd of several hundred animals has become the center piece of the PA Wild program.

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Wild Pennsylvania elk: an immature bull in velvet; photo 1 of 3

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Elk, deer, bear and turkeys are the main attractions for tourists and hunters alike, but the detailed landscapes of forest openings, beaver meadows, and the edges of sparsely traveled trails and roads are often rich in plant and animal life.

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Porcupine; strolling along the edge of a beaver meadow and grazing on succulent, herbaceous vegetation

Three plants, or plant groups, that are spectacular in mid-summer are the daisies and daisy-like flowers, Bee Balm and Cardinal Flower. All of these photos are wild plants, growing naturally in the area being featured.

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Crescent butterfly on Coneflower

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Bee Balm (Oswego Tea); past peak bloom

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Spicebush Swallowtail on Cardinal Flower; flood plain of a mountain stream

When available, both Bee Balm and Cardinal Flower are favored, natural food sources for hummingbirds.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird, preening

I stopped near the eastern border of the PA Wilds on my way home to break up the trip and photograph a mountain stream. This was my final capture of the trip.

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Red-spotted Purple; gravel bar on the flood plain of a mountain stream.

Photos by NB Hunter. ©  All Rights Reserved.