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.

A Canal Towpath/Trail Walk

Late this morning I decided to battle cabin fever (its been raining for days) and investigate a local wetland and historic, canal waterway. The canal and towpath date back to the middle of the 19th century. Thanks to an active, volunteer conservation group, they are now an important wildlife sanctuary and recreation resource.

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Chenango Canal and towpath/trail

Two “alien” or non-native plants are in full bloom now, both of which were growing at the edge of the canal.

Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis), a native of Europe and Asia, has escaped from gardens and become naturalized. It prefers moist soils, but isn’t too site-sensitive and groups of plants are blooming everywhere – roadsides, field edges, vacant lots, etc. This tall wildflower looks like Phlox, but unlike that common garden plant, has just four petals and an alternate leaf arrangement. I like its colorful floral display and the fact that the small, tubular flowers attract butterflies and other insects.

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Dame’s Rocket in a damp, uncultivated area next to active farmland

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Dame’s Rocket

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Crescent butterfly on Dame’s Rocket

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White Admiral butterfly on Dame’s Rocket

Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus), of European origin, is another species that has successfully escaped from cultivation. It is a wet site plant and extensive stands are locally common in marshes, on floodplains and along stream banks. In some areas Yellow Iris has received the status of “invasive”. The plants occur in large clumps, 2 to 3 feet tall, and are vigorous and sturdy. I often see large, expanding colonies along stream banks that seem immune to severe flooding and fluctuating water levels.

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Yellow Iris

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Yellow iris

I visited the canal hoping to see waterfowl, perhaps a family of Wood Ducks. A feather was the best I could do, but I had some great turtle sightings that offset the disappointment!

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Waterfowl feather lodged against a cattail stalk

Snapping Turtles (Chelydra serpentina) are active now. I saw a road-killed female on my way to the canal and thought of a recent warning in the local newspaper: “slow down for turtles when driving near wetlands”.

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Snapping Turtle swimming in the fertile, slow-moving water of the canal

Of the nearly 20 species of turtles native to New York State, the Snapping Turtle and smaller Eastern Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta picta) are the most common. Painted Turtles are often seen sunning on logs and rocks in the shallow, sluggish waters of swamps, marshes and ponds.

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Eastern Painted Turtle at rest

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.