Monday, September 28, 2009

A Windfall for Wildlife

Wind, gusting to more than 40 miles per hour at times, added a new dimension to hiking this morning. I often pay attention to force and direction of the wind when bicycling, fly fishing, even birding. When I’m hiking, however, it’s usually not an issue. The density of the trees is often enough to divert the wind.
This morning’s breezes, however, were a revelation. Not the kind of revelation Sir Isaac Newton experienced when he was, allegedly, hit on the head with a falling apple. But a constant barrage of acorns, hickory nuts and black walnuts falling from the trees in high winds can open one’s mind, literally. Thankfully I was wearing a cap.
For about the first mile I thought the irregular pitter patter of nuts falling in the forest was kind of cool. I even thought I could hear cheering coming from the Wild Turkeys, White-tail Deer and other forest critters who depend on mast to get through the winter months.
Mast for wildlife comes in two basic types in this area, soft and hard. The softer things, like berries and fruits get consumed first, mostly. The hard mast is around much longer, and in a great variety.
For example, acorns from trees in the red oak group (red, black, scarlet, and pin oak) are more bitter than those in the white oak group (white, bur, chinkapin, and chestnut oaks). As a result, acorns from the white oak group are preferred by most wildlife species, and are often quickly consumed in the fall. Red oak acorns have a much longer “shelf life,” which makes them available for consumption during late winter when other food sources are scarce. They also provide food in years when few white oak acorns are produced.
I don’t know if this is a good or bad year for acorns. All I know is that showers of nuts fell all around me this morning. The acorns were not much more than a bother. The hickory nuts and, especially the black walnuts, were hazardous.
Whether Sir Isaac had an epiphany while sitting under the apple tree remains debatable. What I learned while hiking in mature oak and hickory forests is that on windy days, head for the pine and hemlock groves.

Friday, September 25, 2009

What Happened, Here?

Recently, I read a report where researchers focused on why more urban folks, particularly those living in the inner city, don’t use metropolitan parks. The premise was because of a lack of transportation. Turns out the most common complaint was that respondents would not know what to do when they got to the park.
Oh, my.
If you don’t know what to do when you get to a park, I suggest you talk with naturalists like Wendy Weirich at the Rocky River Nature Center, or, Paul Motts in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. These leaders, along with hundreds of naturalists in the northeast Ohio area have a to-do list that would take a lifetime (of enjoyment) to complete.
I thought about the survey’s respondents while hiking this morning. My first suggestion for something to do would be to just look around. You don’t have to “do” anything in a park. There is no on/off switch.
We’ve created a culture that needs entertaining. Theme parks, and most television programming, frees our minds of the necessity to create. Children go to DisneyWhatever and live someone else’s dream. They know what to do when they get there: Thinking not required.

In a span of about five miles, I counted more than a dozen things that I considered a challenge. Bird calls and identification are constant. Yes, many of these challenges require a certain level of knowledge, skills for lack of another term. That’s why we have naturalists and books. Yet, knowing the shredded stump was probably the work of a skunk looking for bugs, or the oval-shaped holes in the tree were made by a Pileated Woodpecker, is not rocket science. It’s natural science.

The real challenge, the things that require some brain work, are finding a make-shift hiking staff leaning against a tree, for example. The why or what of such a simple act require some thought. It demands the person use his or her imagination. Grist for the writer’s mill.
What you do with yourself when you get to the park, matters most.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Give Us This Day Our Daily Options

While drinking my morning coffee, I pondered trail options in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park for my morning hike. I opted for a trail I had walked, extensively, doing bird population census studies, yet had never hiked with a pack.
As I drove to the trailhead I turned on the news for about 30 seconds. More stuff I can do nothing about. You can only take a little news at a time. Too much and you are not portable; not enough and you’re making happy rhymes. An empty head filled with John Gorka’s words would play well this morning.
From the parking lot I looked out over a corn field picked not-quite-clean by human machines. The machine’s leftovers created a giant food dish for a flock of 25 Canada Geese. Or, were those Wild Turkeys?
Of the two packs in my car, I chose the heavier since I was only planning to do six miles—or maybe five.
By the time I hit the three-mile marker I had to make a choice; take the long, tough loop to the left, or the short, easy loop to the right. Being a leftist by nature, the choice was simple.
A light drizzle rattled the canopy above, not reaching the ground. I wondered why the little toad and snail I stopped to photograph were so well camouflaged, while the gaudy orange fungi, just to their right, stuck out like an abandoned hunter’s cap. In fact, that’s what I thought it was when I opted to venture off the trail.

Then I heard the noise. Back in the last century, while I was still in the journalism game, there was an adage: When you hear hoof beats, look for horses, not zebras. While I always thought seeing zebras would be more fun, I understood. So this morning, when I heard the hoof beats, I knew what to look for. Sure enough, two riders were approaching. I guess, on a “bridle” trail, you’d expect to see horses and not pretty ladies in white dresses—nor zebras.
The riders slowed as they approached this aberration in their path. “Oh, it’s a human,” said the first rider, probably more to her horse than her partner who seemed capable of coming to the same conclusion.
The first horse and rider passed with no other acknowledgement. The second horse was curious. It stopped and looked me over. It did a full body scan, like a guy sizing up a potential date in a bar on Saturday night. The horse made some snuffling sounds and inched closer. The 37 pounds on my back, now wedged against a tree, left me few options.
The rider decided to have some fun. She said to the horse, “Oh, does that hat look like something you’d like to eat?”
Not trying to get into personification here, but I’d swear the horse shook its head and did the eye-roll thing. It then inched a bit closer. Close enough for me to tell it had been eating oats for breakfast. My mind flashed: If this turns to shit, here was something the horse and I had in common. The rider spoke again. “Does that orange shirt make you think this is a giant carrot?”
Enough was enough. As the horse cocked its head and contemplated how it would get around the big blue thing on the carrot’s back, I realized I did have a small option of moving to my left. As I slipped away, the riders bid me a farewell and told me to have a good day—like it was optional.
When I got home around lunch time I considered choices in the fridge and opted to eat my dessert first. Life is too short to do otherwise.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Harbingers of Fall

“Harbingers of fall” sounds awkward. We usually tag spring with all sorts of harbingers, rarely the other seasons. Fall, unlike other seasons, sort of sneaks up on us. Most people don’t realize it’s fall until they write the date on a check, and then say, “Hey, what happened to summer?”
There are, however, early signs of the season all around us. I was in a local store the other day and the kid stocking the shelves was putting out the Christmas merchandise. I looked at him, not saying a word. Smart kid read my mind. He said, “Yeah, I know.”
Today is the first day of fall. It sneaks in about 5:19 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time. So far I’ve not notice any abhorrent (meaning incompatible) behavior, like people trying to stand eggs on end or any of the other silliness people associate with the changing seasons.
Maybe, if we could live our lives by the phases of the moon as humans used to do, we wouldn’t be surprised when one day we step outside and realize we do, or do not, need that fleece pullover. That’ll never happen.
A good and frequent walk in the woods helps. Fall is the time we celebrate the beauty of dying things, just as three months ago we celebrated the radiance of sunshine warming the earth. And three months before that we celebrated the marvel of life returning to what we had feared was dead. And three months before that we marveled at Nature’s white blanket keeping warm all those things we hoped would come back.

Take your place on the Great Mandala, as it moves through your brief moment of time.
 --Peter Yarrow.

Monday, September 21, 2009

How to Clear a Room

Lesser Yellowlegs, Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge

It happened at the 11th Midwest Birding Symposium this past weekend. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional. Keynote speaker, Jim McCormac, president, Ohio Ornithological Society, author and all-around good guy, had just finished his opening remarks.
Bill Thompson, III, publisher, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and master coordinator of the event, took the stage and calmly announced that a Kirtland’s Warbler on migration had just be seen about five miles from the symposium site.
In a flash, hundreds of people had something to do, other than sit inside an auditorium on a gorgeous late-summer day. Kirtland’s Warbler is arguably the most sought-after of the wood warblers and hardly ever seen in Ohio. An estimated population of 3,600 exists in the world and is rarely seen on migration. The fact that one turned up during a conference of 800 serious birders was amazing—some said too amazing. Rumors (all in good humor) about how our conference fees were being spent circulated as we all dashed for our cars.
This event, co-sponsored by the Ohio Ornithological Society, Birdwatcher’s Digest and Lakeside (Ohio) Association, is the premiere birding event in this region, possibly the entire country. It’s more than three intense days of birding, lectures and rubbing elbows with kindred spirits of the birding world. Field trips helped us experience the remarkable flora and fauna of Ohio, where you could—up close and personal—debate differences between Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs with famous field guide authors, or even movie stars like Jane Alexander.
For some, the three-plus days bordered on the edge of Dreamland. You could talk with tour group leaders about going to exotic places; look through binoculars and spotting scopes that cost as much as your car; or fantasize about seeing a Kirtland’s Warbler in Ohio. Some dreams do come true.

Sunset cruise to protected islands in Lake Erie

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Trail Companions

Most mornings, on backcountry trails in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, I’m not burdened with human encounters. This morning, however, it was a virtual traffic jam out there.
Less than a mile into the woods I spotted a guy sitting on a stump. Actually, I heard him before I saw him. He was talking on a cell phone. Remember, not long ago, if you saw a person talking to himself you assumed he was mentally deranged. Now, you assume he’s on a cell phone, which might still be a mental derangement.
The guy was making some sort of business deal. More info than I wanted, that’s for sure. I passed him and he never acknowledged my presence. That’s okay. I heard him say, “Just tell them we need the stuff by mid November or it’s a deal breaker.” Then he said, “No. I can’t get on a computer. I’m in the middle of a business meeting. I’ll get back with you in a couple hours.”
Ah ha! He was playing hooky. I was beginning to like this guy.
Further down the trail I encountered a forty-something couple. Runners. Mr. Macho was out front. To his credit, he had a great-looking dog on a leash. He was wearing his game face and just grunted as he lunged passed me. Why do runners always look so grim? They never appear to be enjoying themselves.
His female companion was the opposite. She was all bubbly and glowing with the exercise. She did, however, speak in capital letters.
“Ah, hi,” I said.
“Ah, they’re all great. Some are just …”
Then they were gone—for a while. I got them a second time on their turn around. Mr. Crankypants still looked like he was not having much fun. The dog’s tail was wagging so hard I thought it might come off, so I know he was having a ball.
Since she was gone before I could respond, I said, “You don’t give a shit about how I am …” Ooooo, that felt good.
I stopped to adjust an errant shoulder strap that was making my backpack list to starboard. A barking growl at my heels set me off like the Space Shuttle! As I returned to Earth, a chuckling runner, obviously enjoying his joke, was passing my landing spot. He said, “Hope I didn’t scare ya!”
I contemplated how much damage I could do with the titanium point of my trekking pole. I hesitated, thinking that I’ll meet this jerk again on a winter hike and get him with an ice sickle. That way there’ll be no finger prints when they find his body in the spring.
After a few hard miles my mind began to get back into the rhythm of the trail. Then I spotted her. A woman, standing in the middle of the path, about 50 yards ahead of me. She had her hands up to her face and was obviously sobbing.
Immediately I entered into a discussion with the Voices in my head. This was a classic Franz Kafka philosophical discussion: You’re crossing a bridge late at night and you see someone poised on the rail, about to jump. Do you stop and try to help, or do you continue on your way?
When I drew to within 15 feet of her, she looked up, noticeing me for the first time. All she said was, “Oh!”
She was flossing her teeth! Right. Flossing her teeth!
When my resting heart beat got back down to below 1,000, the Voices told me to look at the positive side of this: She’ll toss the floss on the ground, an Orchard Oriole will find it in the spring and use it as part of its nest, and we’ll have another special bird living in the park.
As I neared the end of my seven-mile ordeal, I cut through a meadow and stopped to admire one of my favorite bugs—a praying mantis. At least here was a critter that exhibits normal behavior, like biting the head off its partner after mating.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Talking Turkey

I walked into one of those nature dramas you watch, not knowing which side to cheer for. Kinda like those programs they show on the Nature Channel or PBS. True to form, I was not ready for what would, or would not, happen. I was walking with my head down, somewhat mesmerized by the excessive amount of coyote poop on the trail this morning. Hey, gimmie a break! I was five miles into a rather strenuous hike and any diversion helps.
I rounded a corner, about to pass through an opening in the forest, when the unmistakable sight of a Wild Turkey caught my eye. In terms of getting close to a turkey, even 100 feet away seems close to me. He was standing in a copse, alternating looks in my direction and to his right.
I froze in my tracks. I’ve taken a lot of bird pictures and few if any (the Northern Wheatear discussed the other day being the exception) are easy. I would, however, put Wild Turkey at the top of the Damn-Near-Impossible list. I was afraid to reach for my camera because I could tell, Big Tom was about to bolt. He could surely see me, yet he kept looking to his right. I, too, looked in that direction and saw nothing.
Or, did I? What I first thought was a butterfly morphed into an ear! Clearly, now, I could see a pair of ears in the high grass. Wait! There were four ears!. Wait! Make that six!
Oh my. I figured it out. An adult coyote and two youngsters were stalking Big Tom. And Big Tom was not alone. As my eyes became more accustomed to the shadows where he stood, I could see Big Tom was accompanied by nearly a dozen other turkeys of varying sizes.
Big Tom was in big trouble. Whether the coyotes could see me was unclear. I suspect they could smell me with little or no trouble.
Tom weighed his options. I dug out the camera. The ears disappeared. The turkeys dashed left. A Red-tail Hawk I had not even seen in the tree above the turkeys, took off. The coyotes … What happened to the coyotes?
They disappeared, as they usually do. These creatures are more often heard than seen. Even the coyote’s howl is deceiving. Particularly in this region of hills and valleys, the sound carries and echoes. We’re getting into howling time here in northeast Ohio. Coyotes howl a lot in January and February while looking for a mate. (Don’t we all?) And now, in September and October, the female is often calling to her offspring, who, like human kids, all answer at the same time.
The howling lessons are easy. Stalking Wild Turkeys takes special skills, as this morning’s youngsters learned.

A note to you readers who send me email questioning what kind of National Park we have here in northeast Ohio. Since a picture is worth a lotta words, here’s one I made just after the turkey/coyote incident.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Learning From the Wild Side

I had some of the audience laughing, even before I stepped onto the stage, or, bridge in this case. As I hesitated at what appeared the only way to cross this creek in Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s backcountry, two Pileated Woodpeckers loudly cackled at me from the cheap seats high above. The White-breasted Nuthatches were a bit more discreet with their low-keyed chortling.
I had two choices: cross here or turn back. The latter was not an option. I suppose a third choice was to hike along the stream bank and find another place to get across. For some reason, a 40-pound pack tells you to hike in the straightest line possible. The bridge it was to be.
From the tracks in the mud I could see I was not the first to use this span. In fact, the sheen on the bridge treads, left by the scuffling of many hiking boots, told me the bridge was safe. Or so I wanted to believe.
The treads were supported by two, unmatched trees, slightly bigger than what I’d call saplings. I was too high up in the forest for this to be a beaver project, although it had that random order about it. The 36 treads were obviously hand-hewn. No two looked alike. What was I to make of this rather unkempt, unpredictable link between my past and my future?
As with most wilderness situations, it’s best to go with your gut. I was skeptical of the bridge when I first spotted it from 100 feet back up the trail. On closer inspection, however, I could see that its strength and beauty were in its diversity.
There was no applause when I unceremoniously navigated the bridge; just my grateful thanks for helping me cross the stream—and for the life lesson.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Special Visitor

It had been a good morning of birding. Susan and I, along with a volunteer army of about 60 like-minded folks, under the command and direction of General Dwight Chasar, had just finished the fall birding census in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Our mission: Count every species and every bird we saw.
Mission accomplished, survivors of the battle met for lunch. We were about to call it quits when fellow birder, Marc Nolls, gave us the word. A Northern Wheatear had been spotted in Holmes County.
If you want to see a Northern Wheatear in North America, pack your bags and head for Alaska. If you want to see one on its wintering grounds, pack your bags and head for Africa. Needless to say, having a Northern Wheatear—a life bird!—90 minutes from home is almost a no brainer when deciding whether to go.

Off we went. Thanks to the marvel of modern communications and great directions from fellow birders, finding the place was easy. Rarely is chasing birds this easy. We arrived at the Yoder farm and there stood the rare bird. It acted like being in central Ohio was no big deal. It posed. We oooed and aaaaed. The bird, a bit smaller than an Eastern Bluebird, shagged bugs, watched us and checked out the local bluebirds. Its long legs and upright posture make it appear larger than its 5.75-inch length.
The crowd of about 50 people were in a jovial mood. Birders get that way when we find a life bird. There was minimal speculation of how the bird turned up on this Amish farm in Ohio. Birders accept the reality that since birds have wings, they go where they damn well please. Young Mr. Yoder found the bird early Saturday morning. He (as are many of the Amish sect) is skilled enough in bird identification to realize he had something special. He went to a nearby shop and had the owner alert the birding community.

We are all indebted to his skills and willingness to have the birders invade his farm. His Amish neighbors had gathered, probably to watch us Englishmen (as they call us) as much as see the bird causing the ruckus. Also, I noticed Mr. Yoder was doing a brisk business selling tomatoes and grapes. As more people walked up his driveway, Mr. Yoder laughed when he told me it was a bit busier around the farm this Saturday morning than is typical.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

There’s a Fungus Amongus

As kids growing up in the mid 1950s, we lived in the constant shadow of the mushroom cloud. Our fearless leaders were so fearful of people on the other side of the pond, we regularly practiced “duck-and-cover” drills in school. At the teacher’s signal, we would dive beneath our flimsy desks, safe from fallout of the atomic bomb. The symbol of evil was the mushroom cloud. The fallout we should have feared was the military-industrial complex that has really brought us to our knees.
The mushroom needs a better PR agent. Granted, about half of the mushroom species we find here in Ohio are poisonous, however, that does not distract from their beauty. The rule to obey is, look but don’t bite.

Walking through the woods it’s hard not to notice the variety of fungi—mushrooms and the like. There are thousands of varieties worldwide, and hundreds here in Ohio. Fungi are said to be among the most diverse groups of living organisms on earth. There’s a real lack of information on these because they’re tough to find. The mushroom, or fruit body of fungi, are often small and inconspicuous. And they get eaten, a lot.

Another challenge in getting a head count is the fact that the plants have good and bad years. There might be plenty to see this season; next year there is nothing. Many are specific to a tree species from which they draw sustenance. All are unique and deserve more than a casual glance. You might have to get down on your hands and knees to get the best view of a mushroom, but for those of us who grew up in the 1950s, ducking for cover is an easily remembered skill.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Rainy Days and Tuesdays

There’s a good reason that clichés become clichés. It’s because there is a grain of truth within, not just because clichés are easy to remember. For example, every sports coach tells his or her students, “You’ll play like you practice.” Or, the oft-heard lament along the Appalachian Trail, “No pain, no rain, no Maine.”
Thus is was, armed with these words of wisdom, that I headed out for a training hike, in the rain, this morning. And, like discovering the kernel of truth in a cliché, I rediscovered the beauty of hiking in the rain.
I needed a shake-down cruise in the inclement weather to be sure I remembered how to at least protect my gear, if not my body. There’s an extra tool set required for walking on slippery surfaces. A great way to sprain an ankle is to slip into a 40-pound pack and then slip on your ass when your foot hits the wet leaves.
The rain had lessened to a drizzle as I cinched the protective cover onto my backpack. Now I faced a choice of whether to don my rain jacket. The options were to get wet from the falling rain or get wet from the sweat I knew would come with wearing the “breathable” rain gear. I opted to put the jacket on—then took it off within the first mile.
Hiking in the rain I’m cognizant of birds, as always. A difference is, however, that I keep my head down more than up. I pay attention to where my feet land, and thus scan the multitude of plants and fungi that cover the forest floor.
While some might think hiking in the rain dampens the experience, I find the opposite the case. It adds new dimensions. The sounds of the forest change and the light is totally different. Colors become more saturated and, thinking about the cliché—gilding the lily—the rain adds a sparkle to many plants that would not otherwise be there.
My mother often said I didn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain. I now see she meant that in a positive way.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Social Networking Revisited

‘Morning Sunshine!

I started out this drop-dead gorgeous morning, too fast and too hard. And I knew it. I had jettisoned some weight from my pack in favor of adding a few more miles to the trek. In the process, and in my rush to clear my head, I could hear all sorts of things banging and clanging as I humped up the first big hill. Midway I was huffing and puffing. When I reached the top I was nearly apoplectic. Whoa, partner. This is not why we go into the woods.
I stopped at the first friendly log. Time to rearrange things, including my head. I had taken a look at Face Book this morning and could not believe the comments of a camo-clad racist posted there. The issue was President Obama’s visit to an elementary school. Why was this even an issue? I read through other opinions in the poll. I could not believe people were so upset because Mr. Obama feels it important that children take responsibility for their own education and other critical issues. One person opined that Mr. Obama’s visit, to take his message to the children of this country, was unpatriotic!
Oh, my. My good friend, Dr. Pat Coy who directs the Center for Applied Conflict Management (, "Contesting Patriotism: Culture, Power and Strategy in the Peace Movement," Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2008, with Lynne M. Woehrle and Gregory M. Maney), has noted that patriotism is not just about guns, flag-waving and sticking yellow magnets on the ass-end of a gas guzzler. It’s about your relationship with your community. It’s about helping at the soup kitchen or taking a turn on the phones at the battered women’s shelter.
The first distraction that helped put me on the road to recovery came from four Dark-eyed Juncos. These birds were out of place and out of time for early September. They worked their way past me, chattering and discussing some issue of import—to them.
I shrugged into my near-30-pound pack. As I was fine tuning the fit, a House Wren popped up on the log where I had been sitting. He looked me over, rightly assumed I was not a threat, then began to chatter and chortle as only wrens can. Had this been spring I would have assumed he was warning me off his territory. But this is late summer and he’s probably heading south. So what was he vexed about? I took a few photos since he seemed to want to pose. That wasn’t it. He hopped back and forth with a sense of urgency; an important message for the big guy with the fuzzy face.
I listened closely to what he, and the voices in my head, were saying. I asked a few questions. Here is what the wren was telling me, I think: Anyone who wears his war wounds like a crown should not be followed. They are not leaders. Their defining moment is about them and death they have wrought. You cannot reason anything out of people when their opinions were not reasoned in. We can only hope they will die a natural death and their space on Planet Earth be occupied by children who do listen to the message of Barack Obama.

Listen to the wisdom of the wren