This past Thursday afternoon nine students and an intrepid staff member (thanks, Jim!) joined me out on the campus nature trail for a clean-up event. It was a great way to mark the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. I want to thank everyone who helped and also wanted to let everyone know that the trail is now in great shape! The fallen and leaning trees have been cut and hauled to the log pile, and the multiflora rose stems and the raspberry canes (the “jaggers” we have all known (and hated) since our childhoods!) have been cut back from the trail passage so hiking without tearing and rending of either clothes or flesh is now possible. Please, come out and enjoy the quiet and the richness of our trail!Along the trail many spring wildflowers are in bloom (including purple trillium, spring beauty, rue anemone, several types of violets, and more). The forest floor is also filled with the flat, green “umbrella” leaves of Mayapple. I also found some wild turkey feathers on the trail and heard the pileated woodpeckers pounding on some trees high up in the canopy. It was wonderful to hear these birds again! We have had a nesting pair of these woodpeckers out on the trail each year for the past fifteen years.
There was a great deal of tree damage along the trail from this past winter’s storms. Most of the damaged trees were black pines that had been weakened by habitat stresses and shading pressures from the rapidly growing white ashes and yellow poplars. The loss of these pines is an expected consequence of the on-going successional changes occurring in our maturing woods. One other tree, though, that came down unexpectedly was one of the three, old white oaks that dominate the nature trail canopy. This oak had stood at the junction of the “Pine” and “Ravine” trails and was between 250 and 300 years old. It had a broad, heavily limbed crown that shaded and influenced a large area of the forest floor. It was also a great source of acorns that fed wildlife from chipmunks to turkeys to white-tailed deer. This impressive oak was the tree that we selected to serve as the “cover tree” for our Nature Trail brochures. Its photograph on the Virtual Nature Trail web site’s “White Oak Species Page” is a shot straight up the side of the tree into the rich tangle of tall, leafy branches. Sometime in the winter the winds and possibly the weight accumulation of ice and snow on these branches broke this great tree in half.
This past Saturday, Deborah and went out to the tiny town of Schenley (population 74) which is situated at the junction of the Kiskiminetas and the Allegheny Rivers. We were scouting out car drop spots for our upcoming sectional hike of the Baker Trail. Schenley is the site of the former Schenley Distillery which, as one web site beautifully put it, from the end of prohibition to 1978 produced countless bottles of one of the country’s finest rye whiskeys. There are grain elevators still standing and large tanks that used to store the whiskey. Several of the buildings are also still intact and currently house a number of other small businesses and manufacturing concerns. There is a feeling in the industrial park, though, of things long past, and forgotten activity.
The Baker Trail comes across the Kiskiminetas River on a railroad bridge that is marked on the trail guide and on the iron of the bridge as a non-pedestrian structure. “No Hiking” is posted in letters in bright yellow paint on the uprights of the bridge. The couple of hundred yards of the bridge look hard (but intriguingly possible) to walk, but we will respect the intent of the guide and the sign. It’s a shame that this impediment divides the trail so close to its southern starting point. The Baker Trail originally began in Aspinwall but has been historically eroded northward due to obstructions and un-resolvable right of way disputes. I hope that this railroad bridge isn’t just another step in the steady loss of this trail.
The short stretch of the Baker Trail past Schenley is densely lined with Tree of Heaven (Allianthus altissima), a beautifully named but incredibly invasive and destructive exotic plant that was imported from China back in the late 18th Century. Tree of Heaven was planted as both a garden ornamental and as an extremely tolerant urban street tree. Unfortunately, the tree’s rapid growth rate, its ability to produce phytotoxic chemicals, and its prodigious yearly production of seeds has caused it to become a noxious invasive tree that is both poisoning and out completing a wide array of important, nature species. The Tree of Heaven thicket bordering the crumbling industrial buildings is a snapshot of two visions of destructive human activity.
Back home after our short scouting expedition we were thrilled to see an old friend at our bird feeders: the Eastern Towhee. This beautiful little bird is regularly observed through the spring and summer in the trees that border the soccer field just outside the boundaries of the Penn State New Kensington Nature Trail, but we had not seen him before last year around our house in southern Armstrong County. The towhee is a versatile omnivore that eats fruit, seed, insects, and many other types of invertebrates. Towhees are described as “short distance,” seasonal migrators throughout our area, but may, if there is a reliable food supply, remain in a given site the year round. An overwintering towhee surviving on birdfeeder seed was observed not far from campus by a former student (C. Hone, Personal Comm.). Towhee numbers are declining throughout its range due in part to brown headed cowbird nest parasitism and, possibly, due to direct competition with European starlings for food. It was wonderful to see him back!