We headed out this morning to do one of our favorite, local hikes: the six mile, “Up and Over” around Roaring Run in Kiski Township, Armstrong County. I have written a long description of a July hike along this trail and published it on our “Between Stones and Trees” web site (http://www.psu.edu/dept/nkbiology/hike/roaringrun.html) under the title “Roaring Run.” Check out the full narrative some time! Here are, though, a few things we saw today.Most of the vegetation along the trail is still in winter mode. The trees are bare, and dry, brown leaves and last year’s brittle plant stems cover the ground. Everywhere you look grays blur into browns and back to grays. The few overwintering green ferns, though, break up this monotony. Christmas ferns, evergreen wood ferns, and polypody ferns add splashes of deep green across the forest floor. Two shrubs are also starting to show green leaves: multiflora rose and barberry. Both of these are exotic invasive species, and both are classified as “noxious weeds” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This time of year it is possible to really observe the extent of the distribution of these two species. Entire hillsides are greening with these destructive shrubs.
The red maples are in flower and are giving the forest canopy a glowing, reddish hue. Pepperroot and spring beauty are also starting to flower on the forest floor, and Dutchman’s breeches has flower buds. Spicebush on the ridge tops is just starting to open its yellow flowers but is still in its winter form in the deeper woods or down in the cooler ravines.
Flocks of chickadees are swarming about the red maples. They are singing flowing, melodic songs and sound more like warblers than “chick-a-dee-dee’s.” The male phoebes have returned from their winter migrations and are singing the boundaries of their mating territories and follow us along the trail sections that cross into their chosen areas. We startle a red tailed hawk out of a ridge top tree perch and watch its dark shadow disappear down the Kiski River valley. Pileated woodpeckers hammer loudly on distant trees and fly out of sight through the dense woods, cackling wildly.
The ridge top forest burned in 2002 and charred, dead trees still line the trail. Knotweed thrived after the fire and has built up a thick, continuous pile of dry, dead stems. Very few tree seedlings have been able to grow up through the dominating knotweed. The hillside looks like a tinder box waiting for a spark.
Several vernal pools were well filled with melt water and loaded with amphibian egg masses. Spring peepers were singing at one pool. Their song is the true sound of spring
As we hiked down from the ridge and waded across a very high Rattling Run creek just above Jackson’s Falls (and the water was COLD!!), we saw the first butterflies of the season. The Mourning Cloak is a good sized (2 to 4 inches across its wings), deep maroon butterfly with a stunning, creamy white wing border and a line of iridescent, blue spots. They overwinter as adults, hidden in protective spaces under loose tree bark and in small tree holes. They awaken from their winter torpor in the first warm days of spring and fly about seeking their favorite food sources (tree sap often found seeping from fresh woodpecker holes) and also mates. The second butterfly we saw was the tiny (1 inch across) Spring Azure. These stunningly beautiful butterflies have neon blue dorsal wing surfaces that seem to glow as they fly about. When they land, though, and close their wings, the blue color (and to all appearances, the butterfly itself!) disappears as the pale white under-wing coloration blends in to the surrounding browns and grays. The Spring Azure overwintered as a chrysalis and finished its metamorphosis into an adult even while snow still covered the ground.
We took a couple of “off-trail” forays on this hike and, sure enough, found that we had picked up some deer ticks. These are the ticks that carry the bacterium (Borrelia burgdorferi) that can cause Lyme’s Disease. It is a very good idea to stay on the trail while hiking and not venture out into the brush. It is also a VERY good idea to check yourself carefully after any hiking to make sure that you haven’t picked up any “friends.” It takes 12 to 24 hours for the tick to transfer the bacterium that causes Lyme’s Disease, so prompt removal of the tick is a very good idea!
Out on the Virtual Nature Trail web site (www.nk.psu.edu/naturetrail), by the way, are species pages about red maples, chickadees, deer ticks, Mourning cloaks, pileated woodpeckers, red tailed hawks, spring peepers, Christmas ferns, and spicebush. Check them out if you want to read more about these interesting species!
It rained off and on while we were on our hike but temperatures stayed in the lower 50’s. We got a bit damp but stayed very comfortable. Tonight, though, they are predicting rain mixed with snow. At least we were able to get out and see a little bit of spring before winter returns!