Monday, February 27, 2012

Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area: Birds and Flowers

Middle Creek WMA is a migratory stopover for a number of birds, including Snow Geese and Tundra Swans.  When we checked the status of the migration, Middle Creek WMA's website said they had 55,000 Snow Geese and 1,000 Tundra Swans. None of the four of us are really birders, but it sounded pretty impressive.  For a change of pace, we decided to do a short hike, followed by some bird-watching at Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area (WMA), north of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  At least that was the plan.  We wound up doing some bird watching, hiking a shorter distance than planned, and then doing more bird watching.  The birds were that impressive.  We did sort of feel like imposters among all of the serious birders, but we learned a lot from listening to them.  One very nice woman let us view a Red-Tailed Hawk feeding on a carcass through her scope.  We also saw a Bald Eagle and Loons.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
Before the hike, we spent some time along the roadside checking out the Tundra Swans.  They are huge birds.  The Canada Geese in front of them looked small in comparison. 
There was a small gaggle of Snow Geese cruising around the bird-watching pavilion at Willow Point.  They didn't seem too bothered by all of the birders with very large scopes and cameras.
 This gaggle stayed up by the pavilion all day, dodging all of the people there to watch them.
 Dried flowers along one of the trails. 
The hike was pleasant.  It took us up on the ridge to the south of the reservoir.  We had lunch at small clearing overlooking the lake.  From there, we had a view of the snow geese feeding in a field just north of the lake.  They were more than a mile away and we could hear all of them.  All at once, they all lifted off of the field.  The dull noise of them feeding increased to a roar and the entire flock swirled up into the air. 
We descended off the ridge and came across these:  Simplocarpus foetidus (Skunk Cabbage).  It is the very first flower to emerge in the spring.  It is also several weeks early.  For comparison, last year, they emerged in mid-March in Washington, DC.  This is the yellow variety of S. foetidus, which I had not seen before.
 The red variety of S. feotidus.
 When we returned to the area with the swans, another awesome spectacle played out:  This Great Blue Heron was actively fishing.  It is about to snatch a fish out of the water in this shot.
 Click this picture to enlarge.  There is a bulge in the heron's gullet from the fish it caught.
 A Tundra Swan stretches its wings.  There were several species of ducks on the lake.  Unfortunately, none of us had a scope or lens large enough to get a good view of most of them.  These mallards give another view of just how big the swans are.
 The Snow Geese at Willow Point rising up, off the water shortly before sunset.
 Tundra Swans in flight.
 Snow Geese in flight.
 Flocks of Snow Geese returning to the lake for the night.
Sunset on Middle Creek Reservoir.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Solitude and Sinkholes on Tibbet Knob and Long Mountain Trail

This week's hike was in stark contrast to the frigid temperatures and snow of last week.  Yesterday, unless we were directly in the wind, it was warm enough to hike in short sleeves.  We did see patches of snow here and there and a little bit of ice on the way up to Tibbet Knob, but nothing large scale.  After leaving car on Trout Run Road at the north end of our hike, we started hiking from Wolf Gap.  Once across the road, the trail immediately begins the 1.5 mile climb to Tibbet Knob.  We had several hazy views of Mansanutten and Shenandoah National Park to the east.  The valleys were filled with smoke or haze and the mountains blue in the distance.  Near the top of Tibbet Knob, the trail is in the shadows and was covered by ice in several places, but nothing too difficult to work around. We paused at the top to enjoy the view up the Trout Run Valley and of Big Schloss.

On the way down the backside we met a family hiking the opposite direction, the only other hikers we would see all day.  We took a lunch break near the parking lot on road 681 and enjoyed the warm sunlight.  The 2.5 mile road walk on this hike didn't really excite me, but it passed pleasantly and quickly.  We joked about developing a back roads litter bingo game based on the unfortunate number of cans and bottles we saw along the road.  After 2.5 miles, we took a right on the Long Mountain Trail, which does not, actually, travel along Long Mountain.  It does, however, follow the valley below it. 

We descended for a couple of miles to the junction with the Trout Pond Trail.  This is where things got interesting.  After passing that, we noticed that we had crossed a couple of good-sized creeks that looked like they should empty into a good-sized stream just to our left (west) at the bottom of they valley.  Strangely, the lowest part of the valley looked perfectly dry.  We had noticed a few sinkholes along the way, several of them quite large.  When we got to the next stream, which also had a good-sized flow, Michael went to its mouth to investigate.  All of the water in the stream disappeared into the ground about 100 yards before it reached the bottom of the valley, which was filled with sinkholes.  It was pretty impressive to stand in the middle of the dry streambed and look upstream at small waterfalls flowing over the rocks.  I did try to take pictures of where the stream disappeared, but none of them captured it very well.

From there, we continued up the valley, crossing an impressive rock field.  I don't think anyone hikes that section of trail very often since the leaves weren't even broken up from foot traffic.  Eventually, we began the climb up over the ridge.  At some point the trail became a logging road and our pace picked up considerably.  After crossing the high point of the ridge, we descended to Trout Run.  There are beautiful cliffs on the left bank of Trout Run.  We reached the car at dusk.

This was a great hike, with lots of variety.  All said and done, we hiked 13.3 miles.  With the long road walk after Tibbet Knob and the logging roads near the end of the hike, it would be brutal in July and August.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Michael on top of Tibbet Knob.
 Bootshot looking north towards Big Schloss from Tibbet Knob.
 The trail south from Tibbet Knob
 Fungus and lichens on a tree.
 Mossy trail south of Tibbet Knob.
 A small waterfall.
 A decaying maple leaf in a creek.
 Bubbles in a stream.
 Knots in a downed tree.
 A small waterfall in the sun.
A puffball fungus.  I'm not sure which kind.
Colostoma cinnabarina (Stalked Puffballs).
Trout Run at the end of the hike.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rocky Knob and Quarry Gap in the Snow

We have been spoiled this winter by relatively warm, dry weekends.  Sunday was a reminder that it is, most-assuredly, still February, which is still, definitively, the middle of winter.  It was a chance to try out my new softshell pants.  We haven’t done a lot of hiking in Pennsylvania and one of my goals for this year is to explore the Keystone State more.  We chose a 12 mile loop in Michaux State Forest that included the Appalachian Trail.

We started at Locust Gap.  It was a balmy 25 degrees with three inches of snow on the ground.   Hiking north on the Locust Gap Trail, we were down in a valley, so we didn’t feel the full wrath of the wind.  That would come later.  The Locust Gap Trail follows an old roadbed to Long Pine Run Reservoir, which was partially frozen.  From there, we picked up the Beaver Trail, which skirts the north shore of the reservoir.  We actually did see one tree that had been partially cut by a beaver.  

After reaching a road, we crossed and picked up the Rocky Knob Trail.  It must be beautiful in June, because the trail is lined with Rhododenronds and Mountain Laurel.  The trail climbs gently to the top of the ridge, where we turned south on the Appalachian Trail.  The trail kept to the ridge for a little under a mile.  We crossed another road and began a steep descent to a beautiful creek and a Potomac Appalachian Trail cabin (I think).  We took a break on the porch of the cabin, which provided a nice dry place to sit out of the wind. From the cabin, the trail began the only serious climb of the entire loop, up to the top of the next ridge to the west.  On top of that ridge, we were in the full force of the cold wind.  At one point, we had to stop and adjust scarves or pull on facemasks because the wind was so sharp.  The sun came out very briefly a couple of times.  It didn’t diminish the wind, but it did boost morale.  

We took another brief break at the Quarry Gap Shelter and warmed our hands over some section hikers’ fire.  After that, it was just a flat mile to the car.  All in all, it was a nice, relatively easy hike.  

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Long Pine Run Reservoir
 The Beaver Trail through replanted pines.
 Our faithful canine escort, Nala.
 Untracked snow on the Rocky Knob Trail.
 Snow on Mountain Laurel leaves.
 Fungus on a dead tree.
Ice over a waterfall near the entrance to Caledonia State Park.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Snow on Mud Hole Gap

The name of this hike, Mud Hole Gap, isn’t especially inspiring, but after yesterday, I think it is one of the more under-rated hikes in the area.  Five of us started out from Elizabeth Furnace yesterday in the snow.  There was about an inch of it on the ground and on tree branches and flurries fell all morning, something we’ve seen far too little of this winter.  The woods were beautiful - black tree limbs against the white snow and gray sky - and silent in the way that only happens during and after a snowfall.  

We hiked up the Tuscarora Trail, which winds its way up to the top of the west ridge of Mansanutten.  It is an easy three mile (approximately) climb up to the junction with the Meneka Peak Trail, where we stopped for a lunch break.  There were a few partial views along the way, but they are probably occluded by leaves during the summer.  At the top of the ridge, we were basically in the clouds.  

After lunch, we started down the west side of the ridge.  The trail on on that side is steeper and rockier.  That combined with the snow, slowed me down a little bit, but it wasn’t too difficult.  The trail is lined with Mountain Laurel, so in June, it must be spectacular, but with snow pushing the branches down over the trail, the large bushes just added obstacles to our hike.  At the junction with the Mansanutten Trail, we met a small group of Boy Scouts out hiking to get ready for Philmont.  We turned south on the Mansanutten Trail, which follows a nearly flat old road for almost three miles, passing the Strasburg Reservoir along the way.  

We turned east when we reached the Mud Hole Gap Trail.  We had been following Little Passage Creek while we were on the Mansanutten Trail, but the terrain being flat, it was pretty featureless - and hemmed in by Mountain Laurel.  Shortly after we left the Mansanutten Trail, that changed.  The number and size of the waterfalls gradually increased as we proceeded further down the trail.  The rocks near the creek were covered in bright green mosses.  It warmed up and the snow was suddenly gone, leaving light mist above the creek, which made the scenery even more enchanting.  Little Passage Creek is one of the prettier ones that I've hiked near in a long time.

The trail turned away from the creek, once again, using an old roadbed.  The sun came out for a while and it warmed up nicely.  We took the Sidewinder Trail back to the Tuscaroora Trail, which led us back to the parking lot.  The snow was almost completely gone.  It turned out to be a very enjoyable, pretty hike.

Pictures (click to enlarge):
 Snow on the Tuscarora Trail.
 Looking towards the east ridge of Mansanutten from the Tuscarora Trail
 A pine cone in the snow.
 The Mansanutten Trail
 Strasburg Reservoir
 Stalked puffballs, which are a fungus.  These are about 2.5 inches tall.
 A series of small cascades on Little Passage Creek.
A waterfall on Little Passage Creek.
Lichens on the boulders near the creek.
A mound of moss.
Mud Hole Gap Trail near Little Passage Creek.  Note the lack of snow.