Category Archives: Hiking

To Acadia

Jordan Pond, Acadia National Park (photo by Doug Lemke via Shutterstock)

Hello from Maine.  We’re at Acadia National Park as usual at this time of year. 

I’m hoping to see some new birds and new places.  Will it be a good year for a warbler “fallout?”  Will the crossbills be at Acadia this fall?  What new sea birds will I see on the Whale Watch?  Will I finally see a moose?  (Can you believe I’ve never seen one in 26 years of going to Maine?)

We plan to hike some new trails and visit some new-to-us towns.  I’ll still be blogging while I’m here but less frequently.  After all, it’s a vacation!

(photo by Doug Lemke via Shutterstock)

Happiness is a Clear Sky

Ring-necked Ducks (photo by Kim Steininger)

This morning at dawn it was cloudy again – actually, I’d call it overcast – but I could see clear skies to the north and west so I figured we’d have a sunny day soon.  Two hours later it was still oppressively gray and the good weather was just as far away as before.

Since the edge of the clouds hadn’t moved I decided it was time for me to move out from under them so I headed north to Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park.  Reports on Friday said there were tundra swans at Porter’s Cove and though I didn’t expect to find them two days later, I went there anyway.  Halfway to the park I passed the cloud boundary.  Clear skies ahead.

What a great day for a hike!  I headed into the woods, picking my way through the mud to the sound of spring peepers.  Deep in the woods I encountered a red-shouldered hawk calling and doing such obvious flight displays that I found its nest.

The trail ended at a campground so I headed back.  To avoid the mud I tried a hilltop path that started off in the right direction but ended abruptly in a wall of brambles in the middle of nowhere.  Where am I now?  Maybe I’m lost.  I retraced my steps – over the mud – to Porter’s Cove.

I was rewarded with a view of two beautiful white birds across the water.  Swans, but not tundras.  It was pair of trumpeters, one of whom was banded.  Trumpeter swans were reintroduced in Ohio so perhaps that’s where these came from.  I hope they stay to nest.

As a further reward I sat by the lake in the sunshine and scanned the distant birds so hard to see through the heat shimmer.  Slowly I identified ring-necked ducks (pictured here), ruddy ducks, hooded mergansers, buffleheads, a common merganser, a pair of American wigeons.

At 5:00pm a huge flock of scaup rose from the lake, circled up and headed north, their bodies winking white in the clear blue sky.

Back home in Pittsburgh the clouds remained.  The western horizon showed a gleam of light as the sun set.  Only three minutes of sunshine at home today and then it was night.   So glad I went to the lake!

(photo of ring-necked ducks by Kim Steininger)

Speaking of Fritos

Fritos corn chips (photo from Frito-Lay)When I mentioned gulls and Fritos yesterday I remembered a story that has nothing to do with birds but a lot to do with hiking.

Several years ago I attended the Keystone Trails Association spring meeting in Renovo, PA.  KTA is an association of hikers dedicated to promoting hiking and preserving trails in Pennsylvania.  If you’ve hiked in this state, chances are you’ve used a trail maintained by KTA volunteers.

KTA’s biannual meetings are held in different regions throughout the state and always include a selection of hikes in the local area so you can learn new trails and get to know other members. 

That Saturday I chose a day-long hike on the Donut Hole Trail with twenty others.  As we hiked through the beautiful forest we chatted and swapped stories.  Then we stopped for a break and someone pulled out a bag of Fritos.

“Did you know Fritos are the perfect hiking accessory?” said one of the seasoned hikers.  “Not only do they maintain their shape in your backpack and give you energy on the trail, but if you’re cold you can burn them.  They’re excellent tinder for a campfire.”

When I got home I couldn’t resist lighting one.  He was right; it burned like a candle.  The fat is the wax, the corn is the wick.  

Dinner or tinder.  Eat or heat.

(photo from Frito-Lay)

Winter Hike

Winter at Moraine State Park (photo by Kate St. John)I like to hike in winter when it’s not too cold.  The woods are open after the leaves have fallen and I can see new places to explore.  Even better, I can go off trail without worrying I’ll get lost because I can follow my own tracks in the snow back to the car.

Yesterday I explored Porters Cove at Moraine State Park.  Most of the time I stayed on marked trails (shown here) but I was tempted to follow someone else’s footprints into the woods.  Where were they going?  And why?

The tracks looked to be a day old and they went both ways – out and back – so I knew I wouldn’t encounter the person if I followed them.  There’s no hunting on Sundays but I put on my blaze orange vest and hat just in case and set off.

From the start the tracks wove in and out.  The man was hunting.  Perhaps he too was tracking something but what I could not tell.  His wanderings were tiring me so I made my own straight trail.  That’s when I discovered something the man didn’t see – a coyote’s den in the hollow of a huge old oak.  The animal had left the den at least a day before the man walked by.  Eastern coyotes survive by carefully avoiding human contact.

As I examined the coyote’s tracks I smelled a skunk.  What’s this?!  Just a patch of skunk cabbage I’d inadvertently crushed underfoot.  Skunk cabbage not only survives the winter but is one of the first to sprout in the spring because it can generate inner temperatures 35 degrees warmer than the air.  Each plant in this patch had melted the snow around it.

I resumed the hunter’s trail.  At this point he was walking straight through the woods and had made the trip twice.  I paused at the edge of a copse of trees.  For some reason I didn’t want to proceed.  I looked ahead and saw his tree stand erected for deer season.  Best not to go near it.  Interesting that my intuition said “stop” before I got there.

On the way back I took a detour to walk near the lake.  As I approached I heard a hissing, pinging sound.  The lake had started to freeze and a thin layer of clear ice rolled on top of the waves.  The ice was “singing.”

Way cool.

(photo by Kate St. John)

If a tree falls in the forest…

Fallen tree (photo by Kate St. John)…does it make a sound?

You bet it does!

On Sunday night, as the remnants of Hurricane Ike passed through western Pennsylvania, too many of us heard the noise of falling trees.  No rain fell but the wind gusted from 65 to 79 miles per hour.

Just that afternoon I had hiked the Glacier Ridge Trail at Moraine State Park.  At that point the weather was already unpleasant – 86 degrees and humid with winds over 30mph.

In the distance I heard the crack of a rifle shot, then several rapid shots followed by the sound of cannon.  It wasn’t gunfire.  Somewhere out of sight, a tree fell in the forest.

I was lucky I wasn’t close enough to see that tree fall.  When we were in Maine I learned about widow makers from my cousin John.  They’re dead limbs that are about to fall or have fallen partway and are hanging overhead.  Just a touch of wind is enough to send them hurtling to the ground.

Now that I knew what I was looking at, these trees over the trail made me nervous.  (I took their picture anyway).  The stronger the wind got, the sooner I wanted to be out of the woods so I picked up my pace.

Later that night when the wind howled against our house I wondered about the flock of wood thrushes I’d found in a thicket near these broken trees.   I hope they made it through the storm.

On the way to paradise

Here we are – on our way to Acadia National Park

Back in 1983 my husband and I didn’t imagine we’d love Maine so much that we’d come back to Acadia every year.  Now on our 25th visit it’s like coming home.  We’re “regulars” at the Harbourside Inn where we’re welcomed like family and catch up with the many friends we’ve made over the years.

We’ve seen every kind of weather from sunny and cool to a week of dense fog.  The only awful time was The Year of Four Hurricanes when the remnants of Edouard, Fran, Gustav and Hortense brought one rain storm after the other.  It’s a mighty good record that we had to spend our vacation indoors only once.

For a birder and hiker like me, Acadia is paradise.  There are woodland, seaside and mountain trails, views of the ocean from every angle and groomed carriage paths for bicycling, horseback riding and easy walking.  Canoeing and kayaking are popular on the lakes, sea kayaking on the ocean.

September is migration time for many birds.  When the wind’s from the north I visit the Acadia Hawk Watch on Cadillac Mountain.  When the weather’s rainy I sometimes encounter a warbler fallout – tiny birds feeding just an arm’s length away – because the weather forced them to land. 

Last year I went on a Whale Watch and I saw a “life bird” from Antarctica:  a south polar skua.   And I always find a peregrine falcon somewhere on the island, either at the Hawk Watch or on one of the seaside cliffs.  Several pairs of peregrines nest on the island, though nesting season is long over by the time we arrive.

Sometimes people ask me, “How can you vacation at the same place every year?”  True, it reduces our ability to travel widely but our time at Acadia is so restful that we won’t give it up.  The highest accolade we can give to a day is to say, “It’s just like Maine.”

(I took this photo of Otter Cliff many years ago.)

I am not a turkey

Blaze Orange (photo by Rick St. John)Yesterday I hiked at Quebec Run Wild Area in Fayette County.  The site is 7,441 acres at the top of Chestnut Ridge eastward down the mountain, so far south it’s nearly in West Virginia.

Though there is no hunting on Sundays in Pennsylvania, I forgot it was Sunday when I heard gunfire in the distance.  Just to be safe I draped my hat in blaze orange and put on my blaze orange vest. 

May is Spring Gobbler season in which hunters can shoot “bearded” tom turkeys.  Because wild turkeys can see colors, turkey hunters dress in camouflage, hide in the underbrush and use hen-turkey calls to attract the males toward them.  I’m out looking for birds so I might be attracted to the sound of turkeys, too.  Better safe than sorry.

I didn’t encounter any hunters but my blaze orange had an unintended side effect.

Everywhere I went, male and female scarlet tanagers came close to check me out.  When I sat down they came out of the treetops to see me.  One male tanager didn’t even sing.  He just opened his beak at me in a threatening way.

Duh!  I looked like a scarlet tanager!  Of course they were curious about me. 

No, I am not a wild turkey.  I am not a scarlet tanager either.            (Click on the picture my husband took of me to see a photo of a real scarlet tanager.)

Close Encounters

Louisiana Waterthrush (photo fromChuck Tague)

If you want to see birds up close, go to where the birds are, sit down on the ground and eat your lunch. 

I’m not kidding!  But first you have to understand the context.

I was prepared for rain last Sunday so I was wearing a big floppy hat and a yellow rain slicker over my backpack.  This gave me a big head and a hunchbacked look.

I was in one of the best spring birding places in Pennsylvania:  Enlow Fork, literally the “Enlow Fork of Wheeling Creek” which forms the border between Washington and Greene counties, almost in West Virginia. 

I was the only person there – even the fishermen weren’t on the scene – and the sky looked ominous.  It rained off and on.

I moved slowly.  The hungier I got, the slower I moved.  When it rained at lunchtime, I took shelter at the second bridge and opened my crinkly lunch bag.  Imagine a bird’s perspective:  a creeping yellow hunchback with a floppy green head making crinkly sounds.  How intriguing!

Zip!  A yellow-throated warbler flew past my left shoulder, stopped on the bridge for a quick glance and he was gone.

Chink!  A Louisiana waterthrush, pictured above by Chuck Tague, perched across the creek and sang a challenge to me.  How dare something so weird sit in his territory!

The rain came down harder.  I crept into better shelter and the Louisiana Waterthrush flew up for a better look.  Perched on the bridge just above eye level, he took a bath in the rain.  Awesome!

Bonus sightings:

Muskrat (photo by Chuck Tague)While standing above a small pond, I saw a muskrat swim by carrying leaves.  He went back and forth several times without noticing me. 

Finally I couldn’t stand the suspense.  Animals often recognize a human voice faster than a human shape, so I spoke to the muskrat.  “Hello, Muskrat.”  He froze immediately, feet splayed out, but he kept drifting forward.  Ha!  He’s not hidden with those waves moving out ahead of him! 

Chuck Tague tells me muskrats are oblivious.  This one proved it.

Virginia Bluebells blooming at Enlow Fork, April 20, 2008

And finally, though Enlow Fork is known for its wildflowers the rain kept most of them closed.  Not so with the Virginia Bluebells as you can see in this photo from my cellphone.

So if you want to see birds up close, put on a big floppy hat, and sit in the rain.  It works for me!


Along the Armstrong Trail

Allegheny River at Rosston, Armstrong County, Mar 23, 2008Hiking is one of my favorite pastimes combining exercise, the outdoors, peace and quiet, and birds.  Winter weather and lousy footing kept me out of the woods for the past few months so I’ve been itching to get out for a real hike.

Last weekend I kicked off hiking season with a visit to the Armstrong Trail at Rosston.  It was so beautiful I had to take this picture. 

The Armstrong Trail runs for 52.5 miles along the Allegheny River from Schenley to East Brady on the path of a former rail line.  I hiked two sections:  Rosston to Logansport and Kelly to Godfrey.   Here the trail is maintained but rough and often paved with coal dust, a heritage of its coal-mining past.

Rosston and Logansport were especially good for birds.  In early spring migrating waterfowl find the river a welcome stopover when the lakes are frozen.  Last weekend Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park was still 90% frozen so no wonder the birds were at the river.

At Rosston, Crooked Creek empties into the Allegheny and is protected by a downstream island.  I could see wood ducks and ring-necked ducks feeding in the island shallows. 

Abandoned beehive coke ovens, Kelly Station, PA, March 24, 2008The river was high and the flats at Logansport were flooded so the trees were up to their ankles in water.  Here I found many more wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, a gadwall and a few horned grebes.  One horned grebe was so close I could see his red eyes.

A curious part of the landscape at Kelly and Godfrey are the abandoned 1850’s beehive coke ovens.  They look like a line of big holes in the forested hillside (pictured at right).

It was very quiet on the trail last weekend but I could tell by the tire tracks and the signs saying “No ATVs” that ATVs use the trail extensively and are unwelcome.  Sadly, this means I won’t be visiting the trail when the weather is good and the ATVs come out.