A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident

Sometimes you can’t see the trees for the forest. My eyes have glanced over this eastern red cedar countless times without really seeing it, until Topaz the Aussie gave it special attention. 

I noticed that it was unlike other trees nearby. Its bark was hairy and thin, revealing the wood beneath. That wood was reddish-brown and cedar, familiar from chests, shingles and closet fresheners. It has many limbs and these also have many, all pointed upward and bereft of needles except for its very top. 

It appeared to be dying and if it were, it might take some time, as these have been known to live more than nine hundred years. According to botany, it’s not a true cedar, but a juniper. Its berries feed birds and deer and are used in making gin. 

It is a pioneer species, among the first trees to repopulate damaged land, though this ability sometimes causes it to be considered invasive. Native Americans used cedar poles to mark territories and fashion bows and other implements of hunting and war. The Red Stick Creek Native American tribe, who fought Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson, took their name from the wood of this tree. Its later uses include pencils and building materials, as it is both lightweight and durable. 

It contains oil that freshens the air and in old rituals drove away evil spirits. It is a powerful allergen and causes the tree to burn easily, which makes it sometimes hazardous. 

This time of year, with leaves gone and snow intermittent, individual trees like this emerge. In sunlight while its neighbors are brown it is the deep red of a good ruby port. Its many branches are arranged in a complex harmony of angles. This may be an old or dying tree, but it is beautiful. 

Every day in the forest I walk by so many trees it is hard to notice any. When I lived in the city I walked by many people with a similar lack of focus. Overwhelmed by the vastness of both forest and city, I occasionally stumble upon beauty. 

The naïf will be on hiatus for a time and looks forward to his return.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

Until recently the dogs and I have been taking our morning constitutional in darkness. Last week was the first time the dawn greeted us. While the darkness was exquisitely quiet, the dawn brought a simple sound, “fee-bee.” For several minutes the bird had the entire forest as an audience for a solo. 

Then a different, more complex song joined in, and another and another. Soon the “fee-bee” was submerged by the pleasant cacophony of bird breakfast. The “fee-bee” singer was the early bird. In January he might not have gotten the worm, but perhaps the prime seat at the feeder. 

After our walk I searched for what bird sang “fee-bee.” This was as difficult as finding out which band did “Yesterday.” It is the simplest song of the Black Capped Chickadee, one of the most friendly and common of birds in our part of the forest. 

They are unafraid of humans and are among the most frequent visitors to bird feeders. Even I was able to get a photograph of a couple of them. They don’t migrate but lower their body temperatures to make our winters tolerable. They may not eat all the seeds they take from feeders, as they store food like squirrels and have a similarly excellent memory at finding what they hide. They often become the residents of holes created by pileated woodpeckers and also enjoy birdhouses. 

“Fee-bee” is the Black Capped Chickadee equivalent of doing scales. They have thirteen different calls. They cover a wide area and are often out of sight of each other, so they need a variety of calls to communicate. There is a danger call of “chick-a-dee-dee.” The more “dees” the greater the danger. The more complex calls are mating calls. The males have singing contests to decide dominance and mating rights. Chickadees raise or lower the pitch of their calls so as not to blend with ambient sounds. 

The Black Capped Chickadee shows that it is possible to be cute but formidable, friendly but not vulnerable, able to sing many welcoming tunes while also knowing when to sound an alarm.

Does invasive Japanese knotweed hurt the aquatic insects and bacteria of the Delaware River?

By. Amy King, Dr. Jeanne Kagle, and Dr. Gregory Moyer

Alliance for Watershed Education, Pocono Environmental Education Center, and Mansfield University of Pennsylvania

The Intense Invader

Have you seen tall, bamboo-like plants growing on roadsides and by the banks of a river near you and wondered what that weird plant was? That is most likely Japanese knotweed. Sad to say, but this plant is extremely invasive, growing up to 12 feet tall (Dyer at al. 2009). Japanese knotweed is virtually unstoppable, taking over what ever is in its path, not even to be stopped by asphalt. So far, no 100% effective solution has been found (Gerber et al. 2007). People have tried chemicals, burning, and cutting it. If the plant roots are moved and placed on the ground in any other location, it can grow (Pysek and Prach 1993; Weston et al. 2005). This invasive plant is extremely determined to grow and as a result it does not allow other plants to thrive, reducing the diversity of plants that can grow in their original, native habitat. If Japanese knotweed is not stopped, it can take over banks along rivers and streams and even our roadsides where they tend to grow (Dyer at al. 2009). Does it affect anything besides other plants? What about when the leaves fall into the streams nearby? That is one question that has not been readily explored. In a recent study done in the Susquehanna River, it was found that native American sycamore leaves decomposed at a significantly faster rate than Japanese knotweed (Fogelman et al. 2018). This may be an indication that the organisms responsible for the decomposition of the organic leaf matter, may be able to better decompose native species than non-native species. Aquatic organisms such as insects and bacteria play an important role in such decomposition (Webster and Benfield 1986; Cummin et al. 1989; Fogelman et al. 2018). In this research, we explored how much these insects and bacteria are actually affected by the presence of Japanese knotweed in the Delaware River, a river with invaded banks.  Three different kinds of leaf packs were submerged in the Delaware River, within the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River, for 29 days. Leaf packs were made of mesh produce bags that contained dried leaves within them, simulating a natural gathering of leaves against a rock in the river (Benfield 1996). The three different types of leaf packs consisted of only Japanese knotweed leaves or only native tree leaves, or a mixture of both. The leaf packs were randomly placed in two locations of the Delaware River. After the 29 days, the leaf packs were collected and from them, we gathered bacteria samples and counted the different types of macroinvertebrates (aquatic insects) found in them.

Bacteria

Some microbes, particularly bacteria, have the ability to break down cellulose, a compound often found in plant material. When they have that ability, they are given the term cellulolytic (Beguin 1993). By growing bacteria on a substance that contains cellulose, we are able to see what bacteria we collected that are cellulolytic (Mohanta 2014; Meddeb- Mouelhi et al. 2014). This tells us if the bacteria found in the leaf packs were taking part in the decomposition. We discovered that there was not a significant difference in the number of cellulolytic bacteria per different type of leaf pack (p-value= 0.53). This allows us to believe that the bacteria’s ability to degrade cellulose was not affected by Japanese knotweed and can therefore still utilize it as a source of nutrients.

Aquatic insects

The aquatic insects, also known as macroinvertebrates, were identified to the taxonomic order they belong in and counted per order. We used that information to calculate the diversity or variety of insects per leaf pack. The larger the diversity, the better the aquatic insects are faring. We found that there was not a significant difference in diversity per different type of leaf pack (p-value= 0.70). This allows us to believe that the aquatic insects have the ability to utilize Japanese knotweed as a possible shelter or even as a food resource.

What does this mean?

According to our results, it appears that bacteria and aquatic insects have to ability to adjust to the invasion of Japanese knotweed. As much as a nuisance as it is to the native plants in the area of invasion, the nearby bacteria and insects in the streams may be perfectly fine. This information may be important when considering future action against Japanese knotweed. The removal of Japanese knotweed might not be a priority over the removal of other invasive plants we are currently dealing with. Through this research, we were reassured that bacteria and aquatic insects have not been affected negatively by the Japanese knotweed that grows along the Delaware River.

Made Possible By:

This research was fully funded and supported by the Alliance for Watershed Education and the Pocono Environmental Education Center, approved by the National Park Service, and supported by Dr. Kagle and Dr. Moyer of Mansfield University of Pennsylvania.

References

Beguin P, Aubert JP. 1994. The biological degradation of cellulose. FEMS Microbiology Reviews. 13: 25- 58.

Benfield EF. 1996. Leaf Breakdown in Stream Ecosystems in Methods in Stream Ecology. Academic Press.

Bottollier-Curtet M, Charcosset J, Planty-Tabacchi A, Tabacchi E. 2011. Degradation of native and exotic riparian plant leaf litter in a floodplain pond. Freshw Biol. 56:1798–1810.

Callaway RM, Ridenour WM. 2004. Novel weapons: invasive success and the evolution of increased competitive ability. Front Ecol Environ. 2:436–443.

Cummins KW, Klug MJ. 1979. Feeding ecology of stream invertebrates. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. 10: 147-172.

Dyer JM, Cowell CM. 2009. Invasive Species and the Resiliency of a Riparian Environment. Invasive Plants and Forest Ecosystems.

Fogelman KJ, Bilger MD, Holt JR, Matlaga DP. 2018. Decomposition and benthic macroinvertebrate communities of exotic Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) and American sycamore (Platanus occidentalus) detritus within the Susquehanna River. Freshw Biol. 33(1): 299-310.

Gerber E, Krebs C, Murrell C, Moretti M, Rocklin R, Schaffner U. 2008. Exotic invasive knotweeds (Fallopia spp.) negatively affect native plant and invertebrate assemblages in European riparian habitats. Biological Conservation. 141: 646-654.

Meddeb- Mouelhi F, Mosian JK, Beauregard M. 2014. A comparison of plate assay methods for detecting extracellular cellulase and xylanase activity. Enzyme and Microbial Technology. 66: 16-19.

Medina-Villar S, Alonso A, Vazquez de Aldana BR, Perez-Corona E, Castro-D ıez P. 2015. Decomposition and biological colonization of native and exotic leaf litter in a Central Spain stream. Limnetica. 34:293–310.

Mohanta YK. 2014. Isolation of Cellulose- Degrading Actinomycetes and Evaluation of their Cellulolytic Potential. Bio engineering and Bioscience. 2(1): 1-5.

Pysek P, Prach K. 1993. Plant invasions and the role of riparian habitats: A comparison of fours species alien to central Europe, J. Biogeogr. 20: 413.

Webster JR, Benfield EF. 1986. Vascular plant breakdown in freshwater ecosystems. Ann Rev Ecol Syst. 17:567–594.

 

 

Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

I walk through the same part of the forest almost every day. I noticed that the higher portion of this tree had fallen. I saw the fresh, clean area where it had broken, and the part that was still upright. There has been little new deadfall since the big storm two years ago. 

Deadfall had been a new word to me when I started writing this blog. I didn’t know the forest. I would not have recognized the woodpecker’s fresh drilling upon the log, or appreciated the new environment for fungus, insects and small mammals it will provide. I examined the fallen tree. Why did it fall in this direction? Was there structural weakness, storm damage? 

To my surprise, I may no longer be a naïf in the forest, that is, an innocent or ignoramus, depending on the kindness of one’s judgment.  After more than a year of observing the forest my perception has sharpened. I no longer see the forest with completely new eyes. The seasons are more apparent to me, the interdependent lives of forest dwellers more meaningful. 

I am far from an expert. Perhaps I have gone from ignorance to what Zen Buddhism calls “beginner’s mind.” Suzuki Roshi said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” The naïf doesn’t see the path. The beginner sees it and has just begun the journey. The expert knows the path so well the beauty of the journey is diminished. Beginner’s mind helps sharpen one’s perception, challenges prejudices and obviates the tendency to quit in the face of new challenges. I’ll keep the name of the bog, however, as my capacity to get lost even in familiar territory, literally or figuratively, is vast. 

The forest provides endless variety to those who have eyes to see. Beginner’s mind is useful whenever we find ourselves incapacitated by the limits of our experience or expectations. The path through the forest helps me awaken to possibilities elsewhere in life. A newly fallen tree is notable, and any moment teachable.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

A pair of piliated woodpeckers visited our bird feeders for several days on the cusp between fall and winter, favoring the suet. Soon their work appeared on nearby stumps and deadfall. Most prominent among them was this shadow box. It is two feet above ground, approximately ten inches by five. The photo is overexposed to reveal the dark interior. 

“This reminds of something Gaudi might have designed,” I said to Kathleen. 

“Perhaps cave dwellings in the side of a mountain, or a grotto,” she added. 

Antoni Gaudi, the great Catalan architect of the first quarter of the twentieth century, was a serious student of nature. The caves of Montserrat, Collbato and Mallorca were major influences. His style is unique and instantly recognizable, even as it is reflected in the work of a woodpecker. He began as a typical if gifted modern architect. His passion for natural forms that flowed and defied conventions created a style impossible to imitate. His structures are unmistakable. 

Most woodpecker holes are hollowed. There was something about this tree that caused parts of its interior to be harder to penetrate than others. The rapid fire of woodpecker beak worked around the harder places, a natural excavation seeking the more yielding sections of a natural media. The result is this flowing pattern. The wood seems to be dripping as it forms openings and lattices, as does the stonework of Gaudi’s church of Sangrada Familia in Barcelona. The caves that inspired Gaudi also flowed and dripped. 

What connects Gaudi’s church, the woodpecker’s stump and the caves? The human’s brain, the bird’s beak and the natural elements at work over eons created them. This is like saying that a chisel created Michelangelo’s David. Some greater common element was working through the chisel, the hand of the artist, his love for the model and his devotion to its expression. 

This creative force has many names and no name. The caves, the church and the hole in the stump are so similar the same artist seems to have created all three.

 

 

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