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  

Wow! That’s a cool bug. I wonder what kind? I think I’ll do a web search for “black insect with white spots.” There are endless possibilities. Wait, here’s a candidate. Let me click on the site. What does it say? 

Hum, I seem to have a Citrus Longhorn beetle here. Let’s find out more. Oh, my God! These are a very invasive and destructive species! Apparently an infestation can eat through a forest and leave a pile of chips. They are not listed as being found in Pennsylvania, but have been called “an unprecedented threat to the environment.” 

This presents some alternatives. I could conclude that this is a Citrus Longhorn and immediately contact the Forest Service and County Extension and warn of this invasion! The sooner they know of this profound threat, the better they can fight it. It would be my civic duty. 

Or, I could consider the possibility that I have not made the first Pennsylvania sighting of our insect overlords and do more research. I went deeper into the searches for Citrus Longhorn and found a  “discerning similar beetles from one another” site. Does your bug have a prominent white spot right below what one might call the middle of its neck? If so, you probably have a White Spotted Pine Sawyer. It is often mistaken for a Citrus Longhorn, but has this spot.  The Longhorn does not. 

The White Spotted Pine Sawyer enjoys white pine, so prevalent here, but only goes for dead or dying trees and is therefore considered a “minor pest.” It usually shows up after Memorial Day through July. This is their season. 

Now that I know the secret of the white spot, I will never again mistake a White Spotted Pine Sawyer for a Citrus Longhorn. Only a naïf in the forest would do that, not an experienced observer like myself, whose expertise in beetle identification now extends to two.  

It does show the importance of knowing the difference between a minor pest and an unprecedented threat. 


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

This is a Fowler’s Toad. We know it is a toad and not a frog, because it has short, thick legs that seem to squat, and warts, while frogs’ legs are longer, thinner and smooth. The name comes from Samuel Fowler, a Massachusetts naturalist who lived from 1800-1888. 

Having a toad, or any animal named after you, is quite an honor. There are strict rules about naming, among them that nothing rude or vulgar is allowed. Also, one may not name a plant or animal after one’s self, which is considered selfish and crude. 

Fowler’s toads are small, two or three inches long. Their call sounds something like the bleat of a sheep and lasts up to four seconds. After a rainy summer evening a female may lay as many as twenty-five thousand eggs at once. 

For several years I sprayed a concoction of 30% vinegar on the many invasive plants that constantly encroach my part of the forest. The thing I hated most about spraying is these frogs ran away, sometimes in pain, as they could not always avoid the spray. I tried not to think about this collateral damage and focused on the greater good of conquering the invasion of the stilt grass. 

It took a few years, but I finally got it. The spray wasn’t working. It killed the tops but not the roots. The plants kept coming. I had injured, perhaps killed, toads and other little creatures in the interest of my garden hegemony. 

No more. I will now pull the offending plants out by the roots, one by one, hour by hour. I will prevail. Maybe. 

What I will not do is hurt any more toads. I took this photo knowing the worst I was doing is disturbing a nap. I am happy they have no more reason to run from me, or be scared away by my approach. 

It is good to quit doing harm, especially when that harm is rationalized as necessary to maintain dominance. It is better to live with than to live over.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

The previous photos for this blog have been literal. If I wrote about a bug, the photograph was of the bug. This week is different. The photo is intended to be representative of “peace and quiet.” It was taken just beyond my back yard. 

I didn’t know how to photograph “peace and quiet” other than to show a place where I find it. “Peace and quiet” is a relative term. When I lived in Jersey City and emerged from the PATH train after a day in Manhattan, I was always appreciative of the peace and quiet that greeted me. Part of the attraction of the forest for city dwellers is peace and quiet. One of the joys of living here is that the peace and quiet is always with me. 

An unintended consequence of living more quietly is greater awareness and sensitivity when that quiet is disrupted. While I once ignored the noise of the traffic heading for the Holland Tunnel, I now sometimes react to a single truck or motorcycle announcing its presence on our lightly traveled road. In the spring, the early birds seem to raise quite a racket. I am sensitive when a new neighborhood leaf blower, chain saw or all-terrain vehicle reports. 

I seldom react to gunfire, however. It is as much a part of the forest’s soundtrack as woodpeckers. It has a seasonal arc and rises during holidays. Hearing dozens of shots here is less ominous than a single pistol shot in Jersey City. 

The quiet of the forest integrates the senses. Irish poet Robert Lynd wrote, “In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.” As I learn to walk slowly and quietly through the forest, I become more aware of what I am seeing, touching: this rough bark and that smooth, damp moss, the largest trees and smallest insects. I embrace the near silence and recoil when some random human invention a quarter-mile distant interrupts it. If I have failed to become part of the silence, at least I honor its passing.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

This aging dandelion head at the edge of the forest gleamed like a thousand points of light. The dandelion is everybody’s first flower. Is there anybody in America who had a mother that didn’t give a bouquet of dandelions to her, received as though they were rare and fragile orchids? 

Later our opinion changes. The dandelion degenerates from flower to weed, the curse of suburbanites yearning for the perfect lawn. Yet forest dwellers know them as an herb, a bitter leaf of high nutritional and medicinal value. Unlike some plants, they are even healthy for dogs, improving canine digestion. 

There is nothing biological to the terms “flower,” “weed,” or “herb.” A dandelion can be called any of these, depending on the eye of the beholder and the role the dandelion has in the beholder’s world. One thing it is not, however, is an invasive plant. 

Invasive plants displace natives, creating a monoculture of their own species. They deplete the soil and reduce plant diversity, which in turn limits the ability of an area to support a diversity of food for animals. 

Dandelions do none of these things. Dandelions are technically natives of Eurasia. Their light, fuzzy seeds are so easily carried through air that they have made homes almost everywhere. They aerate the earth, making growth easier for other plants. They reduce erosion. Their deep roots mine minerals, bringing them closer to the surface and available to other plants. 

They appear in early spring, which is also the best time to gather them for food, as the earlier in their growing season, the less bitter the leaves. Larger leaves that grow upward will be less bitter than those that grow horizontally. Shaded plants will also be more palatable, as sunlight stimulates growth, which increases bitterness. 

A dandelion may look out of place on a putting green, but is at home and welcome in the forest. A plant that increases diversity and makes its neighbors healthier should not be mistaken for an invader. To do so discredits the observer, not the plant.

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

The first robin of spring and the first flower are not spring’s only harbingers. There is also the first mosquito, the first tic, the first big spider. This one was about three inches from end to end. I disturbed her when I removed the deck chair covers from their bin. She scurried away. 

I think she is a dark fishing spider, Dolomedes tenebrosus. The females are much larger and, like many spiders, sometimes kill and eat the males, depending whether, during courtship, she is more in need of a mate or a meal. Timing is everything. 

Fishing spiders usually dwell near water and hunt for small aquatic life. They can swim under water or, not miraculously in their case, walk upon it. What is unusual about tenebrosus is it is a fishing spider that doesn’t fish. She is a water spider that lives in the forest, the only one of over a hundred varieties of Dolomedes to do so. 

They live in forests near human dwellings, and frequently find themselves indoors. They appear in April and begin hibernation in the fall. Their bite is slightly venomous, like a bee’s. They are timid and run from humans, as this one did. They eat various insects and burrow into the ground if threatened. 

I respect a fishing spider that doesn’t fish, that has adapted to a different environment from that of her relatives. At some evolutionary point did tenebrosus decide that walking on water was okay, but wanted some shade? What random complexity of evolution brought this about? Did some of the dark fishing spiders wander too far from the river and had to find food and shelter among the trees, some succeeding? 

I read something more intentional into it. I imagine a spider finding the fishing life too complex, too busy. Too many other spiders competed for too few insects. The river might have been a bad influence on spiderlings.  Like Dolomedes tenebrosus, I am not a natural in the forest, yet we both survive by adapting when we can, scurrying away when we must.

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