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

Look closely at this photograph. Note the crayfish, crawfish, crawdad, freshwater lobster, mudbug or yabbie. Whatever they are called, a large number of creatures find them delicious. 

Last week I featured a bald eagle, an apex predator centered in a bold, colorful photograph. This week we find an animal one might call omega prey. When my wife, Kathleen, approached this creature and took this photograph, she was impressed by its utter stillness and near invisibility. This is what you have to do to survive when everybody wants to eat you or use you for bait. Crayfish are found in many colors. The colors are always those of the surrounding environment. As Marisa Tomei said of the Joe Pesci character in My Cousin Vinny: “Yeah, you blend,” referring to the brash yankee’s attempt to appear southern. She was being sarcastic. Crayfish blend very well. 

It is the state crustacean of Louisiana. Only six states have their designated crustacean, Pennsylvania not among them.  Louisiana exports a hundred million pounds of crayfish per year. It has been a part of Cajun culture for centuries. The crayfish iconography in Louisiana, on tee shirts, tchotchkes and logos, is as ubiquitous as the Nittany Lion is locally. China recently supplanted Louisiana as the biggest crayfish exporter. I don’t know if China has a national crustacean. 

Crayfish are intolerant of human pollutants. Their presence in our creek indicates a healthy habitat. There are a few invasive species. The rusty crawfish has caused problems in several areas in North America, including the Susquehanna River. These invaders eat anything and reproduce prodigiously, driving out or killing many kinds of plants and animals, destroying an ecosystem’s healthy diversity. 

This particular crayfish just wants to be left alone to be quiet in our creek and not be used as bait, or be mistaken for a relative that looks similarly and destroys habitats.  As a consequence, crayfish watching has not caught on. There are no crayfish watchers’ clubs, despite their various species and colors. Kathleen took the photo and left the crayfish to its stillness.

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

This photograph of a bald eagle was taken by my cousin Brad Berger near the southern shore of Lake Erie, east of Toledo. I have used it with his permission because it is magnificent, and also because I’m apparently incapable of taking a photograph of a bird. I lack the equipment, skill, patience and stealth. 

I had intended to write about the bald (“bald” used in a now obsolete sense, meaning  “white”) eagle as a bird, not as the symbol of the United States, but I find this impossible. The symbolism is too pervasive. For instance, how does one take note that the Bald Eagle is an “apex predator,” at the top of the food chain, and not see a connection? When this bird became central to the Great Seal of the United States in 1782, it was to compare the new nation with the Roman Republic, which often used the golden eagle. 

The bald eagle was severely endangered in the late twentieth century because of over-hunting and pesticides. Environmental regulation and enforcement enabled it to be removed from the list of threatened animals in 2007. Sea eagles that require large areas of water and very high trees, they can be seen almost anywhere locally. Their habitat includes all the United States, most of Canada and northern Mexico. 

Their nests are the largest in North America: some eight feet wide, thirteen feet deep and weighing over a ton. Bald Eagles can soar as high as ten thousand feet and dive at one hundred miles per hour. These powerful birds have a weak, chirping whistle, like a sea gull. Reminds me of Mike Tyson, large punch and small voice. 

This gigantic raptor was a sacred Native American symbol long before it perched on the Great Seal. Its feathers were used on ceremonial pipes and adornments, as a symbol of courage, wisdom and strength. The continent’s first people saw this eagle not just as an apex predator. It was a messenger to their Great Spirit. What message might the bald eagle carry today?

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

When we moved to our part of the forest in 2012, we discovered that down the road was an entrance to one of the most beautiful hiking trails in the state. We often walked there, though I seldom ventured the whole distance, much of which is more like climbing than hiking. 

During the big storm of 2018, when many trees were felled, the trail was closed. One could see from the road the crosshatching of fallen trees amongst the bent and standing. It was dangerous and sad. 

This trail has been one of the last to be cleared, even partially. Violet the Corgi and I ventured in, after seeing the forest service working hard for several days.  We could enter as appreciative guests once again. A major factor in our enjoying life in the forest had been restored. 

The path was the same. In some areas it had been restored by cutting through massive, fallen trees. Just off the trail the result of the storm remained. A great many trees had fallen on a great many still standing, forming countless abstract configurations and designs. This photo shows a fallen tree that managed to weave itself back and forth with seemingly impossible precision. The vast entirety of the forest remained as the storm had left it. The path cleared by and for the humans was a tiny thread.  

The forest will bear the results of this storm forever. As the fallen timbers decay onto one another, knowledgeable hikers will comment, “All these fallen trees are from that big storm of 2018.” Or, there will be stronger storms that fall bigger trees, rendering what we now think of as “the big storm of 2018” not so big. 

While everything changes, many things cannot be undone. The trails can be reopened, but the trees fallen will never again stand. I can now imagine a storm so strong that our parks would never reopen. We cannot replace nature, we can only preserve. There are wounds too deep for humans to heal.  

 

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

I found this Io moth at the foot of my front door. I gently nudged it. It responded with faint movement. I noticed a smudge of yellow, moth-colored dust on the door window, and something slightly viscous. 

It is a sad and unintended consequence of our glass doors and sliders that we occasionally kill a bird or moth. As this moth was still alive, though barely, I left him alone. Violet the Corgi and I exited from the basement. 

A few hours later, I checked the moth. His wings had retracted, the colorful orbs not exposed. I nudged him again. I sensed no movement, left him alone. 

Still later I noted that his wings were again expanded. This time when I nudged him, he reached out and grasped my finger! He seemed to be saying, “I feel a little better now, but could you please get me out of this doorway. I feel dangerously exposed.” 

He very slowly climbed onto my hand. I moved him to the corner of the deck, shaded by a potted plant. He slowly left my hand for the shade. I checked later in the afternoon; he was gone. I searched and didn’t see him. I conclude that he flew away, with a story of danger and survival to tell his mates. 

The Io moth (pronounced EYE-oh, from a character in Greek mythology) exposes its colorful wings when threatened, to scare away predators. The male is yellow, the female much larger than the two-inch wing span of my visitor, and rust colored. They are nocturnal, so my friend felt threatened after his collision, finding himself in the daylight, severely injured. Note in this photo that either his left front leg or antenna is missing a segment. 

I feel terrible when our glass doors injure a creature. When I can help it out of its predicament, I am happy that I have limited the damage my presence in the forest causes to those who have resided here far longer. Moderating the damage, doing as little harm as possible, is literally the least I can do.

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. 

 

Additional information