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 

This is the biggest snail I’ve ever seen in the wild, if the sidewalk behind the Kalypso Bar in Honalei, Kauai can be considered wild. It was moving rapidly, by snail standards, across the sidewalk. Did it need help? It was about 8 inches long, not likely to be ignored.  As I bent down for a better look, it seemed to look up at me and say, “No problem, buddy, I got it together.” A snail with an attitude. 

The attitude is justified. It is a Giant African Snail, introduced to Hawaii in the 1930s by Japanese immigrants to decorate gardens and become pets. It is among the most invasive species on the island and in fact, the world. It is a tireless and voracious eater of all kinds of plants. Indoors it will eat plaster and other construction material, weakening buildings. It is on high quarantine in the US. 

I was wise not to touch it. Its slime can cause meningitis in humans. Its variegated shell is among the hardest on earth. It is a hermaphrodite, able to manifest both genders. When mating, the larger snail becomes female to accommodate the extra energy needed to reproduce. It has been kept in many cultures as both food and pet because they can live as long as ten years, and, as I discovered when face to face with this guy, can have quite a personality. 

Invasive species, both plant and animal, are a terrible problem on Kauai. Only about five percent of the plants on the island are native. Many new species adapt to the environment and are not problem, but others, like this snail, eat everything or overwhelm the environment, destroying the natives.  Complicating the process is that many invasive species are, like the giant snail, quite beautiful and exotic. One sees some places where all the trees have been cut for many acres, after invasive trees have completely obliterated the native. 

The Giant African snail illustrates the theme of every film noir ever made: that which is beautiful may also be deadly. 

The Naif returns to our part of the forest next week.


A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

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

I have returned from another part of the forest, the Hawaiian island, Kauai. We stayed five miles west of the coastal village of Honalei. 

Honalee was where “Puff the Magic Dragon” of the 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary hit song frolicked. For many years I thought it was a mythic place. When I discovered it was real, I had long wanted to visit. I wanted to meet Puff. I assumed he would be alive and well in Honalei’s marketing, as Anne of Green Gables is for Prince Edward Island, or the Monster at Loch Ness. 

I found the village charming, but no sign of Puff. I dug deeper. Peter Yarrow was only nineteen when he wrote “Puff,” based on a poem by his friend Lenny Lifton. While there are suspected drug references in the song, Yarrow maintains that at the time he had no drug experiences to convey, and that the song was about the passing of childhood. He also had no idea that Honalee was a real place, regardless of spelling. He used it only because it sounded right and rhymed with “sea.” 

When Yarrow discovered, to his amazement, there was a real Honalei, he visited and found Puff! The northern shore of Honalei Bay is a small mountain range that rises from the sea and protects the village from storms. It looks like a dragon’s head. The head tapers into a series of ridges, like a dragon’s back. It ends with an evergreen copse, like a dragon’s spiked tail. 

I took this photo through the mist and returned on a sunny day for a better view. On a sunny day, the mountains are clearer, but Puff disappears. He is more easily seen in the mist, as the song describes. 

Yarrow and Lifton thought they had imagined Puff and Honalei. It appears the mythic beast merely used them as a way of revealing himself. Puff the Magic Dragon for me was no longer a story only about losing the magic of youth. It was now also a story about its recovery.

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.


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.


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