Essays on nature's best to see, hear, and experience at Salt Springs Seasons at the Park: by Nancy Wottrich

Gore in the Gorge

January 2007


Both red and grey fox are common in the park.

I love hiking in the winter, and not just because it burns twice as many calories as other times of the year. I find the cold air invigorating, and enjoy the physical exertion without the usual buckets of sweat. I truly think there is no more beautiful landscape than a woods blanketed in snow – every branch and twig fringed in white and sunlight reflecting off the facets of a million snowflakes. I also enjoy observing all the action that’s taking place and spying on the private lives of woodland creatures as they go about their daily activities.

There is a common misconception that winter is a dead time, but quite the contrary. The woods are filled with activity, and all you need to participate is a light covering of snow, and maybe a track identification chart. Find some footprints and follow them – not so much to find the animal as to enter into its world, if for just a brief moment or two. You may discover a squirrel visiting its hidden food cache or a weasel alternately tunneling through the snow and then popping out to run along the surface. You may even happen upon a scene of carnage as I recently did. I was following the tracks of a rabbit in the woods above the gorge, noticing places where it had stopped to nibble a few green leaves still clinging to vines, when I saw fox tracks approaching from a different direction. The fox’s tracks abruptly changed to the same direction as the rabbit – obvious that the fox had picked up the rabbit’s scent. I followed the combined tracks for quite a ways, and then I saw it – the struggle had been brief, but the scattered bits of rabbit fur, a few drops of blood, and the single set of tracks leading away from the scene told the story. There it was, right in front of me – life and death ... eat or be eaten ... survival of the fittest and the fastest.


Racoons are adept tree climbers.

When you visit the park this winter, look down and notice the tracks. Look for the single sets of tracks made by foxes and coyotes (both place the rear foot squarely in the front track, a habit referred to as direct-register) as well as the wildlife highways that the hoofs of many deer create. Raccoons and opossums leave tracks that look like miniature handprints. Rabbit and squirrel tracks appear backward, with their long hind feet ahead of the front feet. Mice, weasels, skunks, porcupine and even bobcat betray their presence to the observant.

Watch for other signs, such as nibbled branches and bark, bare spots where animals have scratched through the snow looking for food, holes in trees, burrows in the ground and under rocks, and scat, also known as droppings. Raccoons have a peculiar habit of leaving their calling card in an obvious location, such as on top of a fallen log or large stone. Deer, rabbits and porcupines produce round pellets, with the consistency of compressed sawdust. The winter scat of bobcat, fox and coyote is full of hair and often bone fragments. A more positive identification can be made by examining the texture and tapering, but I won’t get into that here.

Lest I forget another of my personal passions, watch and listen for the many feathered winter residents that flit through the trees. There are over 20 species of birds possible at the park in the winter, including Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Red-tailed Hawk, Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse to name a few. A complete bird checklist is available at the office.

To learn more:

There are numerous good books available on tracking. These are a few of my favorites:

Tracking and the Art of Seeing: How to Read Animal Tracks and Signs, by Paul Rezendes
Animal Tracking and Behavior, by Donald and Lillian Stokes
Peterson Field Guide to Animal Tracks, by Olaus Marie
Audubon Society Pocket Guide to Animal Tracks

You can also check on the Internet. A quick search under “animal tracks” turned up over 40,000 hits, many of them with good identification charts.

Sounds of Spring

May 2007

Long before the calendar says spring, and when the landscape still lies under a thick blanket of snow, the natural world is awakening. The lonely silence of winter is broken by the first “wa-cheer- cheer-cheer” resounding from high up in a tree—the cardinals are thinking spring! Suddenly songs fill the air everywhere! Robins on the lawn sing “cheer-o, cheer-o, cheery-up,” Tufted Titmice whistle a clear “peter-peter-peter,” Mourning Doves coo softly in the evening, and even woodpeckers drum from hollow trees in the woods (their variation of singing). With each passing day, new songs are heard, as more of our summer nesting species return from their wintering grounds.

In my mind, however, it’s not officially spring until I hear the raspy “phe-a-bee” of the Eastern Phoebe and see the Tree Swallows squabbling with the bluebirds over nesting boxes. As early spring migrants, their return also marks the opening of the bird-watching season in Northeastern Pa. Binoculars are dusted off, field guides fetched and bird-lovers everywhere take to the woods and fields, eager to greet each near arrival like a dear friend who has been away too long.

Forget the stereotyped image of little old ladies in tennis shoes. According to a 2001 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, over 45 million Americans consider themselves “birders,” and bird watching is approaching a $100 billion industry. While they’re just out to have fun and add to their life lists, the fact is that bird watchers in all of their enthusiasm have greatly stimulated the economy, promoted conservation of open land and environmental regulations and added significantly to the store of biological data on bird nesting and migration.

As an avid birder, I have been involved in a project to contribute important data to our knowledge of local nesting birds, and one to promote birding and nature-based tourism in the county: The Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas.

The 2nd Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas is a five year, statewide survey to document nesting species. Upon completion in 2008, the Atlas will show changes in the occurrence and distribution of the state’s nearly 200 species of nesting birds as compared to the first Atlas project conducted in the 1980s. Since birds are ecological indicators—which means their presence or absence in certain habitats can relate a lot about the area’s environmental health—this kind of documentation also adds to out understanding of changing environmental conditions. Statewide, over 2400 volunteers have registered to work on the Atlas, each one surveying one or more “blocks” (about 10 square miles) throughout the breeding season. Currently, some 50 volunteers in Susquehanna County are monitoring blocks across the county for the 2007 season. This year, volunteers will also be surveying specifically for owls and marsh birds – two populations that were largely under-represented in the first Atlas. Even though there are only two years left on the atlas, much of Susquehanna County is still in need of coverage, and volunteers are actively being sought. There’s still plenty of time to get involved, and you don’t need to be an expert – there are many ways and levels to make a valuable contribution to this scientific research effort. To learn more, visit the atlas website or contact me through the Friends.

Another project I've been involved with is A Birder’s Guide to Susquehanna County. Susquehanna County has not been subjected to the kind of habitat destruction and environmental degradation that is so prevalent in urban parts of the state. The county’s largely pristine and varied rural landscape attracts not only a diversity of bird life, but also a diversity of visitors who watch them and who seek out the bucolic charms of our area. Just in time for the start of spring birding, the Friends of Salt Springs Park are offering a publication geared specifically to birding in Susquehanna County. A Birder’s Guide to Susquehanna County features 24 pages of maps, photos, checklists and information on the best places to see birds and other wildlife year round in the county. The guide, available for $5.00 from the Friends and at selected outlets in the area, highlights outstanding publicly accessible bird watching locations around the county, including Salt Springs State Park. The project, was funded by grants from the Endless Mountains Heritage Region and Endless Mountains Visitors Bureau and numerous private donations. It is my hope that this project helps to promote nature based tourism in the county and introduce both residents and visitors to the joys of bird watching.

Salt Springs State Park and the adjacent Friends Land are great places to start any bird watching adventure, with over 150 species recorded to date in the diverse habitats (a check list for the park is available at the office). The gorge is attractive to Louisiana Waterthrush, often seen bobbing along the edge of Fall Brook, and Winter Wren, who frequent the steep slopes of the gorge. The hemlocks and mixed hardwoods above the gorge offer Black-throated Green Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Pileated Woodpecker, Blue-headed Vireo, Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Wild Turkey, and Ruffed Grouse to name a few. Fields and meadows abound with bluebirds, swallows, sparrows, vireos, and warblers that like shrubby habitats. Several small wetlands, courtesy of resident beavers, attract Green-backed Heron, Great Blue Heron, Spotted Sandpiper, flycatchers and raptors, who often perch on dead snags. With a little time and patience, you can also learn to identify the birds by their calls and songs – a real plus once the leaves are thick on the trees.

Whether you are a veteran or novice bird watcher, you can check out some of the locations featured in the birder’s guide book this spring, while expanding your Susquehanna County list of sightings. Every Saturday morning in May, we will visit a different site to look for migrating species and nesting residents. For times and locations, check the website. See you in the field!