Wednesday, September 23, 2015


Recently my wife, Bea remarked that we had not yet caught any mice this Fall.  Then she added "I guess the black snake must be in the basement".  The black snake is our resident Black Rat Snake that we see from time to time both inside and outside of our buildings  It is a beautiful animal with a coal-black body, a snow-white belly and is about 5 feet long. It feeds almost exclusively on rodents and is a welcome resident.

A couple of weeks ago I was awakened in the middle of the night by the "swish" and breeze of a bat flying around our bedroom.  Our resident pair of bats live in our attic, but they seem to have a problem finding there way outside. From their roost they have two avenues to leave and they sometimes make the wrong choice and end up downstairs. They are annoying, but have always
found their way outside after a few minutes of flying around.  I guess they soon realize that our living quarters don't have a lot of flying insects to eat.

In early August, Bea was sitting in her recliner watching TV, when i heard her say "One just fell on me"  The "One" was a baby Northern Ring Neck Snake that had just fallen from the ceiling.  Each Summer the female Ring Neck Snakes crawl into our attic and lay their eggs.  The heat of summer incubates the eggs and once hatched, the 5 inch babies start looking for a way out and often find a crack in our wooden board ceiling as an exit. So in late Summer, we can always plan on it "raining" snakes.

We have a resident population of Northern Flying Squirrels living in our woods.  When we first moved to our home some years ago, I live-trapped 13 of these animals in our attic.  It took several years to find and plug all the holes they were using to get into the house. These cute little guys are nocturnal and at night they would be scurrying around in the attic while we were trying to sleep, so excluding them was a necessity.

One time I heard a very loud scream.  Bea had discovered a sleeping squirrel in a bag of nylons in our closet. I trapped the squirrel and put it in a large cage.  I included a bluebird box so it would have a place to hide.  Several days later, I took the box (the squirrel was inside) to a wooded area some distance away.  I opened the box and the squirrel jumped out and ran about 20 feet. I saw a small object fall out  and heard a tiny squeak in the box. The squirrel turned around  and ran right toward me and jumped back into the box.  The "object" was a baby squirrel. I put it back in the box with the mother and took the box back home.  I set the box with the mother and babies inside, on a shelf in my barn, where she could finish caring for her young. That was a really neat experience.

This time of year we often hear acorns and hickory nuts falling  on our deck in the middle of the night.  It means Our Flying Squirrels are busy gathering food.

Living in a Log House in the woods, that was built like a sieve, is never boring.

Friday, June 26, 2015


My fascination with Bluebirds began about 45 years ago when I took a hike with my son Andy on the home farm in Big Valley in Central PA.  I noticed a Bluebird flying, so we followed it and discovered a pair feeding young in a nest is the hollow of a Black Locust snag. I decided we would observe the birds for a while, so we sat down  right in front of the hole. I told Andy, who was 5 years old at the time, that he had to sit still and not make any movements at all. 

The drive to feed chicks is very strong in bird parents, so both soon showed up with food. They landed on a nearby branch and looked down on us. They looked at each other, did some chattering and looked at us again.  It appeared they were trying to size us up as to what danger we posed to them and their brood. They would fly down near the hole and then fly away without entering.  This went on for several minutes. (It seems like forever when you are sitting perfectly still.)  After about 5 to 7 minutes, the female finally went to the hole, fed the chicks and flew away; followed immediately by the male who did the same thing. 

Andy never moved or said anything during that entire time. As soon as the male fed the chicks we moved on.  It was a really neat experience that I will never forget. Does this mean females are more adventuresome than  males? That debate will have to wait.   

Soon after this experience I began making and putting up boxes for Bluebirds.  I don't make them anymore, but I am still putting them up when I can. In April of this year, after we returned from Florida, I decided to go to Big Valley for a visit.  I did not have big plans, but I decided to take along 4 new Bluebird boxes. I spent 5 days visiting relatives, bird watching and working on the various bluebird boxes that I had put up in the past.  Many were in disrepair and others had been destroyed.

I repaired those that could be salvaged and replaced those that were gone.  
On April 16 I replaced boxes on the light poles that carry electricity to the home farm.  About 15 minutes after I put up the first house, there were two pair of Tree Swallows and a pair of Bluebirds all swarming around this one nest box. I was amazed. Both species landed on the box and inspected the inside.  It seems they were all in the area looking for housing. When I returned 6 weeks later the nest was occupied by Tree Swallows.

At the end of May I returned to Big Valley to bird watch and check the boxes. Of the 14 available houses, seven had Bluebird nests, eggs or chicks.  Four had Tree Swallow activity and one was being used by a House Sparrow (I took this box down). Two boxes remained empty.

It seems the Bluebirds of Big Valley are doing well.  There were at least 5 active pair that had chicks or eggs either right before or during the time I was visiting.  The two boxes with empty Bluebird nests did not have any birds defending the sites, so I could not determine their status.

The success of these beautiful birds in this area can be traced to the help of  local residents Dan Brown, Fred Brown and T. Ray Metz who have monitored these birds and put up boxes to replace those damaged.  On behalf of the birds I thank you. Keep up the good work.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015



This Spring and Summer has been an active time for wildlife here in Mt Gretna.

On April 1st, our first day back from Florida, we were greeted with the singing of wood frogs.  A bit later Mallards and Turkeys came calling.  A pair of Mallards were here for more than a month and frequently visited our bird feeders and water gardens in search of food.  They became quite tame as they grew used to our comings and goings.  I did not look for the nest, but I believe it was near our pond.  They appeared to have hatched their young sometime around Memorial Day when we were away.

One day we looked out our front window and were surprised to see a Turkey Gobbler and two hens prancing around.  Fred (our nephew) had seen them earlier during the winter.
The Gobbler moved on to an another area and we often have heard him calling.  However, one of the hens stayed behind and established a nest.  We would see her often scratching around in the leaves for insects and other tasty creatures.  Her nest appeared to be behind our guest house.

This year the animals that take the prize for most interesting are the House Wrens.  Usually when  the male House Wrens show up in the Spring they wreck havoc on all the other song birds that are trying to nest in bird boxes in our yard.  These "cute" little demons will go around and destroy other bird's nests, remove their eggs and even their chicks. Then they fill the box with sticks.  Not a "nice" little bird in human terms.


However this year was different.  We had Black-Capped Chickadees nesting in two different boxes about 400 feet apart.  Both pair had established their nest and laid eggs when the male House Wrens arrived about May 1st.  Both sites had male House Wrens calling nearby and my fear was that they would destroy the Chickadees's nest, but to my pleasant surprise they did not.  Both pair of chickadees completed their nesting and had young fledge.

When the male House Wrens first showed up, I put up two new bird boxes hoping that might keep them from disturbing the Chickadees. It seemed to work. One of the boxes was immediately claimed by a male House Wren and he proceeded to fill the box with sticks.  He soon attracted a wife and they were in business. We will call him MHW #1.  This pair raised 5 chicks that fledged during the second week of June.

At about the time the young House Wrens left the nest, an interloper male House Wren

(MHW #2) showed up. He began calling on a second new box about 30 feet from the box of MHW #1.  This guy (MHW #2) immediately filled his box with sticks and was frantically calling all around it.  Meanwhile, the original resident, MHW #1 continued to call on his box.  During this time I observed frequent fights between the two males.  I could not really tell where the female was in all this.

Over the last couple of days I  have made some interesting observations.  On Sunday (6/21) I saw a female enter the box guarded  by MHW #2.  Tuesday (6/23) I checked that box  and discovered 3 tiny eggs.  Meanwhile MHW #1 continues to  call on his box, but his nest cavity is empty.  Conclusion:  The female House Wren left her original mate and has moved in with the interloper---MHW #2.


Our human reaction is predictable. "MHW #2 stole the "wife" of MHW #1".  "She is a slut who will sleep with anybody."  "An example of infidelity in the bird world."  "Birds are as immoral as humans."
Actually fidelity in the world of songbirds is more like--- "What have you done for me lately."
When faced with a choice, the female had to weigh the qualities of the two males and  decide which one best suited her needs.  Since I always go on the hypothesis that The Fittest Survive, there must have been something about MHW #2 she liked.  Does she like him because he is young, has a loud song or was it the layout of the home he was offering?  We will never know.

You just never know what may be happening right in your own backyard.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015


We arrived home from our Florida Trip at 7:30 on Tuesday March 31.  The "Black Knight" performed flawlessly and delivered us to Gretna without any problems.  The Black Knight?  That is my black Honda Element---a great car.

Wednesday morning, April 1st we awakened to a temperature of 29 degrees---a far cry from the 80's we had been experiencing in Naples.  There are still snow piles here and it looks like winter.  No sign of Spring until the  sun came  up and then it started.
 The Wood Frogs are singing.  It actually sounds more like barking and is quite loud.  We have 5 water areas and all of them have been captured by the wood frogs for their annual Spring mating ritual.  They are welcome on all but the swimming pool cover, where we will have to move their egg masses to a safer place or the  thousands of tadpoles will not survive.

I first encountered these fascinating amphibians when we moved here in the 1990's.  They hibernate during the cold of winter, but with the first warm days of March they suddenly appear in the open water and begin to "sing".  I have seen them do this when there are still large pieces of ice in  the water.   The temperature remains at 32 degrees until the ice melts, so I do not know how they are able to stir up the energy to be jumping all over the place like they do.  They are cold-blooded, but something about their makeup allows them to function at very cold temperatures.

When we were in Alaska in 2003  we stayed at a bed and breakfast owned  by Judy Cooper.  She was a musher, had lots of dogs and lived on  a large piece of land.  When i asked here about the wildlife in the area, she mentioned that she had a vernal pool in her woods and every year she had Wood Frogs appear and mate just as they do in PA.  Now this is near Fairbanks in Central Alaska  and the ground is permafrost, so somehow these little guys can survive being frozen, wake up and mate every year.  No other reptile or amphibian can survive that far north, only Wood Frogs.

So we  are again enjoying the signs of Spring.  Only it is not flowers blooming or birds singing, it is the "barking " of the Wood Frogs who must have "ice water in their veins" to be up and about when it is this cold.

Monday, March 23, 2015


I have visited SOUTH FLORIDA six times in the last 40 years.  The first time was in 1974 when we motored south in our VW camper over the Christmas holiday. Later we traveled in a 20 foot motorhome and this time we traveled in our Honda Element.  In the past our focus was on campgrounds for lodging; this time it was more complicated.  We did not plan ahead, so when we arrived in Florida we did not  have any prearranged place to stay.  Extended places to stay were all taken and we had to resort to hotels and motels where rooms were also in short supply.  We did have  short stays with Marilyn Hollis and Pat Glanz, which we greatly appreciate. We also camped in a tent for  a short time. With Marilyn's help we were able to find a place in a 55+ community south of Naples. We have been here since March 1st. It is a nice area and is as  natural as a place like this can be.  The backyard of "our place" backs on to a manmade canal that nature has reclaimed and which attracts songbirds and wading birds.  I have also heard the calls of the Red-shouldered Hawk and the Great Horned Owl  during our stay here.

If you look at a night-time photo of Florida the coasts are lit up and the center is dark.  99% of the development in South Florida below Orlando is along the coasts.  Looking south from  I-4, which crosses the state at Orlando, the pattern of light resembles a horseshoe fitted over the state. Originally this whole area was a "sea of grass" with water flowing from Highlands County (Sebring area) to the Everglades and out to sea.  Over the last 100 years people have drained, diked  and developed the land, so the water no longer follows its natural flow.  Route 41 crossing the state just north of the Everglades acts like a huge  dike and only recently has work begun to allow water to flow normally.  The "dry land" in central Florida is now dominated by farming, citrus groves, thousands of grazing beef cattle and the famous retirement "trailer parks".

I am an optimistic ecologist and I believe the natural areas of Florida will continue to thrive despite human abuse and neglect.  Many people care about these places and are doing their part to make the ecosystems work for all the creatures who live here. In many ways South Florida is still the wildest area east of the Mississippi River.  The Eastern Panther hangs on as a predator, alligators thrive,  snakes, turtles and lizards abound and the many birds are doing OK.    There are not many places where panther tracks and a cottonmouth eating a fish would be casually reported by a hiker.  It is a wild and beautiful place surrounded by a city.  You just never know what you may see next.

There are no mountains in South Florida, but there are ridges which are more than 50 feet high.
However  the highest places in most of South Florida are landfills and road and bridge overpasses.
I believe the climate is getting warmer and the horseshoe shaped development imposed on this land will be drastically affected by a significant increase in sea level. The ecosystem here, on the other hand, was designed by climate change over the last 10,000 years and it will be able to adapt to what ever comes its way.

Humans, however, will have very few options. Move up or out. Over time the sea will most likely reclaim the land the cities are parked on and some of the inland areas will return to a more natural state as  the rains of the wet season seek the natural flow south toward the Everglades.

So what is my real opinion of Florida after all these years?  It is GREAT place to visit, but I would NOT want to live here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


I have been a Pittsburgh Pirate fan since I was a child and being in Florida during March I decided to get tickets to see a Spring Training game.  I have not seen a Pirate's game for a very long time, so this was an opportunity I could not pass up.

On February 17th I went to Jet Blue Stadium in Fort Myers to buy a ticket for the Red Sox vs Pirates spring training game held on March 14, 2015.  The only ticket not sold was for a handicapped person, so I bought it.

Last Saturday March 14, I drove from Naples, where we are staying, North about 45 minutes to the stadium. I arrived early. The gates opened at 11 am and I wheeled myself to my
seat with no difficulty. The Pirates were on the field warming up, hitting and fielding and this lasted until noon when they retired to the clubhouse. The grounds crew spent the next hour manicuring the field, wetting it down and putting the chalk lines on the batter's box, fowl lines, etc. It was pretty neat to watch.  It was a beautiful day and although it was hot, I had the advantage of shade for the whole game.

The game started at 1:05. The early part of the game was rather slow with the main excitement being the Red Sox's  Mike Napoli hitting two home runs. Going into the 8th inning the score was tied at 2-2. The Pirates used a couple of hits and good base running to score 3 runs in the top of the 8th, held off a Red Sox rally in the bottom of the ninth and won 5-2. Great game and they won.

Oh yes, about "HIT BY A BASEBALL ON PI DAY".

Well March 14, 2015 was "Pi Day" because the date translates into 3.1415---the first five digits of the mathematical term Pi.  Pi is a numerical constant that represents the ratio of a circle'e circumference to its diameter.  The number goes on to infinity.  If you want more details ask a math teacher.

During the rally in the 8th inning, a player by the name Deibinson Romero was at bat and he hit a foul ball that bounced off a mesh fence right behind me. I looked back, saw it coming and ducked.

The ball hit me on the left shoulder and careened down into the stands below. I felt it, but was not really hurt.  The attendants were concerned about my well being, but all I wanted was the baseball.
After some inquiry we discovered who had the ball and he graciously gave it to  me.  The ball has two gray marks on it where it hit and actually broke the fence. I am just glad it did not hit me in the head or I would have ended up in the hospital.  It must have been traveling close to 100 mph when it hit that fence. Incidentally, Romero stuck out, so he was no help in the rally.

So, yes, I celebrated  Pi Day by being hit by a baseball and have the ball to  prove it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Bea and I headed south on Monday January 5th to beat a pending snow storm coming on Tuesday. Made it to Rocky Mount, NC the first night, St Augustine, Fl the second and Sebring, Fl on the third.  We found a room that was handicapped accessible and stayed three weeks.  We liked Sebring
My Grandfather wintered here in the 1940’s.

At the end of January Bea had to go to California for our grandson Porter’s Grandparents Day at his school.  The site would have been hard for me to navigate, so I stayed in Florida.

What to do?  What else but set up an experiment to see if a one-legged almost 75 year old man could survive camping in a tent for 7 days.

My choice for this experiment was  Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park.  Its 54,000 acres contain dry prairie. wet prairie, marshes, sloughs, Cabbage Palm and Oak Hammocks.  This preserve protects the largest dry prairie still left in Florida.  it is the home of several endangered/threatened animal species including the Grasshopper Sparrow and the Crested Caracara. It is in a remote part of central Florida and is a favorite for those who enjoy astronomy because there are no city lights.   it was a full moon when I was there and the evening sky was spectacular. I fell in love with the place.

I had reserved a camping site for only one night.  The following day I was able to move to another site where i stayed for 6 days. My neighbors were very friendly and were willing to help me when I needed assistance.  The  weather was great---clear and sunny during the day and cold at night.  It got down to the high 30’s and low 40’s at night and windy with highs in the 60’s during the day.
Sunrise at Kissimmee Prairie

Sunrise from my campsite.  The crows showed up at 7 am each morning and made sure I was awake.
The land is flat and much of it is free of trees and shrubs—just prairie plants including native grasses, Sawtooth Palmetto and a variety of wildflowers, so you can see long distances

Since I could not walk, I drove the roads during the day and at night.   I got to see some really exciting things happen just by being in the right place at the right time. The first night I was at the preserve I saw a small whitish bird fly up from the side of the road.  it turns out that is was a Burrowing Owl.  This small owl feeds on insects and is attracted to the roads because in cold weather the insects congregate along the warmer road surface at night.   On another occasion as I was looking for song birds, a Red-shouldered Hawk carrying a snake landed on a branch of a tree just in front of me.

A short time  after I took this photo, a second hawk flew in and clobbered this guy knocking him off the branch.  The last I saw was the one with the snake flying over my head, and  the second one in hot pursuit about  20 feet behind.  WOW. The snake looked like a Black Racer.  This was the second time I had seen a Red-shouldered Hawk with a snake.

I saw a good variety of birdlife during my stay, but the star was the Crested Caracara.  Although this  bird is more common in Central America, it is found in the prairie areas of  central Florida.  I had seen different individuals sitting  but the most spectacular was when it was gliding and soaring above me with the sun glistening off its beautiful wings and underbelly.  AWESOME.  It is a relative of falcons.

I  did  a little hiking with my walker.  A short trail near the campground went through a hardwood hammock, so I “drove" my walker about 1/4 mile trough this really impressive  woodlot. As I traveled I saw 8 turkeys and heard and then saw a Barred Owl.  I made several calls and it looked at me with distain as if telling me "you are not really an owl”. He/she was about 50 feet away—a really cool sight.

On another occasion I found a Yellow-Crowned Night Heron rookery.  I watched a male heron display by repeatedly lifting the yellow feather on his  head up and down.  I had never observed anything like that before.  According to the staff at the park this site was one of the rookeries patrolled by rangers working for the Audubon Society in the early 1900's.

Camping in  a tent while having only one leg is not an easy experience, but I was able to adapt and use the tools at my disposal.  I had to constantly be aware of where the crows were---at any opportunity they would swoop down and grab any visible food item and things left on the table had to be covered all the time.  One time I left an orange on the table.  i came back a short time later and they had rolled it  off the table and carried it about 25 feet away.  A family of five was busy  feasting on my orange. On two different evenings I cooked my supper over an open fire---I had not done that for a very long time.

I had no trouble sleeping.  However two different nights I was awakened by the "singing" of coyotes. Their calls are not really howls or barks, they are quite musical, so I prefer to call it "singing". A bit eerie, but interesting.  I often heard the Barred Owl at night as well.  One night I woke up and above me I could see the Big Dipper clearly visible in the sky.  In the wee  hours of the morning I would hear the Crows (you could set your clock by their visit---right at 7 am).  Off in the distance I could hear the bugling of Sandhill Cranes and the shrill call of the Red-shouldered Hawk.

I had a very tame Palm Warbler often sitting  with me when I ate a meal.  It seemed interested in small crumbs of food.

This place does nor have big water areas but does attract a good variety of wildlife.  The area has White-tailed Deer, River Otters, Alligators and most of the common wading birds. In January a Florida Panther was released into the preserve.  It was  injured and had been rehabilitated.

Just like Middle Creek in PA, the staff do controlled burning.  At the time I was leaving on February 4th they were burning a 2800 acre section of the prairie.  Burning at the beginning of the growing season seems to have the most positive effect.

I had a great experience at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve.  I met some very nice people and would love to go back sometime.


Dick's Blog---Native Plant Action Network