Friday, July 6, 2012
Looking for places to explore with relatively little distraction, within a reasonable distance from home, is always important for both plans “a” and “b”. I really couldn’t afford to explore the vast American west at this time so I wanted to schedule some 3-5 day explorations where the birding would be different from my regular home turf.
Living between the East and Midwest, it is pretty hard to find habitat diversity on a scale that would grow a potentially larger list of eastern birds. It is also a challenge to find places that aren’t flooded with people escaping from populated cities. “Nowhere” can be pretty scarce.
The key is finding popular places that harbor natural and wilderness places within them. It is often a compromise, but the fact is, most people are drawn to social destinations and prefer not to wander too far from the safety of amenities.
I immediately found the Allegheny National Forest in western Pennsylvania, around 100 miles from where I live. It’s a big area; some 500,000 acres in Pennsylvania and bordered on the north by the Allegany State Park, the largest State Park in New York. This significantly large area provides the whole range of tourist and outdoor activities, including wilderness and large, undisturbed natural areas.
I know that this part of western Pennsylvania and New York is surprisingly rich in bird species associated with true north. This area is indeed a transition into northern latitudes and to Appalachian mountain altitudes. Northern latitudes and significant elevations provide a unique ecology with its own set of flora and fauna.
I called Jim Berry, the recently retired President of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York and asked if he had any recommendations. He enthusiastically endorsed the nearby Allegheny National Forest. He said Hearts Content was a great birding destination.
With a thumbs-up from the real birding expert, I headed to Allegheny National Forest. I expected it would be good. But I have been to so many spectacular places I doubted it would “measure up”. Would it be remote enough? Would it reveal its birds easily or would it be challenging? So close to home, would this adventure stand up to other exotic, epic journeys?
I will spare you the accounting of a wonderful birding trip. It was all good: the birding, the birds, the camping, the scenery, and the serenity. But I must tell you about just one very special place that captured my heart and soul.
Hearts Content Scenic Interpretive Trail, Hearts Content National Scenic Area, Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania
The Hearts Content National Scenic Area is 120 acres. The Hearts Content Scenic Interpretive Trail winds through 20 acres of pristine old-growth forest with Canadian Hemlock, Eastern White Pine and American Beech towering 150 feet into the air. These trees are approaching 400 years old, many 375 years old. Only these trees, the finest trees to ever cover the American landscape, were long enough and strong enough to support the sails of nineteenth Century Clipper ships.
There is no bird list for this trail. It’s only, maybe, one half mile long. It is, however, an exceptional place. Most interior forest habitats have few birds and often modest bird activity. This 20 acres is different. I soon discovered a chorus of song and a variety of birds that is as impressive as any I have experienced.
In the bright morning sunlight I entered into the interpretive trail darkness. This is a place where light filters down through the forest canopy and only occasionally reaches the forest floor. Before my eyes could adjust to the darkness, I was serenaded by the fluted song of the Swainson’s Thrush.
Within the next 50 yards I was surrounded by several birds. Within 10 minutes I saw Hermit Thrush, Black-throated Green Warbler, Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue-headed Vireos, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Black-capped Chickadees, Magnolia Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Hooded Warbler and the beautiful Blackburnian Warblers (once known as “flame throats” for their bright orange throats). I saw 8 Blackburnian Warblers along this trail. The blend and activity of species was a truly a sensational experience.
As I walked further among moss covered fallen logs the canopy would open and expose these massive trees, straight as arrows and towering over everything else in the forest. A Scarlet Tanager sang from the highest perch of an old tall tree. Red-eyed Vireos continued their seemingly endless songs. I could hear a Rose-breasted Grosbeak sweetly singing somewhere far out there in the forest.
Finally the trail came to a bend that returned the trail to where it started. This was a low place with a lazy trickle of a stream surrounded by fallen trees, blanketed in green moss. I stopped here thinking this would be a great place for a Winter Wren. I coaxed it a bit and soon this tiniest of our wrens burst into a melodious series of trills, fit for a bird many times larger. It is a song every human being should hear and know its source.
Then, as if excited by the singing wren, a Brown Creeper appeared magically clinging to the trunk of a Hemlock a few feet off the ground. It was soon joined by a Golden-crowned Kinglet bouncing agilely among pine branches.
By now it had been over an hour and the surrounding forest was heating up for a hot summer day. The birding slowed but the view of majestic trees and towering dead companions continued all the way back to the trail head. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers tapped their erratic drumming and Hairy Woodpeckers glided between branchless giants all the way back. I couldn’t help wishing I could hear or even see an allusive Northern Goshawk (also known as the “Grey Ghost”) in this forest. They are here. There are at least 9 known nesting pairs in the vicinity of this trail. A day later and a few miles down the forest road I did see a male Northern Goshawk and my wish fulfilled.
I walked this trail 2 more times. It wasn’t about the birds but about the place. The birds and birding are what guide me to these magnificent places. I yearn for any glimpse into this planet earth before it was forever altered by humans. After traveling to many places and experiencing places yet undisturbed around the world, I appreciate the opportunity to enjoy a place preserved.
There are a million things to do with 20 acres or 120 acres but any or all the possibilities would be illegal and immoral.
Guess where I will travel 2 hours to every year from now on. To a place with the perfect name: Hearts Content. It was a logging camp once and a place where timber barons lived while they harvested giants relentlessly. It is a speck of what once was, but it is a beautiful vista of our natural heritage preserved none-the-less.