Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Living Treasure of the Spruce Bog at Algerine Swamp Natural Area, Tioga County, PA (May 7th, 2020)

I recently paid a visit to the Algerine Swamp Natural Area to get better acquainted with the wild neighbors who call this Pennsylvania spruce bog home. From my parking spot along Gamble Run Road I headed west through a thick belt of balsam fir and then traversed an open hemlock swamp before arriving at the edge of the spruce bog. As I made my way south through a maze of spruces, firs, hemlocks, and pines over root-ball hummocks and water-saturated sphagnum I was overjoyed to happen upon a black-capped chickadee who was busy excavating a nest cavity in the trunk of what appeared to be a balsam snag. My stumbling upon this little energetic wild neighbor's home was purely a matter of luck. If not for the sound made by it's wings as it alighted to and from its nest cavity I may not have noticed it. Truth be told, my attention was captivated by the root-ball hummocks and the diverse plant communities that cover every inch of this special place. There are invaluable living treasures in this world which all should know about, even if we don't ever visit them. This is one of them.

Plant life on a root-ball hummock.
Go to the mountains and in the distance, lakes, rivers, and far-off forests can often be seen. The spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp Natural Area is not like that. Upon entering this space, all else fades away. Nothing can be seen in the spruce bog except the spruce bog itself. This is a space of solitude.

In traversing the bog, there are moments when spruce and fir press in from all sides in total embrace, and moments when, upon entering a glade of leatherleaf bushes, an experience of boundless delight. All in the spruce bog exists in a constant state of gradual transformation. While it takes a trained eye to notice it, things have changed here since a year ago, a decade ago, and a century ago; in some spots only a little, in others, significantly. This year's leatherleaf glade can be changed into a stand of tall spruces over the course of a decade, and vice versa. In experiencing the bog's confining embrace and wide open freedom I am reminded that I too exist in a constant state of  gradual transformation thanks to the Source of Divine Creativity who is at work in the spruce bog and in my own heart and mind as well.

Transformation does not happen in isolation. Transformation happens in community. The spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp is a space within which I experience a profound sense of community every time I visit. These root-ball hummocks aren't just interesting to look at, they are biological structures that host an amazing variety of ecologically stratified habitat zones through which space is nurtured for an incredible diversity of wild neighbors!

One of many root-ball hummocks in the bog.
I should take a moment to clarify that a root-ball hummock is a stump and root-ball left by a deceased tree. These partially submerged woody remnants provide elevated substrates (sometimes only a few inches above the water level) upon which a great diversity of plants take root and grow in the bog.

Sphagnum moss is a foundational component to the bog both biologically and physiologically. Sphagnum is present throughout the water column (I'm not sure how deep!) and climbing up the sides of hummocks up to about 7 or 8 inches above the water level. Creeping snowberry and bunchberry plants do best 6 inches to a foot above the water level. Conifers that look the healthiest are growing atop hummocks raised a foot or more above the water level. Trees growing closer to the waterline tend to be leaners.

Another variable to consider is light penetration. The coniferous trees that fill the bog reduce light penetration where they are present. Lichens thrive on bark and branches of trees, especially snags. Bazzania trilobata liverwort and mosses other than sphagnum do best a foot or more above the waterline in at least partial shade. Bog bilberry and leatherleaf bushes are prevalent where full sun is allowed to penetrate any spots that are ever so slightly raised above the water line.

Whether on sphagnum, fallen log, or root-ball hummock, no available space is left unoccupied at the spruce bog! In fact, this is why there are no well-established trails in the bog; a single step cannot be taken that avoids contact with some diverse community of living organisms!

The spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp Natural Area is a truly beautiful place. There is much to be appreciated here, even by looking on from the edge of the bog, where thick balsam fir or hemlock swamp gives way to root-ball hummocks, as long as one is willing to put up with the biting insects, or perhaps even to see the flies and mosquitoes as vital members of the spruce bog community. 

Nashville warbler (photo not taken at Algerine Swamp)
A gentle breeze blows through the bog today; too strong for mosquitoes to handle, but the midges are out as well as some flies, and that means, so are the birds. I'm most excited to have happened upon a couple of bay-breasted warblers and some Nashville warblers. Both species are neotropical migrants for whom boreal bogs are preferred breeding habitat. The term "neotropical" refers to the wintering habitat of these avian species which is in Central to South America; and of course, the word "migrant" refers to their behavior of migrating a far distance from their wintering grounds to breed.

Bay-breasted warbler (photo not taken at Algerine Swamp)
In the case of the Nashville warbler, the spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp Natural Area is near the southern part of it's breeding range. The heart of the breeding range for this small insectivorous warbler with the yellow breast, green wings, and bluish head with a red cap  is in south-eastern Canada. The bay-breasted warbler is the warbler with the red-and-black face, creamy yellow neck patch, and two white wing bars who shows a stronger preference to breed farther north than here. That being said, the spruce bog at the Algerine Swamp Natural Area possesses all the characteristics of the boreal habitat preference exhibited by both of these warbler species, except of course, for degrees latitude.

In a month's time it will be interesting to see what orchids and other flowering plants are in bloom, and to find out if the bay-breasted and Nashville warblers chose to stick around, or if this was merely one stop among many via their annual northward journey.

If you should choose to visit this place, make sure you have a map and a compass, and that you tread lightly with each step so as to do no harm to one of the most ecologically significant living treasures in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

Looking into one of many dense clusters of conifers in the bog.
One of the more open areas with abundant leatherleaf shrubs.

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