Kindling Neighborly Connections between People and Nature.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Wild Winter Wanderings at Barclay Mountain

Frigid winter temperatures keep some people indoors, but these same conditions inspire others to get outside. I'm fascinated by the adaptations that allow hardy plants and animals to survive the worst that the winter has to offer. What better way to appreciate what our wild neighbors must endure than to experience it for myself? When the weather forecast predicts 15 degrees F in Athens, PA and less than 10 degrees F (not counting the windchill) on Barclay Mountain, it's a no-brainer. I had to go.

The glaciated plateau at the south end of Bradford County endures a harsher winter climate because it sits about three-hundred meters higher in elevation than the valley below. Today I'm keeping company with the north at Pennsylvania's State Game Lands 36, where white birch is the predominant vegetation where fields border forest. I've traveled thirty miles south geographically to travel five-hundred miles north ecologically. Boreal means "of the north," like spruce-fir-dominated-Canadian-forest north where white birch is a common forest/tundra edge species. Like most other trees white birch enters a state of dormancy during the winter. It's bark is even specially adapted to reflect the sun's warm light rays to avoid a premature awakening.

On my way up Barclay Mountain, this-morning's welcome party consisted of a pair of ravens, wings tucked, cruising parallel to the steep hillside where a tornado ripped through years ago. Once on the level, I was greeted by a mixed flock of three birds; a purple finch was hanging with a pair of redpolls. All three were busy gathering fallen birch seeds as well as grits for their gizzards from the road. I pulled the car over and turned the engine off to fully enjoy their company until they decided they'd had enough.

Feeling like the state puff marshmallow man from the six-layers of clothing I had on, I trudged off into SGL 36 at the end of Falls Creek Road. The weather was 9 degrees F and windy, but I felt warm and comfy. 

Two huge flocks of snow geese flew high overhead, about 400 birds in each flock. For a little while I followed the tracks of a bobcat who, from what I put together, had been following the tracks of a rabbit. 

I found a spot I liked and stood there for forty minutes. The cracking, popping, and squeaking sounds made by frigid wind against  the branches of dormant trees was like an orchestra who just could not properly tune their instruments. That's okay, it was music to these ears. After a while, I watched a white-tailed deer meander from one patch of thick hemlock trees to another. To me, the face of a whitetail in it's winter coat has an adorable Ewok-like character about it that's hard to ignore. This might not be Endor, but it feels just as magical. A pair of redpolls showed up in the branches of the birch tree I had been leaning against. Could they be the same two from before? Wondering, I asked aloud, "Are you guys following me or something?" It was a special gift to watch them gobble up birch seeds with the tenacity of the cookie monster and the finesse of a surgeon.

It happens often that I don't realize how tightly wound and stressed I've allowed myself to become until I'm able to retreat to big woods like these and experience the gift of nature once more. I've found in this special place a stillness, a wildness, and the most profound sense of community that I cannot live happily without.


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