Tuesday, October 31, 2023

The Joy of Autumn Leaves in Autumn Hill Reservation

The ostensible purpose of my walk at Autumn Hill Reservation yesterday was utilitarian, to clear a couple fallen trees from the trail, but the leaves had prepared a surprise party.  

They didn't need to do much to make me happy. Ever since I was a kid, leaves have brought me joy. Though most leaves have fallen, the occasional highbush blueberry is still radiant with color.

Even the winged euonymus, which we spend time removing due to its overabundance, gave a fine demonstration of how it can turn sometimes white rather than red, if the shade is deep enough. 

Here's one that got enough sun to show why it is sometimes called burning bush. 

But the real joy came from the leaves below my feet. Freshly fallen, they made the woods look like it had just turned upside down and become a reflection of itself. Leaves that had peered austerely down at us all summer were now looking up, basking in the newly abundant light now pouring down through the opened canopy. 

I see something of myself in a leaf, collective in spirit, mingling comfortably among many sorts. They seem to be enjoying a leaf's version of retirement, relieved of the workaday world of photosynthesis, their true colors finally showing. I can keep my eyes on the trail and still know that above me tower tulip trees, sweetgum, and sassafras.

Another source of pleasure was the condition of the trail. Though our Friends of Herrontown Woods takes care of trails at Autumn Hill Reservation, we spend most of our time at Herrontown Woods, depending on our volunteers who live near Autumn Hill in Montgomery for periodic reports of any work needing to be done. 

Last year we made some initial improvements in the trails, shifting one stretch over to higher ground along an old rock wall. Hard to believe that this peaceful meander became navigable only after we overcame a dense tangle of invasive shrubs--multiflora rose, winged euonymus, privet and linden viburnum. 

Nice when battle leads to lasting peace, when struggle with thorn and thicket segues to a walk decorated with a fresh new layer of leaves, radiant on a misty moisty afternoon. I paused for a moment to look for the three shapes of sassafras, and later on, writing this, realized I had stumbled upon the reason it's called Autumn Hill.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

A Kiosk Rises at Herrontown Woods' "Back Door"

Herrontown Woods has a front door and many back doors. Most people know about the "front door" off Snowden Lane, leading to the main parking lot, trailheads, and the Botanical Art Garden. Fewer people are aware that Herrontown Woods borders Princeton Community Village (PCV), off Bunn Drive. The building of more affordable housing there, perched right next to Herrontown Woods, has drawn our attention to how we might make this "back door" more of a front door, and connect with PCV residents in some way. Perhaps we could build and maintain a raingarden together, and make an appealing loop trail on that side of the preserve. In addition, PCV is served by local and regional buses, with a bus stop just 100 feet from our trail system. This may make Herrontown Woods the only nature preserve in Princeton that can easily be reached by bus.

An important first step would be to build a kiosk at the PCV trailhead, and as serendipity would have it, a member of the venerable Boyscout Troop 43 was looking for an Eagle Scout project to do in Herrontown Woods. 

That's eagle scout Leone Robbins in orange, posing with helpers from among his friends and family, partway through the process of installing an impressive kiosk he designed and built. Leone, a senior at Princeton High School, worked with FOHW, Princeton Community Housing (PCH), and town officials to get permissions and choose a location for the kiosk.

It's always fun to try to catch these Iwo Jima moments. Digging down to make the holes was probably less fun than lifting up. The town and PCH both helped with funding for the materials.

Here's Leone in front of the completed kiosk. A dedication ceremony is planned for this Saturday, Oct. 21, at 1pm, during which Leone will lead a short nature walk down the trail. 

A big THANK YOU to Leone and his fellow scouts and family for this timely and beautifully executed installation.

Update: Here are a couple photos from the dedication Leone organized, attended by members of Princeton Community Housing, Boyscout troop 43, PCV residents, and board members of the Friends of Herrontown Woods. 

As part of the event, Leone led a nature walk down the path into Herrontown Woods, pointing out Christmas fern, spicebush, and other native plants. 

He later sent a testimonial about his experience: 
"I have been volunteering with the organization since the fifth grade. Whether it was planting trees to prevent erosion or nature walks on cold winter mornings, Friends of Herrontown Woods is the reason I am passionate about the outdoors and am committed to my community. I’ve had so many beautiful experiences with the organization and wanted to
share them with others through my kiosk and an educational nature
walk. I hope my kiosk encourages others to explore the outdoors and
the many physical and mental benefits it provides."

Monday, October 9, 2023

A Tree Inventory Underway in Herrontown Woods

If you are hiking in Herrontown Woods and notice a tree tagged with a number, it's part of a tree inventory underway in the preserve. 

At some point in its history, the word "arboretum" was added to the preserve's name, as reflected in the current, highly faded sign out on Snowden Lane, and the current wikipedia page. Though Herrontown Woods certainly has a lot of trees, there's no evidence of any past effort to consciously create a tree collection. 

Since being founded 10 years ago, FOHW has worked to bring back many native woody species marginalized by introduced diseases, heavy shade, or intense deer browse. Among these are the butternut, the American chestnut, serviceberry, hazelnut, azalea, and hearts a'bustin. 

Though we've dropped the "arboretum" from the name of the preserve, it seemed like it would be fun to better understand and highlight the many kinds of trees found here. 

Thanks to the initiative and organizational elan of FOHW volunteer Alastair Binnie, we have thus far tagged and catalogued 266 trees and large shrubs, comprising 65 species. 

Helping out is Princeton High School graduate Jack Durbin, who is spending some of his gap year volunteering at Herrontown Woods. Jack has been helping in many other ways as well, including building and installing plant cages, cutting invasive species, and improving the trailhead at Princeton Community Village.

We've documented trees along all the trails at this point, with Jack doing the tagging, Alastair recording, while I add locations on a map created some years back by Alison Carver. 

Along the way we've been tempted to include in the inventory a few specimens of ash tree, now nearly all lost to the hidden ravages of the emerald ash borer. Here's one's beautiful deeply furrowed bark.

One of our goals with the inventory is to create a self-guided Tour of Trees that people can take when they visit Herrontown Woods.

Monday, July 24, 2023

A Dragonfly Walk with Mark Manning

This summer, we pitched the idea of a dragonfly walk to Mark Manning, a Hopewell science teacher with broad and deep knowledge of nature, with a particular passion for amphibians and dragonflies. Mark's first choice for a location was Rogers Refuge, the wonderful wetland just down from the Institute Woods. In 2021, he and his sons had compiled an impressive list of 36 Odonata species (dragonflies and damselflies) there. But logistical difficulties shifted the walk to Herrontown Woods. 

Having not yet seen any dragonflies this year, I was wondering whether the walk would acquire the same existential feel we had some years back when a mushroom walk we hosted coincided with a prolonged drought. I cut a path down to a pond on preserved pasture land near Veblen House, but the pond was dry.

As with the mushroom walk with very few mushrooms, however, our July 1 phantom dragonfly walk proved satisfying nonetheless. Mark talked about the relatedness of milkweed and dogbane in the Botanical Art Garden, 
and told the story of how the toxin Tremetol in white snakeroot caused thousands of deaths in the Midwest when settlers drank milk from cows that had eaten the plant. 

A couple of Mark's former students who came along were not squeamish about picking up frogs to show us close up. 

And we did in fact see a couple dragonflies: an Eastern Pondhawk in the pasture, and two Common Whitetails where the red trail crosses the gas pipeline right of way. 

One added benefit of the walk was that it got us thinking about how we might better cater to the needs of dragonflies at Herrontown Woods. That dry pond in the pasture may be dry because the outlet needs repair. And might it be possible to build another little pond, of the sort we witnessed during a recent visit to Bowman's Hill Wildflower Preserve? 

Thanks to Mark for leading the walk, and for his work in inventorying Princeton's Odonata and getting us thinking about their habitat needs.

Our Pair of Black Vultures Lost Their Progeny

For as long as I can remember, a pair of black vultures has arrived at Herrontown Woods each spring to raise their young in the corncrib next to this little red barn. We'd see them perched on the chimney of the derelict Veblen Cottage, and think them a bad omen. But in 2017, one of their two chicks was slow to develop, and we watched as the parents patiently tended to it until it could join them up on the Veblen Cottage roof. The word online is that black vultures mate for life and are devoted parents. As we watched the immature vulture gain strength and ultimately join its parents on top of the chimney, our uneasiness about vultures turned to affection. They do, after all, perform considerable custodial work in nature, cleaning up messes that the rest of us steer clear of. 

If one thinks about it, our initiative at Herrontown Woods involves a great deal of scavenging, that is, finding promise in what the rest of the world has forsaken. The boarded up house and cottage, overgrown trails and a derelict pine grove filled with invasive species--these scenes of long time abandonment have been for us prize finds.

The past couple years, I've only seen one black vulture hanging out near the barn. Though I generally stay away from the corncrib, not wanting to disturb them, I have checked a couple times and found it empty. The story I told myself was that the male had lost its mate, and now returns as a bereft spouse each spring to linger and grieve. 

On June 20 this year, when friend and hiker Georgette texted me that she had found a dead black vulture lying on the ground along the red trail that runs past the Cottage, I thought we were witnessing the end of an era. 

It was a surprise, then, to come across the carcass and find not the last adult vulture but instead a bird that was clearly immature, with baby fuzz on the wings. The pair of vultures had been there after all, secretly raising their young. 

As I took a close look at the fallen bird, one of the parents looked down from the ridge of the barn. What sort of grief does a vulture feel? It's not clear how the young bird died. There was no clear sign of damage on its body. 

Having not seen the adult vulture, or vultures, since that day, I now tell myself the story that the pair have headed off for another year of scavenging, to return again next spring, to make another go of raising young. We'll see if my story proves true this time.

Saturday, July 15, 2023

The Joys of Midsummer Music in the Woods

This is the third year that the Friends of Herrontown Woods has collaborated with actor Vivia Font and the Princeton Public Library to stage a mix of music and poetry on the tranquil grounds next to Veblen House. 

July 15 arrived, however, with ever-shifting predictions of rain that in turn finally prompted a shift of venue to the library's Community Room.

Despite the move indoors, the program proved a delight, and nature was not to be denied participation.


Vivia read some of her favorite poems on nature, including The Rose That Grew From Concrete, Who Has Seen the Wind, Morning Love Song, and Arbole, Arbole, which she read in both english and spanish. 

The energy generated on stage by the Ragtime Relics was channeled into dance (a friend told me the sophisticated dance was called a Balboa). 

And nature managed to participate through an open doorway, when a couple of our younger friends of Herrontown Woods decided it would be great fun to race across Hinds Plaza and back, just as the rain was reaching full tilt. Returning with their joy, they fed us as we were being fed by the music and poetry. 
(photo: Dottie Westgate)

Thanks to Vivia Font, the library's Janie Hermann, and FOHW's Inge Regan for organizing a midsummer event of such beauty and spirit.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

What's Bloomin' in the Barden in Early July

During our Sunday morning volunteer sessions at the Botanical Art Garden in Herrontown Woods, we've been doing lots of editing of nature's tremendous creativity. While we're weeding out low creepers like cinquefoil and vetch, limiting the prickly blackberries and wineberries, and pulling out vines like oriental bittersweet and Japanese honeysuckle, the native wildflowers have been cheering us on.

Here's the classic purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) blooming in the circle of labeled wildflowers around the gazebo.
Competing in the white spire category are bottlebrush buckeye,
Culver's Root,

Black Cohosh,
and Spanish Bayonet (Yucca filamentosa). Of these four spire-shaped flowers, only the black cohosh can be encountered along the trails. The others are native but not commonly seen growing in the wilds of Princeton.

There are still some clouds of Tall Meadow Rue blooming, 
and some beebalm poking through here and there.

This pokeweed was lucky to sprout in a spot large enough to accommodate its gracefully gangly growth. 

And I was surprised to find Enchanter's Nightshade looking so enchanting, on an embankment overlooking a stream next to the parking lot. 

One of my favorites, and a favorite of the pollinators, is Shrubby St. Johnswort. Walking by a six foot stand of it the other day, I was surprised by the intensity of the pollinators, and was reminded of a phrase in a poem close to my heart: "the bee-loud glade," from Yeats' The Lake Isle of Innisfree. To keep the paths clear, we're potting up this small shrub's many seedlings to sell to visitors to plant in their own yards.

Meanwhile, in the raingarden that protects Veblen House from runoff, a buttonbush is blooming near a bluebird house.

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Nature Walk Led by Sarah Roberts

Thanks to Sarah Roberts, native plant advocate, for leading a June 4 nature walk at Herrontown Woods. Sarah and her husband Larry tend to a beautiful garden in their backyard in Montgomery. 

The walk was organized by FOHW board member Inge Regan (left). That's Sarah in the middle. 

Serving ably as a sort of sweeper for the walk was Inge's son, Aidan, who walked ahead of the group, pruning back any foliage overhanging the trail--a bit like those team members with the brooms in curling. 

Nature walks at Herrontown Woods tend to happen on first Sundays. Check events at HerrontownWoods.org for details. 

Friday, June 16, 2023

New at the Barden: Installations and June Blooms

We recently completed some new installations at our award-winning Botanical Art Garden (BArden for short). One involved great effort; both involved considerable doses of serendipity. 

Our new gathering platform is now complete, made largely of scavenged materials. It is a layer cake of reuse, with repurposed boards and flooring supported by long, sturdy pallets stretched across two fallen pine trees. The rustic railings are crafted from well-preserved eastern red cedars that died long ago in the nearby woods after being shaded out by taller trees. 

Thanks to FOHW board member Scott Sillars for applying his skill and determination to completing this project. Maybe we should call it "Scott's Landing."

If you're sitting in the gazebo at the Barden and suddenly hear a soft chime in the distance, it is almost certainly coming from a newly acquired grandfather's clock. I had spotted it, put out with the trash on Snowden Lane, and thought "Wow! A grandfather clock on the curb!" But it wasn't of the quality that you'd want in your house. It took our caretaker, Andrew Thornton, to see the potential new career for this discard at the Barden. The dial even says "Country Time." 

Every garden clock deserves a nice roof, and we just happened to have a spare roof lying around, scavenged from discarded play equipment earlier this year. Hopefully the roof is sufficient to keep ol' granddad chiming.
Among the flowers blooming at the Barden:

Elderberry -- we're hoping to serve an elder flower beverage at the Veblen Birthday Bash, 4-8pm on June 24 next to Veblen House.
Common milkweed. We also have purple milkweed at the Barden, which has a deeper color to the flower.
Fringed loosestrife, whose shy flowers point down.

Lots of sundrop blooms this year. The closely related evening primrose will bloom later in the season.
Up at Veblen House, in the stone circle horse run, is moth mullein, a non-native. Wooly mullein is another non native that blooms later.