Sunday, May 04, 2014

Climbing Baldpate Mountain

A friend turning 60 invited fellow nature lovers near and dear to join her for a birdwalk up wooded trails to the highest point in Mercer County, Baldpate Mountain. Located near Howell History Farm, it's about a 25 minute drive from Princeton.

The turnout on a glorious day was such that we split into two groups, with Sharyn Magee leading one, and Tyler Christensen leading the other. Tyler is featured in the documentary Field Biologist, which had its premier this year.

As we gathered in the parking lot, most eyes and ears were trained on bird life in the surrounding trees, but the pervious pavement silently holding us up caught my attention.

There's a lot of it, so to speak, and its installation is much more elaborate than its simple appearance would suggest. Pervious pavement--the sort that lets water filter through it--doesn't accomplish much unless the soil underneath is pervious, too, and that can mean bringing in a lot of pervious material to underlie the pavement.

The most striking feature of the forest this time of year is the lush layer of shrubbery greening up ahead of the trees. This is the ubiquitous "second forest", the layer of species--multiflora rose, barberry, honeysuckle, privet--imported from other continents that now dominates beneath the native trees. I bet the megafauna would have devoured it, but they're all gone, and all we have at this point is deer, and they aren't biting, so the "second forest" forms a largely inedible blanket over the land.

Here and there are toothworts, bellworts, rue anemones and other remnants of the glorious legacy of spring ephemeral wildflowers that would have once carpeted this slope. The way it worked was that the wildflowers would come up early and opulent in the spring, flower with abandon, set seed and store up enough solar energy for the next year, all facilitated by the trees' delayed awakening. By the time the tree leaves cast a dense shade, the wildflowers were already fading back into the earth to remain dormant until the next year.

It's a fine recipe for diversity, with the big, dominating woody plants auspiciously holding off on hogging the sunlight until the diminutive wildflowers get a good dose. The nonnative shrubs, having evolved a different timing on other continents, throw a wrench in the works by leafing out early.

But this was a bird walk, so even plant people like me eventually trained our eyes skyward, at first to see how the white oaks managed an uncanny imitation of shagbark hickories further up along the trunk.

Many kinds of birds were heard, and some seen, such as the blue-headed vireo and the black and white warbler, agile in their kinetic search for insects high in the canopy. Tyler turned out to be a talented imitator of birdsongs. Perhaps most talented of all were the birds themselves, using their small size to advantage as they maneuvered deftly from one twig to the next, snapping up whatever insect life the vaulted canopy had to offer.

My contribution was spotting a small, round nest of unknown make, about ten feet off the ground.

We took a right turn off the Summit Trail to visit the Welling/Burd homestead, with its springfed pond and

springhouse with richly patterned stonework

and a richly patterned view of the pond from the other side. What a treasured spot is a natural spring, and this one like others I've encountered was but a few hundred feet down the slope from the ridge.

The farm house, made of wood rather than stone, has suffered the usual double whammy of vandalism and institutional neglect. The farmstead and much of the mountain is owned by the county, which chooses which buildings it will put to public use and lets the rest go into decline unchecked, until they become hazardous enough to demolish.

This distant view of the farmstead would have included a big barn until a couple years ago. I've heard that the county tore it down without notifying those who had wished to deconstruct it in order to save and reuse its beams. Where some see history, value and opportunity in historic structures, a government tends to see liability and burden, and views demolition as progress.

The Ridge Trail took us past the last flowering bloodroot of the season, tucked away in its own microclimate at the base of a tree,

and finally to a view of the Delaware River.

Down the slope is a complex of buildings, including a lodge and visitors' center, into which public funds were poured for high end restoration, including a roomy patio overlooking the valley. The old cistern still holds water.

I had thought that black vultures perch only on neglected buildings, but these two prefer an upscale perch, at least on weekends.

While others sought a glimpse of the elusive pine warbler, I checked out the wildflower garden just beginning to awaken. It was a glorious day spent on high ground, and a fine way to celebrate 60 years filled with nature and friendship.

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