By Carrie Scheick, Teen Naturalist Program Leader
In August, the Teen Naturalists took off to the Laurel Highlands in Southwestern Pennsylvania. This trip was unlike the other week-long adventures I’ve run – each day was a flurry of activities and completely unique. We hiked (above and below ground!), climbed, and rafted our way through the Laurel Highlands for the week.
On Monday, we arrived at Ohiopyle State Park and set up our camp for the week. After being in the van for so long, we needed to stretch our legs. We headed into the town of Ohiopyle to hike at the Ferncliff Natural Area. This 2.4 mile loop is on a peninsula within the Lower Youghiogheny River. This unique peninsula has plants that are unusual for Pennsylvania. The shape of the river creates a microclimate, a small, specific place where the climate differs from the surrounding area. The warmer temperatures allows certain plants to grow in this northern region. The first part of the hike was along the edge of the Lower Youghiogheny River and we had a great time rock scrambling along the river. The trail then turns into the forest and loops back around.
That evening during our fabulous Mexican themed dinner, thunder continually rumbled in the distance. The storm slowly drew closer as we continued to eat. The storm eventually snuck up on us as a loud CRASH of lightning within a short distance of us surprised us all. Storms kept popping up despite our constant radar checking, so we were in and out of the van until about 1:30am when the storms finally subsided. Never a dull moment with the Teen Naturalists.
We all groggily got up the next morning and headed to Powdermill Nature Reserve to check out their bird banding program. It’s part of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the reserve has been banding birds since the 1960s and has banded about 125 different species.
The research center uses mist nets, which are fragile, mesh nets to catch the birds. The mist nets are opened a half-hour before sunrise and are open for about six hours (weather depending). The mist nets are open in certain rotating sections within the preserve to minimize wildlife disturbance. Staff and volunteers also trim the vegetation within the area to maintain the habitat and keep vegetation level with the nets. By keeping the nets and vegetation of similar heights, the birds won’t see the nets as they are foraging/looking for insects and fly into them. We went to check the nets around the pond with Mary, one of Powdermill’s volunteers. Two birds were in the nets, a Black and White Warbler and a Catbird.
We walked back to the banding station where Luke Degroote, Avian Ecologist and Bird Banding Program Coordinator, was entering data. Some measurements taken of each bird include sex, weight, wing length, and fat content. These measurements tell bird biologists about the bird’s health and can help them track populations, movement, and migration patterns.
We got to see a lot of different species of birds, it was a busy day! Most of the birds we saw were currently changing their feathers, as breeding season comes to an end and migration season will start. Luke got us up close and personal to a number of different species including a juvenile Red-eyed Vireo (I learned those birds don’t have the red eye until they mature!), Canada Warbler, Swainson’s Thrush, American Redstart, Carolina Wren, Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Kentucky Warbler.
In addition to banding, Powdermill is currently researching ways to minimize bird strikes, when birds collide with human-made objects such as windows, which can sometimes be fatal to the birds. They are researching different patterned glass to see if birds can see that glass better than clear glass. UV glass and criss-cross patterned has shown to be effective in their trials so far.
Afterwards, we went to Laurel Summit State Park and hiked the Wolf Rocks Trail. The trail was rugged, full of rocks and roots, challenging your foot placement with every step. Waist high ferns lined the trail and covered the thick, forest floor. It was awesome to see a forest with such a high and healthy fern population. My usual stomping grounds in Delaware and Maryland are covered in an invasive species called Japanese stilt grass that out-competes the native ferns. We hiked about 2.5 miles to the Wolf Rocks Overlook for lunch and took our one and only group picture from our trip before retracing our steps.
After our hike we were sweaty and smelly, so that naturally called for use to play in the Youghiogheny River back at Ohiolpyle State Park. Loaded hot dogs and s’mores followed in our down time back at camp, and that night we didn’t have any thunder to keep us from sleeping peacefully.
Pancakes kicked off the day on Wednesday. (Is there a better way to start a day? I think not.) We spent the day rock climbing adjacent to Meadow Run, one of the tributaries of the Youghiogheny River. We climbed 3 different routes, that were challenging and a lot of fun. I was impressed with the teens for challenging themselves (especially the ones who were not fond of heights!) and letting our guides encourage and push each of them to climb higher.
After climbing we followed Meadow Run back to the natural waterslides in Ohiopyle. We spent some time sliding down the rocks (aka tearing up our bathing suits), and jumping off rocks into the water. A relaxing evening of pasta, apples-to-apples, and of course, s’mores rounded out our evening.
Thursday was whitewater rafting day – one of the most highly anticipated activities of our trip. It was my fault that this morning was cloudy and the coolest morning of our trip so far (because I obviously control the weather). We met up with our fabulous river guides and put in the river just below the falls we hiked around on Monday. The Lower Youghiogheny is full of Class III rapids that we surfed, spun around, and paddled through like champs. I personally had been rafting before, but the Yough seemed like each rapid was unique; I can still picture specific ones and our maneuvers through them very clearly. We had a great experience and the teens had a blast; you can tell from these pictures!
After changing into warm, dry clothes, we spent the afternoon wandering around and exploring the town of Ohiopyle. After having our first dinner of pizza (mac and cheese would be our second dinner later in the evening) we stopped at Cucumber Falls, a waterfall that flows into the Lower Youghiogheny River. We played under the falls and rock-scrambled down the stream to the river.
After breaking down camp Friday morning, we headed to the Laurel Caverns for a lower cave experience. A handful of us had been to various caving tours and explored Wind Cave a couple years back, but none of us had ever been underground in a 49-52 degree cave for several hours. We laced up our boots, strapped our headlamps to our helmets, and took a deep breath as we headed underground. There was a lot of hype about this activity, but I personally would describe our guided lower caving experience as rock scrambling, but underground. It was not as claustrophobic as we anticipated, because you could challenge yourself as much or as little as you wanted to. Our guide gave us challenges such as wiggling through small spaces between boulders and popping up on the other side, army crawling through a 40-degree stream, and turning off our headlamps to climb up and under a large boulder (that challenge was like an awesome team building activity, I loved it!) We didn’t bring any cameras with us and were all so ready to get out of our wet, muddy clothes afterwards, that we don’t have any awesome pictures from caving. However, this isn’t the first time the Teen Naturalists have traveled to Laurel Caverns, so check out this throwback photo from 2006!
After we cleaned up, we ate lunch before climbing into the van to begin our journey back to Delaware. How do you end such an awesome week-long trip? By having everyone fall asleep within the first 10 minutes of the van ride home. Now that’s what I call a successful Teen Naturalist adventure.
If you know someone who is 13 to 17 years old who would likes to study nature, be adventuring outside, making friends that enjoy the same thing, and might like a trip such as this, tell them about the Delaware Nature Society’s Teen Naturalist group. Find information here www.delnature.org/TeenNaturalists about registering for the 2015-2016 season or call us at (302) 239-2334 x 134.