Explore, Enjoy, and Protect the Planet

On The Trail — March 2008

An Early Spring Hike in Stone Valley

by Dr. Stan Kotala

March brings the awakening of spring, with honking flocks of Canada geese flying overhead, lakes covered with tundra swans, and marshes resounding with spring peeper choruses. One of the best places to observe the turning of the seasons is 72 acre Lake Perez in the 7,000 acre Stone Valley Recreation Area surrounding Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center.

The Stone Valley Recreation Area contains 29 miles of trails, but for observing the changes heralding spring, it’s best to take the Lake Trail, a 3-mile long footpath with gentle slopes and great views of the water.

Begin your hike by parking at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. If the center’s open, stop in to pick up a trail map (a map can be viewed at http://www.psu.edu/Stone_Valley/documents/trailmap.pdf). Enter the orange-blazed Lake Trail via the wooden portal and pass through a grove of larch trees (a deciduous conifer) and stay to the right, taking a detour onto the Grapevine Trail, eventually reaching a boardwalk from which you can look upstream into the swamp surrounding the mouth of Shaver’s Creek at the lake.

Listen for spring peepers, a tiny frog with a big voice, singing in chorus. They’ll enliven the nights from now till May as they breed in the wetland. You may also hear the quacking song of the wood frog, a large amphibian that comes to seasonal pools to breed and lay eggs. Both the spring peeper and the wood frog spend the rest of the year in the surrounding woodlands. Also look for red-spotted newts in the water. Red-spotted newts have a complex life cycle: they lay their eggs in the water, have aquatic larval forms, and an aquatic adult form that is olive in color, but also a terrestrial form known as the red eft, a common orange-colored salamander that you can frequently encounter walking about the forest floor.

From the boardwalk platform, look out over the lake. On a good day, you may see dozens of waterfowl loafing on the water. Continue along the boardwalk and rejoin the orange-blazed Lake Trail in a hemlock forest, turning right and walking among these beautiful evergreen trees. Spotted and Jefferson salamanders pass through this forest to reach vernal pools where they’ll lay their eggs, safe from fish predation.

You’ll soon emerge from the hemlock woods onto the parking area for the Stone Valley Recreation Area. Follow the lakeshore, keeping an eye out for waterfowl. At this time of year, you may see tundra swans, Canada geese, hooded mergansers, red-breasted mergansers, common mergansers, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, American widgeons, gadwals, mallards, and black ducks loafing on the lake. Note that some waterfowl dive beneath the surface while others feed on the surface or by “tipping up” so that their bills reach submerged food.

As you walk along the manicured public use area note the difference in the abundance of species. Continue on along the lake, and keep scanning the water’s surface for ducks, geese, and swans. Don’t forget to look overhead, for this is the time of the osprey’s arrival. A long-distance migrant, the osprey winters in Central and South America, returning to our area to breed. An osprey hacking program at Raystown Lake several years ago should result in mature birds returning to central Pennsylvania soon for nesting. Ospreys, also known as fish hawks, hunt by hovering over the water looking for fish and then steeply diving down into the water with outstretched talons, hoping to grab their aquatic prey and then fly off to eat it on a nearby tree.

Leaving the manicured public use area, on your left is a hillside covered with hemlocks and some deciduous trees. Golden-crowned kinglets, tiny birds that have a habit of hovering to look for insects under branches, can often be seen in these woods. On your right notice the small deciduous trees called alders, which have tiny cones resembling those of pines. Alders like the water’s edge habitat and are important nitrogen-fixing plants.

Soon you’ll arrive at the dam which will give you a panoromic view of the lake looking northward. In the distance you’ll see the blue outlines of Tussey Mountain and Rudy Ridge. From this vantage point you can scan the lake for common loons, horned grebes, pied-billed grebes, ring-necked ducks, lesser scaup, and other waterfowl. Cross the dam and ascend the shale-covered road, following the orange Lake Trail markers. Pass through a woodland and emerge at the road leading to the Civil Engineering Lodge. Cross the asphalt road and enter the woods dominated by white and red pines. A narrow powerline clearing provides early successional habitat for birds such as the field sparrow and the yellow-breasted chat. Listen for drumming ruffed grouse in this area. They sound like a muffled lawn mower trying to start. This drumming sound is their “song,” made by beating their wings in a crescendo fashion.

Ascending into the woods again, notice the mixed deciduous/coniferous forest around you. Look and listen for downy woodpeckers, black-capped chickadees, and white-breasted nuthatches that make up the mixed flocks that travel through this wood in search of food. As you reach the high point of this wooded hill, you’ll notice the sugar maples that dominate the crest. Now’s the time to gather maple sap and further along this trail we’ll see more evidence of this industry.

Watch for protruding roots along the path as you descend the hill, heading toward a secluded cove of Lake Perez. As you near the water’s edge, scan for waterfowl in the cove. Common goldeneyes, green-winged teal, and black ducks have been seen in this quiet portion of the lake. Also scan the surrounding trees for a kingfisher and listen for his rattling call.

Keep your eyes peeled for the orange blazes.Make sure you don’t miss the sharp right-hand turn made by the Lake Trail at the mouth of this cove, over a small wooden bridge. As you ascend the small hill, watch out for exposed roots. Also take note of the understory dominated by the alien invasive privet, a landscaping shrub that is a serious threat to native plants. See how it has overtaken most of the habitat upslope of the trail.

Soon you’ll pass to the right of a small clearing near another of the lake’s coves. Look for eastern bluebirds, friendly members of the thrush family that “carry the sky on their backs.” They nest in tree cavities and in the small bird houses mounted on poles in the clearing. Continue on through the woods, looking and listening for wildlife. After you cross the stream via a culvert bridge follow the orange blazes to the right, and up the old carriage road.

Downslope on your right you’ll see the sugar shack, where sugar maple sap is boiled to make maple syrup. The sap’s running now, so syrup-making time is fast approaching. If you’d like to see how the syrup’s made, then come to the Shaver’s Creek Maple Harvest Festival on Saturday, March 29 and Sunday, March 30. During the festival, you’ll learn how to identify and tap sugar maple trees and watch costumed interpreters demonstrate sugaring techniques used by Native Americans, pioneers, and modern-day farmers. There will also be live music, birds-of-prey and reptile shows, and an all-you-can-eat pancake and sausage breakfast. Check it out at http://www.outreach.psu.edu/shaverscreek/index-maple-harvest-festival.html.

At the top of the hill, you’ll see the Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center and the parking lot, your start and end points for this hike. The Lake Trail offers a great way to see wildlife and enjoy one of Penn State’s crown jewels, the Stone Valley Recreation Area. Hope to see you at the Maple Harvest Festival on the last weekend in March!

Dr. Stan Kotala is the Endangered Species and Wildlife Chair on the Executive Committee of the Moshannon Group of the Sierra Club