Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Memorial Day Hike Full of Surprises

Beth and I decided to go on a hike to celebrate having a day off and no place else to be for once. We debated on going to Raccoon Ridge, but didn't feel up to a 6.5 mile round-trip hike that was "challenging" as the Appalachian Mountain Club put it in their book. Instead, we headed for Kittatinny Valley State Park. It's a place I'd heard about due to its prevelance of many hard-to-find butterfly species and a good host of breeding birds.

We arrived at the trail around 11:00 AM and quickly became aware of the armies of biting and buzzing insects that would follow us for the rest of the day. I always say the only thing worse than a buzzing insect in your ear is one that buzzes quickly and then becomes silent. You know you're getting munched on then. So, we began our walk on a lovely gravel path. The first new thing we discovered was a wildflower - Dame's Rocket (pictured) - a relatively common, but beautiful purple (or sometimes white) flower. We heard Rose-breasted Grosbeak and Ovenbird and saw many dragonflies zipping around. Spicebush Swallowtails and Little Wood Satyrs darted through the understory as well.

We came to a path that lead to a large bog. Here we found some interesting plants including many Ox-eye Daisies, Sweet Yellow Clover, Black Medick, and Larger Blue Iris. Dragonflies included Dot-tailed White-face, Ashy Clubtail (pictured), and an unidentified Spreadwing Damselfly species. Beth called me over to a little bridge that had a very strange thing beneath it (most likely Emerald Spreadwing). There was literally a PILE of Northern Water Snakes. I can only assume that there was a nest nearby or that these were a family group. Not knowing much about the life history of these snakes, I can only speculate. It made for some interesting viewing to say the least. Some Waxwings, a Tree Swallow, and a Great-crested Flycatcher rounded out the wildlife on this little side stop.


We continued down the main trail and eventually arrived at the main entrance of the park. Summer seems to have arrived overnight in NJ and the sun was blazing hot. We quickly moved through the open areas and back to the trail beside Aeroflex Lake. Beneath an oak tree we found a peculiar plant. It looked like a pale pinecone growing from the ground with no noticeable leaves. It had protuberences that looked like flowers and the bees seemed to like them. We thumbed through our field guides (Newcomb and Peterson) and couldn't identify it. I thought it might have been a fungus of some kind. Only later, with some help from some internet folks, did we discover that this plant is called Squawroot. It's a parasitic plant that tends to favor oak tree roots. It's more or less harmless to the tree. Very funky.

Our trip continued through the much cooler forest. Our guidebook was a little questionable on some of the details of the last leg of the trip and we ended up taking a slight detour. Red trail... orange trail... what's the difference?! Well, we ended up getting a bit more exercise than we planned, but we did eventually find the trail back to our car. The extra bit of adventure landed us some nice pics of a Wood Frog and a big ol' Narceus millipede. I'll admit that I had a small moment of concern when the water was low and we hadn't seen anyone in a while. Then the sounds of the highway quickly brought me back to reality. We eventually found our way back to our car where a nice cold bottle of water and some cheese crackers awaited us.

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