Thursday, August 16, 2012

Platte Clove Residency: Coastal Differences

View of Devil's Path Trail; Catskills; NY; July 2012
Five years ago, while traveling in South America, I met a young woman from the West Coast of the United States. After the trip, we corresponded for a while, and she related news of her move from southern California to New England. An outdoorsy sort, she prioritized exploration of the parks in her new neck of the woods, but she wrote that the eastern forests unnerved her. During the summer months especially, they seemed dense and suffocating, a patchwork of green that closed in around her.

At the time, her observation amused me. Having grown up on the East Coast, I was at home in the mixed deciduous and pine forests of eastern North America. By contrast, the Endor-like redwood and sequoia forests of the Pacific coast and the mixed coniferous forests of the continental divide and the American Southwest, environments in which I'd had little or no experience but with which my friend was very familiar, seemed otherworldly to me.

Now, however, a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area for over two years, I'm accustomed to the rolling, golden landscapes of the East Bay and the Peninsula and I'm nowhere happier than in the soaring canopy of the Pacific coastal forests. Here, because the trails are generally more broad and the undergrowth and trees more sparse than is typical of eastern woodlands, wildlife viewing is easier than it is "back East." But while Bay Area hikers are often granted excellent views of birds and mammals, long minutes will occasionally pass without our seeing or hearing any fauna at all. By contrast, East Coast forests offer a greater relative density of animal life; there, you're always seeing or hearing something.

This fact was plain when I visited the Catskills this July. During my time in New York's woods, there was rarely a quiet moment; grey squirrels chattered, red-eyed vireos called, woodpeckers rapped at tree trunks, Eastern chipmunks scampered through dry forest litter. It's noteworthy, though, that all of these creatures were generally heard and not seen. Branches and undergrowth obscured my view or hid wildlife from sight entirely; many birds went unidentified because I have an untrained ear (truly competent birders can identify a species by call, a skill I'm only just beginning to hone). Even in clearings, where I waited for birds to wing through, I was limited to fleeting glimpses, birds that cheeped across my field of vision but vanished in the shaded shrubs and saplings fringing the glade.

I'm a casual, but conscientious birder. I note all the species I see on a day's outing, and a typical California hike will result in list of a dozen species or more, but my list for three days in the Catskills only includes six species seen: the Eastern phoebe (discussed at length in an earlier post); a dark-eyed junco; black-capped chickadee; turkey vultures; a veery or Swainson's thrush (I didn't get a good look); and a hen ruffed grouse. It was a treat to see so many Eastern chipmunks, a number of American toads, and several wood frogs, but the wildlife highlight of the trip was, without a doubt, an American black bear. In part because of the Catskills' dense growth, said bear and I had an uncomfortably close encounter, which I'll relate in my upcoming essay.

Image credits: photograph, Christopher Reiger, 2012

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