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Sights & Sounds of an Overnighter at Patapsco SP; Tracking Change in a Piece of the Forest

written during the course of Thursday evening and Friday morning

The New York Times has a blog tracking the season in a patch of Staten Island forest. I’m intrigued by the concept, enjoy reading the updates, and love seeing the seasonal changes through photography.

I’ve wanted to do the same but couldn’t decide on what piece of forest inspires me to track on a regular basis. Today I’m camping at Patapso Valley State Park,  in the same spot as two weeks ago: I’ll claim this. Of course, there’ll be a big difference in the writing results: I’m a beginning naturalist; the New York Times blogger is a professional botanist and urban ecologist. But I hope to have some fun with it. Here’s my slice of forest I’ll watch:

The orange-blazed Charcoal Trail circles the campground. Two weeks ago, I saw a fox running along the trail in the early morning. It paused & stared at me for a few seconds, I did the same to him. And then he trotted off.

Today’s visitor is a squirrel. Here’s he’s gnawing on an old acorn. It’s so quiet here this weekday evening that I can hear him gnawing. I’ve never heard that before.

My campsite faces west – into the setting sun. Sunlight is glinting off of a cobweb. As soon as kids arrive for the weekend, they’ll run between those trees and the web will be gone.

Specks of insects are seen flitting in the sun rays. Flies are biting at my ankles. I haven’t been bitten by any mosquitos yet, and I haven’t seen any stink bugs. There are a lot of moths. I was able to catch up with one to get a pic.

There’s a handful of different bird songs.

Exploring, I find this “exploded” fungi (?):

Here’s what it looked like a month ago:

A solitary May-apple:

Paw paw:

And I think this is an invasive:

Curiously, there’s several rocks that obviously have been shifted:


I heard crashing through the vegetation, along the trail. Caught a glimpse of movement – larger than a squirrel. The fox? Or a deer? Or a mountain biker? Walking around the campground, there’s a fawn in one of the sites. She stares and watches me. I do the same to her. I give up before she does.

7:44pm and I hear a barred owl. Nothing signifies forest to me like the “woo hoo hoo hoo” of a barred owl. I heard one in March here in PVSP, as I was walking along the Grist Mill trail, a week after the time change. I haven’t heard one since; it’s good to hear it.

I think there may actually be two owls – calling to each other. But the sounds are far off. It’s kinda like one of those industrial hearing tests, where you sit in a small closet and the sounds get fainter and fainter and you have to use the clicker & say which ear you hear the sound in.

7:49 and the mosquitos have arrived. I douse myself with a natural bug repellant purchased at a craft fair: distilled water & citronella essential oil. It works.

I sit and watch. Cause you don’t actually see anything when you first look. You have to be still. And wait. To see.

A squirrel just walked along the bench of my picnic table. I could actually hear his paw steps. He and a friend or two are keeping me company this evening. Along with a variety of bird chatter. There’s only two other campsites occupied; and the campers are off somewhere for the evening. It’s very quiet here.

One nite last year I camped here after it had rained a lot – for several weeks. It was so quiet I could hear the rushing water off in the distance. I imagined it was the Patapsco River, but maybe it was just a very full Sawmill Branch creek, which is much closer to the campground.

Being out in nature is said to improve your eyesight because you’re looking farther off in the distance. (Except when you’re writing at the picnic table and looking at your computer monitor …) I think being out in nature improves your hearing too. Your ears focus on sounds, trying to understand what it could be. And nature introduces such a variety of sounds that you don’t hear at the office.

A robin comes scampering across the forest floor. He pauses when I reach for my binoculars, then flies off to a tree & tweeps. Even though it’s getting dark, I can see him with my binoculars. His whole body shakes as he tweeps, as if it’s taking the utmost energy to get that sound out.

As darkness descends, I’m amazed by the variety of bird song I still hear.


I’m woken in the middle of the night with the waxing moon shining brightly like a flashlight into my tent. The sky is clear. I’m too drowsy to get out to look for stars though. They’re often hard to see this time of year at PVSP anyway – bright moon, thick overhead canopy of foliage, and light pollution from the Baltimore metropolitan area.


I wake to bird chatter, a very cloudy sunrise, and a faint sprinkle of rain. When camping, I’m much more attuned to the weather changes. The sky was clear just a few hours ago, now it may rain anytime. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed at home.

There’s time after dismantling my tent and packing up gear for an early morning hike. I take sections of Charcoal trail around the campground to end up at my favorite spot in this area of PVSP – along the Sawmill Branch where the white-blazed Santee Branch trail intersects with the red-blazed Sawmill Branch trail trail:

I think it’s a pretty spot and I love the gurgling of the stream. It’s very peaceful. There’s still debris indicating how high the creek became during last fall’s tropical storms:


On the other hand, I amuse myself here … As an ex-mountain bike racer, I enjoy watching the riders descend the Santee Branch trail before encountering the stream crossing. It’s an easy line across the creek, but a sharp right turn off the trail to start the crossing. If you don’t hit the rocks on the stream bank correctly, you don’t make it. Most don’t. And if you go back to try again, you don’t have the momentum of the Santee Branch trail downhill to assist you. About 1 in 10 get it right.

Heading back to my campsite, I find a patch of wildflowers along the electrical line swath.  I’ll keep them at thumbnails as my photography skills apparently were weak this morning.


Here are more wildflowers, multiflora rose, and some pretty grass found during my visit 2 weeks ago:

Before 8:30am, I’m in my car heading to the day’s responsibilities.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. That was an excellent post, a good read and good photography to go with it. Made me wish I were there to hear the squirrels too. I think that all of our senses become more acute if we spend enough time outdoors and pay attention to what they are trying to tell us.

    June 2, 2012
  2. Thank you so much! It was such a delightful evening, and writing a post like that felt like I was sharing it with others.

    June 2, 2012

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