A Winter Welcoming

Hi! My name is Hannah Spencer and I’m the new Outreach Coordinator at Mountain Watershed. I’m delighted to be (virtually) introducing myself as a part of the organization and a new member of the Laurel Highlands community.

I was born and raised in rural West Virginia and developed a love of the outdoors at an early age when I would take walks in the woods with my dad. After graduating from West Virginia University with a B.S. in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Resources, I worked with various non-profits in the area. In 2014, I co-founded an outdoor education school based in Morgantown, WV called The Mountain Stewardship and Outdoor Leadership School.

I LOVE teaching kids in the woods! When my excitement about amazing life in the woods is reflected back in the faces of enthusiastic and active youngins, it’s like a sigh of relief. Nature is losing the battle in a man-made war but it’s stronghold lies with the knowledge, power, and love of the next generation. I am thrilled to be able to teach in the woods of the Indian Creek Valley!

But the best way I can think for ya’ll to get to know me a little better is to take you for a walk…

…shall we?

It’s hard to make time to get outside during the work week when it seems like there’s only 4 hours of daylight each day. Alright, that’s a slight exaggeration but I’m sure you know what I mean. I’m glad we’re taking this time to enjoy the fresh snow! Walking from the Mountain Watershed (MWA) office to a trailhead for the Indian Creek Valley Trail (ICVT) is just a short distance, and it’s my lunch break, so let’s take a walk down to the trail.

The ICVT was developed on an old railroad grade and currently runs from Jones Mills to just past Indian Head. You can pick up the trail again in the Indian Creek “Gorge” near Camp Christian.

For now, we’ll walk on the Melcroft stretch of trail heading South. Between the MWA office and the trailhead you can see wetlands on either side of the road. Wetlands are diverse habitats and also act as natural water filters. Did you know a wetland is like a sponge? When there’s too much rain for the creek banks to hold, these wetlands near the creek soak up much of the excess water like a sponge. All of the plants that make up a wetland help filter the water so by the time it returns to the creek, it has been cleaned of sediment.

This wetland is thick with cattails. That’s good though! Small fish and other little aquatic critters use the submerged bases of the cattails as a safe haven and hiding spot from predators, like snapping turtles and great blue herons.

I imagine the wetland produces a wonderful chorus during early spring when the frogs start to sing.

Now that we’re on the trail, I’ll let you in on a favorite winter hobby of mine…winter tracking! We all know there are plenty of animals scurrying about in the woods at any given time but we rarely see them. Why? Humans are noisy! With their sharp sense of hearing, most animals can HEAR us before we can SEE them.

On a wintertime morning after a fresh snow blankets the ground…THAT is the best time to go for a walk. Although you won’t be able to see most of the animals, you will certainly be able to see the tracks of who has been scurrying about.

Keep your eyes peeled for some animal tracks along the trail…

Found some!

So there are a few things these tracks are telling us.

Do you see how it looks like there are only two legs? In the picture, starting from the bottom of the photo, you can see the left foot – then the right foot – then the left again.

But what bipedal animal with small feet would be walking on the trail?

This is no bipedal animal, my friend. This is a four-legged animal!

We call this direct register. Cats and foxes walk this way. They step their hind foot in almost exactly the same spot as the front foot! This method of walking allows for a stealthy, intentional stride.

But how do we know if this is a cat or a fox? Well, you can determine canines (coyotes and foxes) from felines (bobcats and house cats) by looking at the tracks. Felines have retractable claws while canines do not. If you see toe marks in your track, you’re likely looking at a canine track!

These tracks have claw marks and a more oval-shaped print (felines are circular rather than oval) so we can determine this was a small canine with direct register. Hmm…a fox has been using the trail!

Let’s continue and see what else we can find.

Oh! Look!

Why are we looking at this dead tree? We call it a snag! Did you know dead trees are like the skyscraper hotels of the woods? Tons of critters live here, but not forever. The trees eventually decompose!

Hey, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker!

No, I wasn’t talking about you.

Woodpeckers love snags for multiple reasons. Think about those tiny, crawly bugs living and nibbling on the dead tree. Those are fantastic woodpecker snacks! To get to the bugs in the core, the woodpeckers use their beaks to bang against the side of the tree and chip away the bark until they finally find a crawly bug.

Pileated woodpeckers very quickly make BIG holes in the snags. Those holes, once the tree starts to hollow, make great homes for squirrels, raccoons, owls, and even wood ducks.

Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, like the female bird on this tree, drill smaller holes in a nearly straight line across the tree trunk. Next time you’re out on the trail, look for a line of small holes. The sapsuckers particularly like to search for bugs in Tulip trees!

Let’s carry on…

Hey, do you see how this rhododenron bush’s leaves are pointed toward the ground, all huddled up under the snow? At freezing temperatures, they droop and curl, releasing water from their cells and shielding themselves from becoming ice cubes. The tigther the curl, the lower the temperature!

Whose feet are these and what direction is he going?

Wow, those are some long feet. What animal do you know has long feet?

Rabbits have BIG back feet compared to their small front feet. When a rabbit hops, it lunges forward on its front feet then swings its hind feet forward – ahead of its front feet. Have you ever tried doing that? It’s hard!

Anyways, this rabbit was going the way we’re going. Looks like someone else was through this area earlier. I can also teach you how to track your friends! But, we’ll save that for another time.

Since it’s my lunch break and we’re closeby, let’s swing by G&D Market for some homemade pepperoni rolls straight out of the oven!

Thank you for taking a stroll through the woods with me today. I hope you learned a thing or two. I love to share what I know about the woods.

If you would like to take a walk again, let me know! I’m going to be scheduling guided walks, educational activities, workshops, and much more for this upcoming year.

Some of my favorite things to teach about are:

  • medicinal plants
  • tracking
  • tree identification
  • aquatic insect identification
  • birding
  • survival skills
  • gardening

Lessons on these subjects can be adapted for classroom visits, field trips, guided walks, and workshops for community and private groups. No worries, I can teach these topics to adults too!

If you are interested in learning in the woods with me, reach out! You can email me at Hannah@mtwatershed.com or call me at the office, 724-455-4200, ext 4#.

Thank you again for joining me today. I am excited to meet y’all in person!