Rock-Flipping Day

rock bridge

International Rock-Flipping Day, September 2, 2007This is the rock bridge I cross a dozen times a day on my way between my house and my parents’ house. It’s a ten-inch thick, four-foot long slab of Juniata sandstone, bashed from its resting place in the middle of the Plummer’s Hollow boulevard by my Dad’s bulldozer during a major road upgrade project back in 1994, and installed by yours truly, with tractor, a few months later. It spans a drainage ditch where water only intermittently appears on the surface. But since we let the lawn revert to weeds (around the same time we improved the road), the surrounding area has turned into a wetland of sorts, and one can often hear lonesome water gurgling a foot or two underground.

My first impulse — being the sensitive, poet-type guy I am — was to let the bridge keep its secrets to itself.

bridge meets bucket 1

My second impulse was to get out the heavy machinery.

bridge meets bucket 2

Dad volunteered to operate the bucket while I snapped pictures. Kids and adults gathered ’round for the momentous Flipping of the Bridge. My cousin Jeff said he hadn’t felt so much anticipation since Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault live on teevee.

under the bridge 1

The bridge-rock came loose from its moorings with a minimum of fuss. The backhoe stood it on its side with one metal finger. It seemed safe to approach.

under the bridge 3

We found… mud. The adults jeered. But Devon and Morgan seemed able to appreciate its finer qualities. This wasn’t like finding some low grade of bituminous in your stocking on Christmas morning. This was good, dark, rich, mud.

under the bridge 4

Could we get another shot of that, please?

Who knows when I would ever see the underside of this rock again.

under the bridge 2

Jeff took the camera and got a picture of me as I lay on my belly, taking one last, long look before we set the rock back down. Wait, what’s that? Something moved!

under the bridge 5

A cricket clung to the underside of the rock, its antennae twitching. This was, unless I am mistaken, the northern fall field cricket, Gryllus pennsylvanicus. You’ve heard them, I’m sure. This species calls all day and most of the night, and like many crickets, seeks out places with good acoustics in order to play its lonesome song and draw as many groupies as possible; the long, narrow space between the rock and the mud might or might not qualify. I’d hate to think we raised the roof right in the middle of a rock concert.

The bridge didn’t quite return to its original bed at first. Dad had to use the back of the bucket to push it into place.

tractor ride

The kids quickly forgot their disappointment. I’m sure they will long remember the scientific lessons and natural wonders of their first-ever International Rock-Flipping Day.

The last in a series. See also Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. And don’t forget the check out the other participants’ blog posts, linked to at the bottom of Part 2.

flipping rocks

International Rock-Flipping Day, September 2, 2007My young cousin Morgan had so much fun exploring the mountain with her Great Aunt Marcia last year on Labor Day weekend, she brought along her best friend Devon this time. They arrived around 10:00 and wanted to go down to the stream and start looking under rocks right away.

salamander

Salamanders of two main species — slimy and northern dusky — live under the rocks in abundance, but not the ones out in the water, which was mostly where the kids wanted to be. With two kids, the energy level was quite high, and splashing in the water, debarking rotten logs, and looking for wild mushrooms often diverted their attention from the task at hand. Plus, only Mom was quick enough to actually catch a salamander — or perhaps it was just that she didn’t recoil from their slimy skin. The kids wanted to take one home with them, but we explained how these were lungless salamanders that breathed directly through their skins, and that they would die if removed from their subterranean homes.

earthworm

We found a couple of earthworms, and Morgan was delighted with a small one that quickly came to life on her hand and circled her thumb. She was having such a good time, Mom and I couldn’t bring ourselves to mention that it was a non-native, invasive species, like almost all earthworms north of the Mason-Dixon line. Why risk spoiling the magic of discovery with a dose of gloom and doom?

coon tracks

Other rock-flippers had preceded us that morning, but we weren’t lucky enough to catch sight of them — unlike Fred First, who won the IRFD Grand Prize for getting a picture of something other than a human flipping a rock yesterday, which we will consequently have to rename Interspecies Rock-Flipping Day. (And no, I still haven’t figured out what the prize will be. Any suggestions?)

crayfish

Many of the rocks in the stream concealed crayfish burrows, which Devon in particular took great delight in finding. When I caught an actual crayfish, though, neither one of them could be convinced to hold it. It waved its claws belligerently at me as I crouched to take its picture.

wood frog rock 2

About a quarter mile below the houses, we came to an area where Mom had taken a couple of other kids earlier in the week. Judging by the print on top of this rock, not all the rocks had been returned to their exact positions. That’s probably O.K. for creek stones, though — they get moved around quite a bit in the normal course of events, so the creatures that live under them must be adapted to a fair amount of turmoil.

wood frog

The rock with the rock-print on it turned out to be hiding a wood frog! Mom said they had found a frog here the other day, too, under a different rock — presumably the same individual. As their name suggests, wood frogs (Rana sylvatica) live in the woods, and we tend to think of them as needing water only during their brief mating season in early spring, when they crowd ephemeral woodland pools for raucous orgies. The rest of the time, they are off in the forest doing who knows what, and perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised to discover one in what is essentially salamander habitat. They may not breathe through their skins, but they do need to keep cool and moist, and the humus isn’t nearly as deep as it used to be with all the non-native earthworms gobbling it up.

To read other bloggers’ posts about IRFD, please refer to the links list at the end of yesterday’s post.

International Rock-Flipping Day, September 2, 2007For my second rock of the day, I decided to try the small powerline right-of-way a couple hundred yards from my house. The powerline is almost a hundred years old, and the right-of-way has turned into a scrub barrens habitat dominated by lowbush blueberries and huckleberries, scrub oak, mountain laurel, sweetfern, and bracken. Two springs ago my brother collected a rare species of blister beetle there, and the increasingly scarce yellow-breasted chat has nested there in the past, so I was curious to see what a casual look under a rock would turn up.

Narceus millipede

What I found was nothing rare, but beautiful nonetheless. The Narceus millipedes, as I mentioned here a while back, are superabundant composters of forest litter throughout the northeast, where they apparently serve as a significant reservoir of calcium and phosphorus in otherwise acid, well-drained mountaintop soils. Out here on the powerline, where the leaf litter is thin to nonexistent, it makes sense that they would shelter under rocks.

powerline rock

Whereas with my first rock, the low-light conditions under the early-morning forest canopy made photography difficult, out on the powerline the strong sunlight created too much contrast. You’ll have to take my word for it that the sandy soil under the millipede’s rock was a maze of millipede-sized galleries. You can see the millipede at left of center. It curled up immediately upon the removal of its roof and didn’t budge.

millipede tunnels

A close-up of the shaded portion of the trough-shaped hollow does show some detail of these halls of the mountain millipede. After I replaced the rock and headed back down to the house, I tried to picture it there, uncurling, traveling the labyrinth of its home, its feet rising and falling in silent waves.
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OTHER ROCK-FLIPPERS
(last updated Sept 5, 8:30 a.m. EDT – newer additions at bottom)

Flickr photo pool
Bev’s Pbase gallery

Windywillow (Ireland)
Heraclitean Fire (London, England)
Sheep Days (Illinois, USA)
Earth, Wind & Water (somewhere in the Caribbean)
Pocahontas County Fare (West Virginia, USA)
chatoyance (Austin, Texas)
Fragments from Floyd (Virginia, USA) – GRAND PRIZE WINNER
Watermark (Montana, USA)
pohanginapete (Aotearoa/New Zealand)
Fate, Felicity, or Fluke (Oregon, USA)
Thomasburg Walks (Ontario, Canada)
Idle Thoughts of an Idle Woman (Queensland, Australia)
The Transplantable Rose (Austin, Texas)
Nature Woman (New York state, USA)
Marja-Leena Rathje (British Columbia, Canada)
A Blog Around the Clock (North Carolina, USA)
Busy Dingbat’s Sphere (West Virginia, USA)
Hoarded Ordinaries (New Hampshire, USA)
Congo Days (Kinshasa, Congo)
this too (London, England)
Roundrock Journal (Missouri, USA)
Wanderin’ Weeta (British Columbia, Canada)
Blaugustine (London, England)
A Honey of an Anklet (Virginia, USA)
Looking Up (Ohio, USA)
Ontario Wanderer (Ontario, Canada)
Bug Safari (California, USA)
Riverside Rambles (Missouri, USA)
Pure Florida (Florida, USA)
Burning Silo (Ontario, Canada)
Musings from Myopia (Texas, USA)
Cicero Sings (British Columbia, Canada)
Joan (Missouri, USA)
Nature Remains (Kentucky, USA)
prairie point (north Texas)
Cephalopodcast.com (Florida, USA) – VIDEO

The above post is Part 2 of a four-part series on IRFD festivities in Plummer’s Hollow, Pennsylvania (USA). See Part 1, Part 3, and Part 4.

If you don’t see your own blog post listed, please email me: bontasaurus (at) yahoo (dot) com. And feel free to reproduce this list on your own blog, or anywhere else.

International Rock-Flipping Day, September 2, 2007A few years ago, a neighboring farmer sold the wooded portion of his property to a guy from Altoona who had been hunting on it for years, and assiduously courting the farmer by dropping in whenever he could to lend a hand. Before the ink had dried on the deed, he called up his old hunting buddies to tell them he now owned the land — and he didn’t want them hunting on it any longer. Then he decided to hire a surveyor to see if he could enlarge his holdings.

That’s where these rocks come in. Thanks to our new neighbor’s territorial ambitions, about seven years ago we were forced to shell out over $10,000 to survey our entire property, in part to prove that the line was not, in fact, two hundred feet farther in our direction than the customary understanding had held.

property line corner rocks

I thought it would be fun to take a look under one of the stones on a corner of our newly surveyed property line. See the one in the middle, without the orange paint? At some point a few years ago, it had been flipped over by a passing black bear (bears are rather obsessive-compulsive about flipping rocks) and nudged back into place by the next human to happen along. What, besides the buried corner stake, lurked underneath?

cucaracha

A very small woodland cockroach…

cagaditas de raton

and a pile of moldy rodent droppings. It seemed strangely appropriate.

Send your IRFD links to me, bontasaurus (at) yahoo(dot) com, for recirculation to all participants tonight and tomorrow. (If you missed the orignal post explaining the event, it’s here. See also Bev’s thoughts here.) In the meantime, you can upload your photos to the Flickr photo pool and check out the other early entries from Windywillow, Heraclitean Fire, Sheep Days, Earth, Wind & Water, Pocahontas County Fare, and chatoyance.

International Rock-Flipping Day, September 2, 2007

Badge designed by Jason Robertshaw of Cephalopodcast and free for use in association with IRFD events. Alternate design here. Thanks, Jason!

Word about International Rock-Flipping Day has been spreading steadily across the internets, and it looks as if a fair number of people will be taking to the woods and fields and shores to flip rocks tomorrow.

One thing I forgot to do in the initial post is to caution people about flipping rocks in poisonous snake or scorpion habitat. In that case, I’d suggest wearing gloves and/or using a pry bar — or simply finding somewhere else to do your flipping. Please do not disturb any known rattlesnake shelters if you don’t plan on replacing the rocks exactly as you found them. Timber rattlesnakes, like many other adult herps, are very site-loyal, and can die if their homes are destroyed. Also, don’t play with spiders. If you disturb an adjacent hornet nest (hey, it’s possible), run like hell. But be sure to have someone standing by to get it all on film!

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I learned about a slightly more respectable rock-related activity on the radio this week: stone-skipping (that’s “ducks and drakes” for you Brits). The Penn State-supported NPR station WPSU has an occasional feature called “Sports That Are Not Football,” and this week, producer Cynthia Berger travelled to Franklin, Pennsylvania for the Rock in the River Festival.

Listen to the podcast.

September 2 is International Rock-Flipping Day. Mark your calendars.

How is it possible — I said to myself on Monday afternoon when I was putting together my post about flipping over rocks — that I don’t have a single good photo of the rocks in our woods? Even more unforgivable, I don’t have any photos of the creatures that live underneath them: no ant colonies, no salamanders, no caddis fly larvae from underneath the rocks in our creek. Nada. So I was very receptive when Fred Garber suggested in a comment that we pick a day for everybody to go outside — go as far as you have to — and flip over a rock (or two, or three). We could bring our cameras and take photos, film, sketch, paint, or write descriptions of whatever we find. It could be fun for the whole family!

I emailed Bev Wigney, the doyenne of invertebrate bloggers, and discovered that she shared my enthusiasm. But we thought we’d better act fast, for the benefit of folks here in the northern hemisphere, and go with September 2. Any later and things start dying off or going down below frost line.

Fred had suggested trying to get everyone to flip over a rock at the same moment, but that would end up being the middle of the night for some people, so let’s just stick to a calendar date. I would like to restrict it to rocks, though they wouldn’t have to be on dry land — they could be on the bottom of the sea if you have a way to get down there.

The point is simply to have fun, and hopefully learn something at the same time. We don’t want to over-determine what that something should be: those of a more scientific frame of mind might focus on i.d.s or ecological interactions, while those of an artistic or poetic bent could go in a different direction entirely. Pictures alone would suffice, of course. But whatever you do, please be sure to replace all rocks that you flip as soon as possible, so as not to disrupt the natives’ lives unduly. (Unless, that is, you plan on incorporating some of what you find into your next meal — crawdads? escargots? — which would also make a interesting subject for an International Rock-Flipping Day blog post, I’m thinking.)

We want to try and keep this as decentralized as possible. Everyone who blogs about it can link to everyone else at the bottom of their post, or in a subsequent post if they prefer. I’m willing to act as coordinator and send out a list of links that evening or the next morning, with all the HTML tags in place for people to copy and paste. Send your links to me as soon as you post: bontasaurus (at) yahoo (dot) com, with “Rock Flipping” in the subject line.

No blog? No problem. I’ve also set up a Flickr group, www.flickr.com/groups/rockflippingday, anticipating that bloggers and non-bloggers alike might want to share photos that way. We’re interested mainly in pictures of whatever you find under the rocks, but pictures of people flipping rocks are also permissible. The grand prize goes to anyone who can get a picture of a non-human critter, such as a bear or a raccoon, flipping a rock on September 2. (I don’t know what the grand prize will be yet, but trust me, it’ll be good.)

For those who would rather not bother with Flickr, Bev has volunteered to create a gallery within her Pbase photo site: simply send your images as email attachments to her, bev (at) magickcanoe (dot) com, again with “Rock Flipping” in the subject line.

I think that about covers it, but if other ideas occur to you, leave a comment and I’ll update this post if need be. If you like the idea, please help spread the word. And if anyone feels like designing a logo, be my guest.

It didn’t take my mother very long to figure out how to engage her five-year-old grand-niece Katrina‘s attention during a walk in the woods last week. “See where that rock has been flipped over? That’s because a bear walked through here!” We explained briefly how bears love to eat insect larvae. Then came the magic moment of lifting a rock and exposing an ant colony: workers running helter skelter, some of them picking up their babies in their mandibles, others retreating along well-worn pathways and tunnels. Katrina’s two-year-old second cousin Elanor, who was stumping along with a large white teddy bear under one arm — in a jealous funk over this brash new competitor for her grandparents’ affections — started to show interest after the third or fourth rock, all but one of which sheltered an ant colony. Before we knew it, the walk had slowed to a standstill. There were rocks everywhere! Who knew what each might hide?

Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever really described the rocks here — a rather appalling oversight, considering the extent to which they define the mountain landscape. I have been accused of living under a rock myself, and while that’s not quite true, one of the first things a new visitor will notice is the three-foot-high, dry stone wall that shores up two sides of my terraced front garden. Another stone wall runs along the side of the house, and on up the driveway at the top of the hill, the barn rests on a sturdy foundation of reddish-brown sandstone. Go for a walk on any of our trails, and you’ll see an abundance of flat stones among the moss and leaves, ranging in size from smaller than a hand to larger than a serving platter. Depending on where you go on the mountain, the rocks range in color from whitish gray to rose pink and in age from 488 to 417 million years old. Some of the rocks down in the hollow are a bit shaley, and the rocks on the higher of the two ridges and the associated talus slopes are very quartzitic, but all the rocks on our property are sandstone of one kind or another, and virtually all, therefore, are flat-sided. (For the curious, I’m talking about the Bald Eagle, Juniata, and Tuscarora formations.) The only truly round rock we’ve found here was a concretion about the size of a large, slightly squashed orange. My parents discovered it one day lying in the driveway, where it had tumbled out of the road bank.

I’ll skip over the complicated part about why so many rocks are exposed on the surface in the first place — basically, the result of periglacial and normal weathering of vertical strata combined with various human land-use practices (clearcutting, burning, plowing, and the introduction of earthworms) whose exact influence we can only guess at. The simple point I want to make here is how easily a resident can overlook what may be, for some of our visitors, one of the mountain’s most intriguing features. “Open this one, Aunt Marcia! Open this one,” Katrina kept saying, with the characteristic originality of someone still learning the language. Evidently to her, these big flat rocks half-buried in the humus were like doors opening on a literally parallel, miniaturized world.

A few days later, we played host to another set of visitors — a tour group of academics from a landscape architecture conference at Penn State. At one point, during a rest on the higher of the two ridgetops, which affords a fairly impressive view of the Allegheny Front, my mother mentioned how much kids love to look under rocks. falling rockShe quickly discovered, however, that it wasn’t just kids. “Oh my god, look at them all!” exclaimed the fellow from New Zealand. Moments later, all six landscape afficionados were clustered around, peering into the earth.