Allegheny wild

Robert Stanger Contributing writer

An advantage to outings in the Warren area, with the various state game lands and the Allegheny National Forest close at hand, is that one never knows when some unexpected wildlife sighting will occur.

So these trips afield provide a dimension that a walk, say, in New York’s Central Park … to offer an extreme example … could never furnish, unless one would count poodles on leashes.

And in my years of ventures afield, whether on foot, bicycle or river craft, there have been a host of encounters with wild critters, a few of which have been rather astounding.

I have also come across signs that certainly point to the presence of mountain lions (although many would scoff at this since the eastern mountain lion has been declared extinct).

I recently biked from Chapman State Park on the Game Lands 29 road and bike trail that ends at Dunham Siding.

And again there, close to where the trail rises into the Heart’s Content area, were the types of animal scat, dried and whitened, that I had observed there in past bike rides. Too far from a parking lot to be a dog, too large for coyote, and far different from a bear. The only feasible answer for me is … cougar.

Years ago, before the game lands road was greatly improved through the placement of fill in low spots and the installation of culverts, I would also occasionally see in low spots along the road large tracks in mud and in the sand that certainly appeared feline.

One day, in a small muddy hollow surrounded by grass I came upon what I believed, was so perfect a solitary track of a cougar (a viewpoint backed by a Warren library book on animal tracks that I subsequently perused). But by the time I returned the next day armed with a sketch pad and pencil to make a record of what I had found, the Game Commission had mowed the road’s grass, obliterating all tracks.

I have also seen what I believe could be cougar tracks on the road and bike trail that runs across Game Lands 86, which runs along the west side of the Allegheny River south of Dunn’s Eddy.

Those who dismiss the presence of cougars in the Warren area’s wild reaches might consider the comment a woman ANF employee made at the end of her talk in Warren before a sportsmen’s group. One member of the group asked her if she couldn’t just put an end to tales that there were mountain lions in the region.

After a pause, she replied that she couldn’t, as both she and a co-worker had seen one.

The Warren area wildlife sighting that remains most vividly in my memory occurred in the old Irvine Estate “bean field” just off the National Forge Road.

The field’s vegetation was short the day I walked along the remains of an access road that runs between the field and the Allegheny River (in contrast to the vegetation’s head-high height today). Ahead of me in the field was an animal, apparently a fox, that was jumping up and down with its forepaws and stiff front legs, as foxes and coyotes do when hunting mice in field cover.

I remained oblivious to the fox as I drew closer, so intent it was on its hunting. When I was within about just 20 feet, I could tell that the animal was definitely a fox and that instead of red, its fur was a bright yellow with just a few splashes of red or brown.

Of course, as soon as the fox caught sight of me, it took off for the woods to the east, and I was able briefly to follow its distinctive yellow form as it sped across the field in the bright sunlight.

I had never seen a yellow fox before or even heard of one.

But an internet search for “red fox,” reveals that “despite its name the species often produces individuals with other colorings, including albinos and melanists.” (A “melanistic” fox would be one of dark coloration.)

Canoe or kayak excursions on the Allegheny River above or below Warren can also result in wild animal sightings that one would never experience during a rowboat ride on a Central Park lake.

My wife and I were canoeing one afternoon on the Althom Eddy. We had just crossed the river and were just off the southern end of the former Cloverleaf Campgrounds, where in previous years we had rented both cabins and a space to park the camper trailer we once owned.

There are now a string of homes along the river shore once occupied by RVs such as ours, as the descendants of “Mac” and Mike McLaughlin, who owned and operated the campground for many years, have sold much of it off in the form of spacious building lots.

As we approached the rocky shoreline, we closed in on a small flock of very excited geese floating a short distance from a goose with its hind portion standing up vertical to the water.

Closer observation through the clear water revealed to us the goose’s problem. A very large snapping turtle had hold of the goose’s bill, evidently intending to drown it and then store it along the shore for future goose dinners.

Of course, as soon as we were close enough to realize what was going on, the turtle released its prey … which was surely very glad we’d happened by. The rest of its flock was also, flapping their wings and making seemingly joyous calls as the turtle’s “victim” rejoined the crowd.

My wife and I had a more disturbing non-Central Park type wild game confrontation one day farther up the river to the north of our cabin of the Game Lands 89 shoreline.

My first impression of what I saw swimming in the river about 15 feet from the shore was that it was a very large snake. But then I thought that no, it must be just a large stick, as what would a snake be doing that far out in the river.

But as we drew closer I could see that it was indeed a snake that was swimming for the sloping shoreline. We watched as the snake slithering up the shore past the high water mark where it went into a coil, raised its head and just observed us. I could plainly see its rattle, so there was little doubt as to its species. Needless to say, I now avoid swimming in that portion of the river.