Coming Face-to-Face with Invasive Species in the Northeast

The impact of invasive species on native environments and ecosystems is absolutely incredible. Sometimes the invasive species looks like lush greenery along the road, however, when you look closer, you realize that it is thick kudzu strangling the trees and native plants. Other times, you see vast devastation caused by gypsy moths, which is exactly what we encountered when hiking at the Francis C. Carter Memorial Preserve in Rhode Island. Or sometimes, you see spotted lanternflies flocking to a trap on a tree in an effort to curb their destruction, which is what we saw at Hugh Moore Park Canal Museum in Easton, Pennsylvania.

The Gypsy Moth in Rhode Island

Between 2015 and 2017, the gypsy moth invaded parts of Rhode Island, including the preserve we hiked in, and decimated the oak forest. What was once a trail covered by thick forest canopy is now a hike under mostly open skies. We had seen some evidence of this destruction on our drive to the trail, but we were utterly unprepared for what we saw. The caution sign at the trailhead alerting us to falling limbs due to tree damage and decay definitely kept us listening to our surroundings.

We hiked almost 3 miles through the preserve and were impressed with the blazes and maps located at each trail junction. This was one of the better marked trails we have encountered. We completed one of the several loops and would have loved to explore more.

We have a goal of hiking or exploring in some way each state that we visit. If we are not camping in a state, we have to do something significant in the state to claim we have visited. So, before our day trip to explore Rhode Island and Connecticut, I researched trails along the route we planned to drive. We are slowly learning our lesson to thoroughly research the trails, and I have started using www.alltrails.com and www.hikingproject.com to make sure we know what we are getting ourselves into.

I selected the preserve based on several criteria: it was only a few miles long, it was relatively flat, and it was a loop trail. No matter if I am driving or hiking, I immensely dislike out-and-back routes. I do not like backtracking and seeing the same sights. It is hard to find loop trails that are only a few miles long, but when I find them, they immediately rise to the top of the list.

The trail was well-maintained, and we had an enjoyable hike. Because of the lack of forest canopy, it was much warmer than we had expected, and the humidity did not help matters. The ferns and other plants along the trail seemed to radiate warmth and dampness, and the lack of breeze made it a little uncomfortable. We saw several species of birds, Little Bird took a decent nap, and we only saw 2 other hikers on the trail – winning all around!

Even though we only ducked into Rhode Island for a short visit and hike, we are so glad we chose this trail. We experienced the devastation of the gypsy moth and learned so much about the impacts invasive species can have on an entire environment and ecosystem. We had no idea that we would encounter the spotted lanternfly in Pennsylvania a few short days later (more on that below).

The Spotted Lanternfly in Pennsylvania

We stopped in Easton, Pennsylvania so I could quickly run into the giftshop at the Crayola Experience, because we absolutely could not drive by where crayons are made and not stop to get Little Bird something. That is just silly. On my way into the building, I noticed a lot of carcasses along the sidewalk and immediately recognized them as the spotted lanternfly. This insect has been making the news in Pennsylvania for the past few years, and as of 2020 it is considered an invasive species in the Delaware Valley due to its impact on fruit tree yields and other crops.

I got back in the truck almost giddy because I had seen our first spotted lanternfly in the wild. It was one of those feelings of not quite excitement because I know what the lanternfly is doing, but also a little excitement because I have seen something that is gaining notoriety. It was kind of like seeing a celebrity who I previously had no desire to see, but now that I have seen them, I can say I have seen them – you know?

While I was shopping for Little Bird’s artistic future, Will had scoped out a place for us to enjoy our picnic lunch and take a short walk. Because it was only a few miles down the road, we were on the lookout for the lanternfly invaders.

After we ate our lunch, we headed down the path along the Lehigh River. Almost immediately, we encountered the spotted lanternfly. Will spotted a trap on a tree at almost the exact same time that I saw one of them on the trail. We started investigating the area closer, especially taking a close look at the trap.

The spotted lanternfly is native to China, as is the Tree of Heaven. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has started using these trees as bait to capture and kill the lanternfly. As you can see in the pictures, hundreds of these guys had been drawn into the trap and their friends were flocking to the tree. Apparently, the spotted lanternfly eats from this specific tree before laying eggs, so this method of capture and sequester is brilliant.

After spending what must have seemed to passersby as an absurd amount of time looking at the lanternflies and the trap, we continued down the trail. However, we did not encounter any more. Only in the area surrounding that specific tree did we even see evidence of them. It was absolutely incredible.

We continued down the trail and scoped out the river, which was beautiful, however, dogs were only allowed on a short portion of the trail. The path is still operational along the canal with tours involving mules, so even though we would have loved to have walked further, we made our way back to the truck.

In our every day lives, it is easy to forget the impact insects have on the world around us, especially when they are invasive and free to destroy their new habitat completely unchecked. Seeing the devastation firsthand certainly had a great impact on us and is something we continue returning to in conversation. Unfortunately, invasive species are all around us, but it is important for us to know what to look for and to do our part to limit their spread and impact.

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