Wednesday, December 26, 2012

One Trail Twelve Times - December: A Study in Red and Green

December's One Trail Twelve Times walk was scheduled for December 16, but several days in advance the forecasters said that there was a good likelihood that we'd have rain that Sunday afternoon.  So, to ensure that I'd have a visual record of the Beech Springs Trail in December, I walked the trail to take photographs on Thursday afternoon, December 13.  Sunday afternoon wasn't rainy, but it was misty and foggy, and the small group of walkers decided to tackle the trail anyway despite the dampness - a good decision, because we all enjoyed this final episode of the series spanning twelve months.  When I returned from the trail,though, I downloaded the images I had taken with the group and realized that the setting on the camera had slipped and many of the images I had taken, especially early into the walk, were too dark.  So, the following Tuesday morning, December 18, I returned to the trail and recaptured some of the ruined images.  All this is to say that the images below are a compilation of the best images captured during three walks on the Beech Springs Trail this month.

The beginning of the trail in mature woods
The first year rosettes of invasive, non-native garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata); in the spring they'll bolt and produce thousands of seeds in sickle-shaped pods.

Soon after we entered the mature woodland at the beginning of the trail, I noticed Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) growing alongside the trail.  This handsome native ground cover is probably present year round, but simply lost amidst the Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) growing more vigorously on the forest floor.  We've undoubtedly walked by this plant 11 time before and never noticed it.  
In keeping with the theme, notice Spotted Wintergreen's red stem
Hips on multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) at the wood's edge
Sunday's walkers emerging from the woods into the foggy meadows
Blackberry leaves (Rubus spp.)
Another blackberry variation

Non-native and highly invasive porcelain-berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) is my biggest invasive plant headache.  This Asian member of the grape family (Vitaceae) becomes established in a field when birds eat its fruit and defecate the seeds.  Then, the perennial vines clamber up anything that will support them (usually a tree), and the roots run underground and send up periodic sprouts, spreading the infection ever wider.  The roots become very, very thick and full of stored nutrients, so repeated cutting barely fazes the plant.  One it gains a foothold in a field like this, it is very difficult to control because broad-leaf herbicides that kill porcelain-berry kill all the desirable broad-leaf plants, too.

Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) samaras awaiting a strong, dispersing wind
View across the winter old-field

This is a porcelain-berry "knot" in the middle of the grassy trail.  I don't know what the technical botanical term of this feature is, but my staff and I call it a knot.  As I mentioned above, well-established porcelain-berry roots send up sprouts periodically, allowing this pernicious plant to colonize new areas.  The knots can have a half-dozen vine sprouts, each one trying to ascend into the forest canopy.  When we established the trail, we cut several of these root-sprout knots; repeated trail mowing has caused the sprouts to die back, but I'd bet that the roots below are still alive.
Lenticels on a bird cherry sapling (Prunus avium)

With nearly all the vegetation died back, I devoted quite a bit of time during the walk to searching for mantis egg cases attached to the stems of plants, but the only cases I found were attached to sweetgum saplings (Liquidambar styraciflua).  Though it was probably intuitive, such placement was good planning on the part of the the mantids because the herbaceous old-field vegetation will get mowed in early spring, while the saplings - and their attached egg cases - will be spared.
Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea) in the wet meadow

Dried fern fronds and a single sprig of Deer-tongue Grass (Panicum clandestinum) in the wet meadow
Silvery-white leaf in the wet meadow
Entering the woods on the opposite side of the old-field meadow
The toppled tree over the lower end of one of the spring runs; I've featured this tree during each month's post
The head of one of the springs, buried under fallen leaves
Skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) poking through the leaf litter

The trail's eponymous springs only run a few hundred feet through the forest before they discharge into a small, perennial tributary  of our main creek.  Though I've posted images of the springs before, I had yet to venture off trail to get images of the stream itself.

Most of the stream's watershed is developed, either with houses on large lots, or as part of a huge (40-acre) grassy field used annually for a fundraising carnival and horse show by our local hospital.  So, the stream is very "flashy" - bearing modest flows most of the time, but turning into a raging torrent during storms.  Water quality is not particularly bad, but the floods scour the stream bed, carry lots of suspended sediment, and erode the banks, so the stream is not really much of an aesthetic amenity.
Ferns amidst the flood-washed roots on the stream bank

The stream itself; note the extraordinarily wide channel in relation to the watercourse, all a result of the severe flooding the watercourse endures
Shades of gray on a white oak (Quercus alba)
Green-gray lichen on a fallen limb
The group decided that the striking red color on this limb was produced by a fungus

Shadows on an American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
One of the trees (in this case, a red oak [Quercus rubra]) brought down by Hurricane Sandy

Back out into the meadow
A luminous goldenrod (Solidago spp.) seedhead
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed capsule
Wending through the meadow
A riot of reds (on blackberry canes)
Goldenrod galls, produced as a defensive mechanism by goldenrod plants when a goldenrod rod gall fly (or peacock fly) (Eurosta solidaginis) injects an egg into the plant's stem, are common throughout the meadow.  Once the egg hatches, the gall provides a cozy retreat in which the fly larva can overwinter.  However, not all the larvae make it through the winter; some fall victim to Downy Woodpeckers (Picoides pubscens), which cling to the dried stem and peck a hole into the gall to extract a juicy winter snack.  Most of the galls we inspected had been raided by a woodpecker, like this one had.
Another type of goldenrod gall
Prostrate dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) blooming in the trail

Early Winter Sunset

I haven't been able to post in quite a while - in part, because I haven't been out in the field much.  Last week, Pennypack bought a parcel of land for conservation, which took some of my time to complete.  And, I have been teaching a graduate class this term (in addition to my "real" job as executive director), and I've spent a lot of the last month grading.  Plus, throw Christmas into the mix...  On December 22nd, though, we had temperatures in the mid-40s with high winds and clouds scudding across the sky all day.  At sunset, the heavens fairly exploded in pastels, and the Raytharn grasslands turned tawny gold.



Wednesday, November 28, 2012

One Trail Twelve Times - November

Asian bittersweet's (Celastrus orbiculatus) irresistible yellow carpels and red fruits tempt wreath makers, who then discard their handiwork after the holidays, thus helping to spread this menace.
Five walkers joined me for the penultimate installment of One Trail Twelve Times on Sunday afternoon, November 18, under partly sunny skies with temperatures in the upper 50s.  At first, I thought that we might complete the circuit of the Beech Springs Trail in record time because the somber, dun-colored fields seemed to offer little to observe.  But, in the end, we actually returned a bit later than usual; there's always plenty to enjoy.

When we entered the woods and immediately came upon a red oak (Quercus rubra) brought down across the trail by Hurricane Sandy.  Though the staff had cleared the canopy of the oak out of the path, the limbs, branches and trunk remained.

The downed red oak trunk sprawled across the forest floor
Red oak - dismembered
At the woods-meadow edge, the white pine saplings were damaged by bucks rubbing their stems and eating their tender tops.  Must give them piney fresh breath!
Emerging from the woods into the upper fields.  The buildings in the distance are a barn complex built in the 1920s when the fields were used for grazing cattle.  Today, the buildings have been renovated for use as the maintenance and office complex of a church.
Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) in seed
Indian-hemp (Apocynum cannabinum) seeds
Horse-nettle (Solanum carolinense), a weedy, prickly native member of the tomato family

When we left the wet meadows, crossing the Eagle Scout footbridge across the gully, I looked downstream.  Normally, the sight line is limited by a tangle of nearly impenetrable vegetation, but with the onset of autumn many of the plants had lost their leaves, revealing a pool and high, rocky banks adorned with Christmas ferns (Polystichum acrostichoides).

American Hornbeam (or Musclewood, or Blue-beech, or Ironwood) (Carpinus carolinense)  helping to stabilize the gully's bank.
A fallen tree spanning one of the Beech Spring runs.  I've included an image of this tree in each post as a marker and reference for the walk.  The spring run was completely dry on the surface; we've had almost no rain since Hurricane Sandy, and even Sandy's contribution was modest.
November in the beech woods

With the leaves gone from the native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) shrub layer, it has become obvious that the shrub layer is not all spicebush but also includes a healthy population of invasive, non-native jetbead (Rhodotypos scandense )that, like many non-native plants, holds its leaves longer than the natives.  Such a strategy gives the invasives a competitive advantage over the natives because they can photosynthesize longer than the natives. 

As the group rounded a corner in the trail, we came across a large white oak (Quercus alba) uprooted by Hurricane Sandy.  If you look closely at the left side of the image, you'll see that that the oak toppled into a neighboring tree, uprooting that tree as well like two tumbling dominoes.
A hard, dessicated, mahogany-colored fungus at the base of an oak tree
Termite-riddled base of the Pileated Woodpecker Tree
Around the next bend in the trail, we came upon another sad casualty of Hurricane Sandy--the Pileated Woodpecker Tree. This bird cherry (Prunus avium) snag bore an unmistakable rectangular  hole excavated by a Pileated Woodpecker and was a landmark along the walk.  Bird cherry wood is not strong in the first place, and the insect damage at its base had clearly weakened the tree enough to topple it during the hurricane.  The fallen trunk had blocked the trail, so my staff had cut it into manageable sections to clear the path.

Pileated Woodpecker Tree
On close inspection, we discovered that fungi had colonized the tree, and had begun to emerge through cracks in the bark - like fiery lava oozing out of the earth!
Blackberry (Rubus sp.) in regal purple
Mary helping to disperse milkweed seeds.  This is among her favorite autumn activities, and helps to perpetuate milkweeds - and Monarchs!
Silvery samaras of a box-elder (Acer negundo) at the head of the gully
Botanizing at the edge of the meadow

The final leg of the trail passes along the center of a long double allee of white pines (Pinus strobus) planted in the 1920s.  Two of these pines lost major limbs during Hurricane Sandy, both of which came down across telephone and cable lines.  The telecommunication lines never snapped, but the limbs bowed them down to the ground.  These were among the last tree (parts) cleared off utility lines in our area because, unlike electricity, they were not essential and because the serve had not been interrupted.

One of the damaged white pines
Final vista across the late autumn fields
Because the end of this series of rambles is imminent, the "regulars" began to hector me about choosing another trail for the next year and repeating this program.  I'm reluctant to commit to one weekend afternoon a month again (though, in all honesty, it hasn't been onerous or interfered much with my life, and I've really enjoyed the walks and camaraderie).  I've discussed this with my wife Mary, but haven't made a decision yet.  I'm thinking of doing one walk a month on a different trail each month until we complete a walk on every trail in the preserve.

Submitted by:
David Robertson, Executive Director