Friday, November 22, 2013

Tree Tutorials with the Thursday Naturalists

This dark rainy day (Saturday) was actually welcome, giving me a good excuse to stay indoors and finally get back to this blog.  Twice in the last two weeks, I've been out in the woods with my friends in the Thursday Naturalists, learning all kinds of tips about how to tell the trees in winter.

On November 14, I met my friends at Veterans' Memorial Park near Jonesville, where we walked for what seemed like miles along a maze of wide woodland lanes.  Although the morning was frosty cold, we soon warmed up under a clear sunshiny sky.

This southern Saratoga County woods provided a perfect laboratory for studying our native birches, since we found all four species -- Black, Gray, Yellow, and Paper -- in close enough proximity for easy comparison.  Here, a Yellow Birch (left) and a Black Birch grow side-by-side, with the Yellow's bark displaying the golden color and tight little curls that are typical of its species, and the Black's displaying the darker color and large loose plates it acquires at it matures.  All of the birches have horizontal lenticels (openings in the bark that allow the tree to breathe).

I was happy to correct my misunderstanding regarding Gray Birch, a tree I have often mistaken for Paper Birch, due to the white color its bark sometimes displays, as in this photo.  The bark of Paper Birch, however, peels off in wide swaths and does not display the tell-tale chevrons that decorate the trunks of Gray Birch, an early succession birch that will die before it reaches great age.  If you look around a mature forest and note the whitish trunks lying about, these will almost always be those of Gray Birch.

I still have much to learn regarding tree bark, and I was very glad to have tree-expert Ed Miller show me a chunk of American Elm bark that displayed the alternating dark and light layers that are typical of this species.   The bark of this tree is quite easy to break off in pieces for examination.

Oaks come in even more species than birches do, and we knew that both Bur Oak (left) and Scarlet Oak were growing in the surrounding woods, just by finding their leaves on the ground.

We had welcomed Lois as a new member of our group this day, and she gifted us with a new clue for distinguishing the broad leaves of Norway Maple from those of the Sugar Maple.  A quick glance reveals there are 7 veins that radiate from a point on the stem.  Sugar Maple typically has 5.

As we passed a wetland thick with red-stemmed dogwood shrubs, I was able to identify this shrub as Silky Dogwood by the long lenticels along the branches (not shown in this photo).  But Ed pointed out another distinguishing element, the general silkiness of the terminal twig, covered with downy hairs.  Red Osier Dogwood has smooth bark at the tips and pin-dot lenticels on its even-redder branches.

One of our most amazing finds at Veterans' Memorial Park was this enormous Black Birch, much larger than any of its species any of us had ever seen.  We measured it at 130 inches around, or nearly 3 and 1/2 feet in diameter at chest height.  It's possible it could be two trees that grew together, but it's still a huge size for a Black Birch.

Since trees are our major focus of interest this time of year, I invited the Thursday Naturalists to come up to Moreau Lake State Park the following week to see the new tree-identification signs the park officials have installed (with the help of many volunteers) along the Nature Trail in the park.  As it happened, the next Thursday (November 21) dawned bitterly cold, but that did not dissuade the hardy folks who showed up at Moreau.  Such a frosty morning did, however, cause us to change our route through the park, since this turned out to be one of the rare chances many of our friends had ever had to see the phenomenon of Frostweed doing its thing.  Before we hit the Nature Trail, we made a little detour to the top of Mud Pond, where we discovered that this remarkable plant (its scientific name is Crocanthemum canadense) still preserved enough moisture to create the fascinating curls of frozen vapor along its stems.  We know of no other plant in our part of the country that behaves this way.

Many in our group had never witnessed this phenomenon before, and we were lucky to find many examples of it.

We were also lucky to spy some gorgeous clusters of Climbing Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), its beautiful orange-husked red berries complemented by a backdrop of radiant blue sky.  This is our native American species of bittersweet, which is becoming increasingly rare because of being supplanted by the extremely invasive Asiatic Bittersweet (C. orbiculatus).

Although these berries appear very similar to those of the Asiatic Bittersweet, because they grow in a terminal cluster rather than as clusters in the leaf axils, we can be confident that they are indeed our native Climbing Bittersweet.

Eventually, we did make it to the Nature Trail and were able to admire the handsome and informative signs that point out many of our native trees along the way.

We did have a moment's pause, however, when we stood before this sign and this tree, since none of us would have picked out this tree as an unmistakeable example of Yellow Birch.  The bark color was more gray than golden, and we could find none of the shaggy curls of bark that are so typical of this species of birch.  The tree experts among us did agree that it certainly was a birch, and it was neither a Gray Birch nor a Black Birch.  It continues to puzzle us.  We shall have to come back when the tree is in leaf or in fruit to confirm its identity.

We found another puzzle among this group of Black Locust trees.  On every trunk of this group of five or six locusts, we discovered the bark had been torn away on one side of the trunk from about four feet above the ground.  It seems unlikely that these were caused by deer rubbing their antlers on the trunks, but what else could have caused this bark damage?  I'd love to hear other guesses.

I find it delightful that many of the understory trees already have colorful buds that hold the promise of spring, even though it's not yet even winter.  Those of Striped Maple are especially elegant and colorful.

Rivaling those maple buds were these of Sassafras, fat yellow buds on branches colored spring green.

It may not yet be official winter, with the solstice still a month away.  But ice on the lake is telling us that the season's change is already upon us.  I thought it was just the thinnest of skims, but Win bravely demonstrated its solidity to us.


Raining Iguanas said...

Well, I sure learned a lot in that post. My father used to take great pride in teaching me how to identify trees. I now realize how limited that knowledge was. It did however instill a lifelong desire to keep learning more. Your blog does that by teaching us volumes. You also do it in such an interesting and picturesque way.

Uta said...

I learned a lot with your blog today. I thought I know how to identify trees, since I am a Master Gardener, but I see I have a lot to learn and I suppose I will never be done learning.

suep said...

It was great walking with you guys even for a little while that morning -
without having seen the mystery bark, let me venture a guess anyway -- could the damage have been done by Pileated woodpeckers? Locusts though, that is the mystery !
will have to go and look at it though,
where were you?

The Furry Gnome said...

Another fascinating post; you reminded me of my determination to learn to identify shrubs, which you seem tobe an expert at. We only find two birches in this part of Ontario, paper and yellow. And we only have three oaks this far north, red, white and bur oak. I've led a tree ID hike or two myself, and wrote a 'Pocket Guide to Ontario Trees' that's been popular with rural landowners. Love how much I learn reading your blog.

catharus said...

Very informative post!

Ron Gamble said...

I think the black locust bark damage is likely stripping done by squirrels. Gray, red, and fox all can do it. Not sure about the most likely suspect from your location...

Anybody else...?
Ron Gamble

Unknown said...

This is the time of year to focus on trees..all the leaves are down and the bark is at its best in the slanting light..Thanks for an informative and timely post!