Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ancient Trees and Otter Antics

On Sunday last I joined a group of curious nature folks for an "Ancient Trees" hike with Vince Walsh of Kawing Crow Awareness Center in Greenfield, NY. I had blue sky and sunshine when I left Newcomb, but by the time I got down from the mountains, the sky had closed in and heavy wet snow was falling.

The first thing I noticed at Kawing Crow was this phoebe nest perched on the wing of Vince's emblem. It was a good sign for treasures to come.

After a short introduction, we donned our snowshoes and headed down the trail. Literally. The first part is about a 45' drop. Fortunately, Vince has installed ropes along the incline to facilitate our descent (and later the climb back up, which was actually a lot of fun).

Once we all made it down the hill, we forged out across the boardwalk Vince built across his swamp. What a great asset a boardwalk is to a wetland.

The wetland was so still.

Our first track of the day was this otter slide, leading towards the north end of Vince's swamp.

Here's the footprint inside the slide. I was able to count five toes and could almost picture webbing between the toes. This otter was to take up a good deal of our time as the day progressed. We tracked it until we found where it disappeared under the ice at a third swamp about three hours hence.

To me, this tree was one of the most interesting finds of the day. According to Vince, this damage was caused by the Sirex woodwasp, an invasive species that is wreaking havoc on our native pines, firs and spruces. [Update: I did a little research on Sirex noctilio (including an email exchange with two Sirex entomologists), and what I discovered tells me that this is not Sirex damage. The Sirex woodwasp primarily attacks pine trees, although spruces and firs are sometimes targets as well. This is a maple. Hardwoods are not on the menu. I will follow up some time in the future with a post about this invasive wasp, what to look for, and what our prognosis is with regards to its arrival. Based on other information Vince shared with our group about this patch of forest, I'd be willing to hazard a guess that this tree initially suffered from some sort of logging trauma (skidder damage, perhaps?), which provided the opening insects and fungi (et al) needed to begin their own invasions of this host tree.]

The otter reappeared at this stream. You can see where it came up the stream bed, through the slush, then out along the shore.

As we made our way through the woods, we passed this wigwam that Vince made with some kids last summer. Wigwams are the type of house the native people in the northeast used. Teepees were strictly a plains Indian dwelling.

Here's a close up of the wigwam. These houses are made by first creating a framework of bent saplings. Then the outside is covered with slabs of bark. Elm is the best bark for this outer layer, but these days not readily available.

The second swamp we encountered was dotted with great blue heron nests. Vince said he's counted upwards of 40 nests in this swamp. Such nesting collectives are referred to as rookeries.

It was a perfect day for snowfleas! From the moment we started our trek, snowfleas kept us company. In the woods, out in the swamps, the "fleas" were everywhere! As noted in previous posts, snowfleas are very primitive creatures, and are technically springtails, not fleas. They are quite tiny and look like pepperflakes sprinkled on top of the snow. I was able to capture these two with my macro lens.

We made our way carefully across the snowy top of a beaver dam. We had to watch our step, for the snow hid many a hole where the unwary snowshoer could (and did) fall through. Fortunately, it was usually just one foot that went down, not the whole snowshoer.

There were lots of mink tracks to either side of the beaver dam. Here we have a pair of slides, one next to the other. Was it the same animal, or were there two?

Here you can see the mink's feet, side-by-side, in the bottom of its slide.

These closely spaced tracks led away from the beaver dam and towards the shore. They didn't look like any tracks we'd seen before, so we wondered whose they were.

The tracks came down to another bit of open water, went in and came back out. But in the shallow water, there was another clue to the identity of this animal.

Vince scooped up something on a stick and passed it around for us to sniff. Hm...smelled kinda fishy to me. It was otter scat.

In case you are dying to know what otter scat looks like, here it is. It is often a rather formless mess, thanks to the fishy diet these animals consume.

We sort of followed the otter from the swamp, and re-encountered it as is slid down this stream bed. It really seemed to be enjoying itself here - lots of sliding with only the occasional push of the feet.

After we crossed this little stream, we found a small pool that was still open. The otter(s) found it, too. Note all the slides in and out. It was shortly after finding this that we crossed the stream again and I fell through. Well, one foot went through the ice and slush. Three cheers for wool and Gor-tex, for my foot did not get cold until the drive home. A bit later on, when we were looking at where the otter's tracks ended (it dove beneath the ice in a third swamp), I kept thinking I smelled something fishy...really close by. I looked at my hand, the one that went down when I crashed through, and noticed it had a brownish tinge. I sniffed. Fish. I must've placed it in some otter scat while struggling to extract myself from the stream. Ick.

It was after 3:00 when we reached our primary destination: the swamp with the Ancient Trees. These trees are black tupelos, or black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). Just how old is ancient? Well, some of these trees have been cored, and they range from 500 to 800 years old. That would be dating back to the 1500s, or even the 1200s. Long before Europeans set a toe on this continent.

Note the hole near the base of this tree.

One of my favorite tree books, and one that I use as a primary source for any tree research, is Donald Culross Peattie's A Natural History of Trees, written in 1950. Here's are a couple passages from his entry about tupelos:

“When to the amusement of Creole society, the tall and emaciated General Andrew Jackson leaped beside the short and immensely fat Mrs. Jackson, at a ball held after the battle of New Orleans, it was to the jig tune of “Possum up a Gum Tree.” The ‘possum, we may suppose, goes up the Gum tree in fall to get the fruit – or perhaps is merely treed there by hounds – but that does not make it clear why this species is called a Gum. Nowhere on the American continent has anyone ever expressed from this dry and disobliging vegetable one fluid ounce of any sort of gum. Yet lumbermen and foresters insist on the name.”

“To the Black Gum, as a timber tree, the pioneers said anathema with every abhorrence. For its fibers are not only interbraided but cross-woven. It is as easy to split across as lengthwise – that is, it can’t be done at all, even with wedge and sledge.”

The latter explains why these trees were allowed to grow to such a ripe old age: they are near impossible to cut. Therefore, they have little value to the lumberman.

Here's a peek inside the hollow opening near the base of the tree. Most tupelos are hollow, at least at the base. The trees, however, are still alive. This is because the living tissue of trees is the part that runs just below the bark, where the phloem and xylem transport food, water and nutrients up and down the tree. The bulk of the tree's trunk is dead wood, whose primarily purpose is to provide structural support to the branches up above.

Here is a shot looking straight up from inside the hollow. The tree is hollow for about six feet up.

Vince reached into the hollow and pulled out a handful of fine brown powder. This was decomposed porcupine poop. A few pellets still remained, but it has been a while since porkies used this particular den.

Digging through the snow at the base of the tree, Vince uncovered the remains of a porcupine scat pile. This is very typical outside porcupine dens.

Look at just how chunky that bark is! These are enormous plates, with crevices in between almost a finger-length deep.

Another characteristic of these ancient trees is that on one side, the heavy craggy bark is practically smooth. No one seems to know why this is. A couple of us speculated if it was because of animals travelling up and down this side of the tree, but it is only the oldest part of the tree (the base) that is "worn down." It remains a mystery.

As seen from a distance, the tupelos look like perfect Halloween trees - gnarly, twisted, and full of character. Apparently, these trees die from the top down, so many have abbreviated trunks with large branches reaching beyond the terminal end.

The fruits of the tupelo are called drupes. A drupe is "a more-or-less fleshy fruits with one compartment and one or more seeds" (Longman's Dictionary of Environmental Science). Examples are cherries, plums and other fruits that are considered "stone" fruits. A few tupelo fruits still clung to the branches.

I liked the burl on the side of this tupelo: it was basically a donut. I, unfortunately, am vertically challenged enough that you can only juuuust see the hole in the middle (it looks like a small layer of snow).

This old tupelo has seen better days. For some reason, the local beavers girdled the tree, and even gnawed the hard wood beneath. I wonder if tupelo dulls beaver teeth with its toughness? There was much discussion among the group about why beavers girdle the tupelos. Jackie sees this all along the Hudson where "her" tupelos are growing. Are the beavers just trying to open up the canopy? If so, why single out the tupelos? Vince suggested that somehow the beavers know that tupelos suck up a lot of water with their roots, so perhaps by girdling (and killing) the trees they are attempting to prevent water drawdown within their ponds.

This lovely orange jelly fungus was growing on the side of one of the tupelos. I love orange jellies, for they add a dash of color to the landscape.

We came across this really nifty witch's broom on a highbush blueberry. None of us had ever seen brooming on a blueberry, so this was a neat discovery. What causes the brooming? On some plants it is insects, on others bacteria or fungi. On blueberries? I have no idea...maybe someone out there has studied it and has an answer.

At the end of the day the sky cleared and the sun shone brightly. Heading back across the beaver dam, the swamp took on a different look than it had when all overcast. An hour or so later, as I pulled out the driveway and started the long drive home, the weather had changed once more, and rain started to sprinkle on the windshield. It was a long day, but well worth the adventure.


  1. Awesome post!!

    I wonder if the animals reappear later to check out your tracks.

  2. Oh boy, what a treat to revisit our tupelo trek through your post! My camera lens must have gotten wet, because many of my photos were blurry, so I'm really treasuring all the photos you posted. Those snow fleas are adorable! And that orange jelly is gorgeous. I'm so glad you were there, it just made every aspect of the hike more fun to have my good pals along.

  3. Tourpro - if they were wolves, I wouldn't doubt it!

    Woodswalker - it was great to see good friends again. And it adds a bit of spice to such walks when so many people with some sort of natural history background participate. A lot of sharing and exchange of ideas. I'm sorry that your photos didn't make it, though. With such a drippy day, it was easy to end up with wet cameras!!!

  4. What an interesting hike. Lots of neat stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  5. You guys really had a fun day. I tried to get out but without snowshoes that snow was almost up to my knees and hard walking. I am seriously thinking of buying snowshoes.

    I was wondering about the smooth side of that tree. I looks like the moss and lichen have worn it down but since I wasn't there it is hard to tell.

    I loved all the tracks you found. You are truly a master tracker.

  6. Since you are a field guide junkie like me I wanted to let you know I bought "Moths & Caterpillars of the North Woods (North Woods Naturalist) by Jim Sogaard" and I am pleased with it. Thumbing through I recognized a lot of species I have seen at my porch light so I imagine you would have similar moths as well. I love the way the book is organized. My only ciritcism is the main measurement he gives is with the wings spread and that requires pinning or struggling with a live moth. Otherwise the guide is excellent. Of course it is not complete but I think it does have most of the more common moths and easier to use than the old Peterson Field Guide.

  7. Squirrel - we discussed the possibility that it was the lichens and mosses causing the smooth bark, but not all the smooth bits have lichens and mosses on them. Are lichens and mosses destructive in that way? This ties in with a question I've had about lichens and conifers up here: often I see lichens draped over all the dead branches on trees like balsam fir. Did the lichens kill the branches, or did they colonize branches that were already dead? Are they parasites, or are they merely taking advantage of a structure for support? I need to do more lichen research.

    Thanks for the field guide suggestion - I'll add it to my list and keep an eye peeled for it!

  8. What a great post, and clearly a great foray into the woods. Otters and Beavers and trees, oh my! I particularly love the anecdote about your foot crashing through the ice and hand winding up in stinky otter poo. Heaven knows I have way too many moments like that! As you say, thank goodness for Gore-Tex and wool. And great pics of the snowfleas and striking orange jelly - both very photogenic. Thanks for sharing this post!

  9. I live in southern Maine (Cape Elizabeth). In Saco there is a state park (Ferry Beach State Park) that has a tupelo swamp in it. I knew nothing of tupelo trees before going to FBSP. I have since been looking for good information on tupelos and I came across your blog. What you've written tells me a lot more about what I see at the tupelo swamp than many other sites I've encountered. Thanks a lot! I'm working on a stereo photo book on FBSP and am trying to figure out how much to write about the tupelo tree. It is fascinating and seemingly unknown in these parts (not very many tupelo stands in Maine - perhaps a dozen, it seems). Greetings from Maine! Mark