The Nature Trail in Winter

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Deborah and I walked out to the Nature Trail this afternoon. After three weeks of snow and very cold weather, today's moderate temperatures (upper 30's) and abundant sunshine are irresistible calls to get out into the woods!

There are a few tracks in the snow cover. A couple of hikers (and at least one dog) have recently walked the upper trail. These hikers avoided the steep down-slope trail sections, though. Walking down into the ravine we only see deer tracks ahead of us.

The recent storms have been hard on the trees. Two white ashes are blown down near the entrance and a black pine is broken in two. The top half of the black pine fills the path of the upper trail and will need to be cleaned up this spring.  We detour around it through the ankle deep snow.

The American beech trees, in their usual fashion, have hung onto to last year's leaves. Their "autumn" will not end until their new buds begin to open in the late spring. The dry, brown leaves rattle in the breeze making one of the few sounds we hear along the trail.

 

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The snow is heavy and settled. About a foot has fallen over the past three weeks, but it is densely compacted down into about five inches. It has a high water content and would great snowballs or snowmen. Footprints from both hikers and animals are crisp and sharp. In sunny areas they act like solar collectors melting their bottom snow layers into slush.

In many places deer have dug their way through the snow and scattered buried leaves, ferns, and soil across the surrounding smooth, white surface. Maybe they were digging for browse or acorns. Maybe they were preparing a sleeping spot free of snow. The cleared spots often have small piles of deer feces in them.  Lines of deer tracks radiate out from patches and crisscross through the open spaces between the surrounding trees.

A downy woodpecker and three, white breasted nuthatches poke and peck frenetically at some maple branches along the Spice Bush Trail. They are the only birds we see. The make a buzzing rumble as they search for insects in the cracks of the limbs and under the loose bark. We hear a red tailed hawk screeching up over the northern ridge and a group of crows cawing in the fields to the south. I think I see a hawk or maybe an owl up on a side branch of a hickory tree, but it turns out to be a dark crook in the branch that catches the sunshine in just a way to appear to be zoological. For a minute or so, I think that I am watching something very exciting.

There's no skunk cabbage yet. In just a couple of weeks, though, that "warm-blooded" plant will be generating heat from the breakdown of its stored polysaccharides and using that energy to grow its way up through the snow and ice cover.

Some of the spicebush still have berries as do some of the barberry. We look for purple raspberry canes (the ones that will generate berries this coming summer) and are surprised at how few are growing along the trail. There are, though, lots of tall, green, thorny stems that densely surround the isolated raspberry canes. These are the stems of multiflora rose. It appears that this aggressive exotic is choking out the raspberry (which is also not native, but is an important food source for many birds and rodents, and, to be selfish, hikers and ecologists). One exotic plant is killing off another to the detriment of the ecosystem.

We spend about an hour and a half circling the loops of the trail. We stop to photograph the evergreen wood fern fronds that are poking up through the surface of the snow. Most of the other ferns (and almost all of the other green plants) have died back in the cold and stress of the winter. How do these ferns stay so fresh and green? Why do they do so? Can they photosynthesize on these cold but sunny days and re-coup some of the energy cost they must incur to build the thermal and metabolic protection systems for their cells and tissues? Do they get a significant "head start" in the spring over the other plants that must start from overwintering rhizomes or roots or seeds? The persisting green of these ferns raise both ecological and evolutionary questions on top of the basic physiological "how."

We walk back to the buildings across untouched snow fields. The sunlight is intense as it reflects off of the gleaming surface.  It's a shame that the snow will be melting over the next few days. The coming mud is not as aesthetically or physically pleasing.

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