Monthly Archives: July 2013

Rich Woods and Fens

The word ‘rich’ can conjure up all kinds of images. Money, opulence, extravagance, the nasty politics of wealth disparity. Cake with a lot of butter in it. If you are a naturalist in Vermont, you won’t know much about being rich, but the word rich may instead call to mind maidenhair fern, wild leeks, dolomite ledges, and soggy meadows filled with sedges and shrubby quinquefoil. In a land where water is rarely hard to come by, and where the hardships of winter spread across the entire state, the limiting factor for ecosystems is often nutrients. The rich, ‘sweet’ soils in many of Vermont, derived from sedimentary rocks high in calcium, are largely to thank for riches like spring ephemeral wildflowers, unique wetlands, and the abundance of sugar maple and thus maple syrup.

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Above: A rich forest of sugar maple and other hardwoods take advantage of soil nutrients.

All the rain and snowmelt of Vermont mean that plants rarely are short on water, but it comes at a price. The water leaches away nutrients, and over time it makes the soil poor, and also often acidic. Conifer trees accelerate this with their needles. In a conifer-dominated, wet forest like the one I wrote about in my last blog post, the soil can become very acidic indeed – I measured a pH in this forest lower than that of strong black coffee – around 4.2. Other forests, however, have the fortune of occupying soil derived from limestone, dolomite, marble, or other rich rocks. These rocks, which formed on an ancient sea floor out of coral and other life forms, are both high in calcium and also act as a buffer to pH. Soils in a rich forest like the one photographed above near Equinox Mountain have a mostly neutral pH – this one was right around 7, which is exactly neutral. These soils provide abundant nutrients for species that can use them – like sugar maple and basswood.

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Above: Sugar maple thrives on rich soils, where it is often the dominant species.

Rich forests are a joy to visit any time of year. It’s no surprise that a forest full of sugar maple is beautiful in the fall. Even in the dead of winter they are notable for the towering trees – rich forests grow fast, and in a state with almost no old growth forest left, a rich forest is a good place to see big trees. when the thaw comes, many rich forests are used as sugarbushes, and tubes and taps pop up to drain sugar maple sap for the production of delicious maple syrup. A few weeks later, the hidden secret of the rich forest really pops up – spring ephemerals.

As the name implies, spring ephemerals are only visible for a short period of time in spring. These fascinating wildflowers are able to tolerate spring’s hard freezes, and use that ability to leaf out and flower weeks before the trees above leaf out. This allows them to fully take advantage of the strengthening spring sun. Spring ephemeral flower displays can be diverse and beautiful and they are at their best in rich forests.

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Above: Trillium grandiflorum, or large white trillium, blooming in high numbers in Battell Woods in Middlebury.

In the summer, rich forests are incredibly lush. The understory of the forest is filled with herbs – from pretty but uncomfortable wood nettles to the fascinating creepy berries of baneberry to lush carpets of maidenhair fern.

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Above: If you see this much maidenhair fern in New England you are probably in a rich forest.

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Above: Red baneberry, a fascinating but poisonous rich woods plant. This plant serves as a reminder: just because a berry is red and birds are eating it doesn’t mean you can eat it! It is toxic to humans but apparently not to birds.

Rich woods only occur on rich soils and generally relatively wet areas as well. Sometimes there is a sharp boundary as is the case in the photo below – the barren understory on the right is on a south-facing, warmer, drier slope, and doesn’t support a rich forest.

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There is also an unusual sort of open wetland that occurs in areas of rich soils and nutrient-rich groundwater – rich fens. These are wet clearings of sedges and small shrubs – one of the only natural types of clearing in our wooded state.

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Rich fens often support rare plants. They are similar to poor fens and bogs in that they occur on an accumulation of peat – deep wet organic matter that does not decompose. Instead of sphagnum they support non-sphagnum mosses, sedges, and shrubby quinquefoil. Often they are at the headwaters of streams, and rushing, mineral-rich water comes out of their downstream end.

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I tested the pH of the water coming out of a seep on our property and the pH was neutral. I wonder if our land once held a rich fen or rich seepy woods. It will be interesting to see if I can find any of the indicator species popping up and encourage them to grow here.

Nature On the Ridges and In The Cracks

Yesterday was one of the days where being a (sometimes) field ecologist is amazing. Most people assume being in the field is always great, but mosquitos, poison ivy, yucca, heat waves, lighting, ice, and a variety of other issues depending on where you are can make it less than enjoyable. But yesterday… yesterday was stunning. Much of Vermont was baking under a heat wave, but at 3000 feet I experienced a pleasant cool breeze. There were lots of little gnats and small flies, but they weren’t biting… much. And I was in an old forest. Not old by California standards, mind you, but in cut-over and recovering Vermont a forest like this can be hard to come by.

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(click to enlarge)

Old spruce and fir on the top of ridges don’t grow fast, and even a 300 year old spruce can be fairly small.
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(I’m not sure how old this spruce is, but at least 100 years old)
Old yellow birches, on the other hand, can get impressively large. They aren’t found in the harshest parts of the mountains, but down off the main ridgelines and high peaks they still experience tremendous storms, both blizzards in the winter and severe thunderstorms in the summer.
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The angle here makes it hard to see how big the tree is, until you see how small my hand is. These trees are not anywhere on the scale of redwoods or baobab trees, but considering they live in a place where hurricane-force winds are common any time of the year and snow falls in September and June most years, their stature is pretty impressive.

Thickets of well-named hobble grow in the openings… beautiful when flowering in the spring, but difficult to walk through.
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I absolutely love wandering off trail. It’s not for everyone – don’t try it if you aren’t well-prepared experienced in your local environment. (I also had 2 forms of GPS, two cell phones, maps, food, water, and knowledge that walking north would quickly get me to a road). This particular ridgetop was bissected by moose trails wandering amidst the trees. Unlike many if not most high peaks, there was no trail to the peak, no radio tower, not even a peak register in an old weathered coffee can. I was alone, unless a moose was watching me through the trees.

This is what most people call wilderness, or as close as you can get in the northeastern US. It is a Good Thing. People hike the Long Trail to get back in touch with nature, or so they say. Nothing wrong with that. I certainly come to rely on my trips into the ‘wilderness’ for my mental health.

But that being said, it’s not always possible to get off into an old forest. For some people it isn’t possible at all. I spent most of my childhood fussing over how much I hated where I grew up (which to be fair I still hate) and how important my few trips to the mountains were. It’s probably the least ‘wild’ place on the planet – a gridded off suburb where every native plant and creek has been eradicated.

I wasn’t in Torrance last week, but I was stuck in the office, and nature gave me a reminder that it’s not necessary to be in the wilderness to find a sense of wonder. When walking to my car in a parking structure, I took the concrete stairs. Often urine scented and never pleasant, these staircases are as far from ‘wilderness’ as one could imagine.

Yet for some reason I paused. I looked around for a minute in the hot concrete corridors. I realized all around me was fluttering. The lights apparently stay on all night, and moths fly in the window and get stuck. As is usually the case in nature, nothing is wasted. Several fat spiders were hunting the moths, even wandering from their webs to make lazy efforts to grab them. There was no need to try too hard, because the webs and the ground below them were full of moths. Others sat on the beige walls, motionless and easy to observe and photograph.

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I found fifteen different insect and spider species in the stairway in just a few minutes. Many of them were identified for me on iNaturalist. Some were beautiful. Some, like this dobsonfly, were a bit creepy. Most were species I’d never noticed before. Because small things are poorly understood and studied, it’s not impossible that one of the little brown ones I didn’t photograph was an undescribed species. Even in the wastes, there is life. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for conservation of old forests, but it does mean we need to find beauty and wonder where it is presented. Even in the darkest places.

A while back, I made a series of posts about a similar subject, but an even more challenging location – Torrance, California, where I grew up. I still consider it one of the most lifeless places I have seen, but because people I love still live there, I still visit from time to time. On one visit I tried to find beauty and wonder and nature growing through the cracks. I was surprised at how much I was able to find.

It is an important lesson, albeit one I don’t always manage to live by. It was good to find a reminder in the stairwell.

The Deluge Continues

This weekend offered a small break from the Vermont deluge, for most places. Alas, it was short-lived. The soggy weather pattern driven by an anomalous jet stream configuration has quickly returned. Last night we picked up almost two more inches of rain in a downpour that woke us from our sleep. This brings our July total to well over four inches. On July 8th.

If nothing else, the storms have lead to dramatic skies. I’ve been taking photos of many of the storms, and these sorts of images which are usually only visible a few times a summer have been nearly ubiquitous. Vermont is even beautiful when bludgeoned by repeated flash floods.

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Line of storms from the south. Second picture from summit of Snake Mountain

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Ragged downpour (from storms in first pictures) moves into Waterbury, a favored location for these thunderstorms.

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A downright explosive storm seen from afar. I think this one was over Brandon, Vermont.

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We’d taken a trip to Connecticut to see family and friends last weekend, and when leaving we had the interesting experience of driving straight towards this severe thunderstorm for about 15 minutes. We were in a race to get to our highway junction and shoot north away from the storm. Thankfully we succeeded before the storm slammed Hartford. The storm had an incredible looking structure with a flanking line and a main updraft tower that kept spouting cloud to ground lightning in front of us. This drive made me a bit nervous because at least one storm earlier that day had a tornado warning associated with it. The storm we saw might have had a wall cloud associated with it, but I couldn’t be sure. It didn’t produce a tornado but did get a severe thunderstorm warning.

The torn skies above Vermont have produced dramatic views of all sorts…
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The heaviest storm at our location hit on the 4th of July with over 2 inches of rain in less than 2 hours. Not surprisingly, there was flash flooding. My newly expanded rain garden filled and overflowed:
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Perhaps it needs a third level. Even so, it did a good job of holding back runoff. The cellar leakage from the latest storms was a bit less and was mostly limited to an area I don’t have flumes set up for yet. That and the basement door, where water apparently rushes in during downpours. I tried fixing that today. We’ll see how well it works.

Tomorrow is expected to mostly be a respite, and I’m taking advantage of this by getting some field surveys in for work. Wednesday and Thursday, on the other hand, are looking quite wet again. And on the horizon, something even more ominous.

A tropical storm has formed in the deep tropics of the Atlantic. There is some chance this storm will dump some of its moisture on Vermont. It most likely won’t, but it is not a good sign. As Jeff Masters describes in the link above, storms forming in that location this early in the year usually foretell an active hurricane season. And, if this active jet stream pattern and strong Bermuda high persist, conditions may be right to steer tropical systems towards New England.

If you live in the area, please be safe and prepare for the worst. I hope the pattern changes soon. But between the link connecting this weather pattern with climate change and lost sea ice, and the fact that our watersheds are facing many threats that make flood risk worse, we may be in for a stormy summer indeed.

Oh, and stay out of the rivers for a while. I love the swimming holes too but the rivers are extremely dangerous now. Four people have died recently trying to swim in flooded rivers. You wouldn’t roast marshmallows in a forest fire, so don’t go for a swim in a flood.