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Wrapping Up the Year

I have to admit; I can hardly believe that 2017 is almost over. This semester is coming to an end, and soon I’ll be home, spending time with my family. Unfortunately, that means I have to wrap this up for now; I won’t be able to visit Rock Point again until I return in January. So it only seems right that I leave a few parting notes. And in honor of this occasion, I’ve also looked into the history of Rock Point. I’ve had many wonderful experiences here, but the story of this place is far larger than just my own. It is a collection of the stories of the plants, animals, and people who have all thrived there.

Now that winter has set in, it seems like much of that life has faded from the meadow. The deciduous trees are completely bare, and the herbaceous plants have turned brown. Only the evergreens and resilient plants such as mosses maintain their bright green colors. There are still signs of life though. The ground is littered with fallen white pine cones. Some of the herbaceous plants have large and rather stunning seed heads. The plants will remain dormant through the winter, but there are already signs of new life, waiting for warmer weather in the spring.

White Pine Cones Lying Among Fallen Needles

Seed Head of a Goldenrod in the Meadow

Seed Head of a Small, Herbaceous Plant Found in the Forest

The animals are also preparing for winter, and they seem to have become far more scarce. I heard the chickadees again, but I never saw them or any other birds, for that matter. I do wonder if it has to do with a change in time. Usually, I would visit the meadow in the afternoon and leave just before sunset. With the days growing shorter and colder, I left in the late morning to give myself more time. Perhaps the chickadees and other birds are more active later in the day, or maybe they prefer to remain deeper in the forest during the winter months. Hopefully, I’ll see them again in January.

The birds were scarce, but I wasn’t entirely alone this week. I found a few squirrels making quite a bit of noise upon my arrival. One kept climbing down a fallen tree from the rocky outcrop at the edge of my plot, and another squirrel kept chasing them back up the trunk. Eventually, the second squirrel settled on the fallen tree with something to eat, and the first squirrel disappeared over the rocks. I find squirrels fascinating to watch; they’re surprisingly intelligent little animals. Even without the birds, I felt that I was still in good company.

The Second Squirrel Perched on the Fallen Tree

I wonder if many people who came before me felt that same way when they first visited Rock Point. The area has an old and rich history; I’d like to think that others recognized how unique and beautiful the area is. Experts believe that the native Abenaki tribes once used the land for a variety of purposes, and some small artifacts have been found in the area. Unfortunately, like most land in Vermont, it was eventually claimed by the European colonists, and parts of the land were cleared. In 1841, the land was purchased by Bishop John Hopkins. In 1855, it became the center for the Episcopal Church in Vermont.

I also found one interesting tidbit that relates specifically to my location. The meadow I’ve been visiting is officially called the Parade Ground. During the Civil War, the first school at Rock Point was turned into a military school. The Parade Ground was cleared so that students could perform military drills.

Over the years, the church has continued to develop, taking full advantage of their unique location. The property now contains a small school along with the church’s other facilities, and they offer various educational programs, including many focused on the environment. The area is also open to the public for recreational purposes. I’ve found the area to be an excellent example of private land management. The environment is conserved and respected while still allowing people to enjoy and benefit from the land. While the two are generally portrayed as conflicting, examples like Rock Point show that responsible land management is very possible.

All of the information above was taken from Burlington Geographic, Rock Point’s website, and signs present at Rock Point itself. This is just a brief summary. For anyone more interested, I suggest visiting the two websites and travelling to Rock Point yourself if you are able. I know that I’ll miss this place over the next month to month and a half, and I hope that I am able to continue these visits and posts once the spring semester starts back up. Until then, I hope you all have a wonderful holiday, and stay warm!

A Trip Back Home

The fall semester is quickly approaching its end, and I finally had a chance to go back home and spend time with my family. Many of you probably think of Pennsylvania as a northern state, but I was immediately struck by how different the natural world is here compared to Vermont. Winter is already setting in around Burlington, but fall hasn’t quite ended at home. I feel as if I’ve suddenly found myself a few weeks back in time.

This post is going to get a little meta, as this situation is even more complex than the usual passage of time around Rock Point. The processes that affect nature and the ways which we interact with the environment cross over in dozens of ways, forming unique experiences and perspectives. Now, I have to tie together my past and present in two different kinds of places hundreds of miles apart. Usually, I prefer to write narratives, and I’ll be using that style to introduce you all to my at-home location in a small natural area called Kocher Park. However, for my comparison with Rock Point, I’ll have to fall back on a primarily scientific style. Otherwise, I’m sure that I’ll have far too much to talk about to write a singular, clear story.

I grew up in a little town in Pennsylvania called Bloomsburg. It was built right along the Susquehanna river, and Fishing Creek meets up with it along the edge of town. Most of the land right along the creek and river has been left natural, partially for recreation and partially because the last flood destroyed most of the riverside properties beyond repair. Those natural areas are scattered around, and I’ve found that a few of those small parks are really hidden gems. A five minute drive can take you out of town, and you can just relax along the riverbank. Kocher Park is one of those gems. It’s a strip of fields and forests along Fishing Creek, with paths right along the water. It’s also the place where I completed my Girl Scout Silver Award project during my freshman year of high school, so I must admit that it has a certain sentimental value to me. For anyone who’s curious, here’s the exact location. I’ll also put this map in the “Maps” tab.

My family has a tradition of going out for a walk on the holidays. Most people leave town to see family, and the college students have gone home, so town is quiet. This year, we decided to take a short drive to Kocher Park instead of simply wandering around town. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was greeted by the scent of fallen leaves. We walked through the small fields along the creek, which were full of dried grass and feathery seeds. A thin layer of frost coated the ground and fallen leaves.

A Frost-Covered Red Oak Leaf

After a short walk, we reached the small forest further downstream. A few of the trees still have tags hanging from their branches that my Girl Scout Troop put up years ago, which brought a small smile to my face. The edge of the woods is clearly defined by the riverbank. Both Fishing Creek and the Susquehanna tend to flood, and the flooding has eroded the banks. The old trees hold the rest of the soil in place, leaving a low bank and steep slope into the woods. The roots have been exposed, revealing a mess of thick, woody tendrils. They remind me of abstract sculptures, forming whatever shapes the viewer can imagine.

A Mess of Roots Exposed by Erosion

What shocked me the most, however, was the light. The sun was still low, and the light passed between the trees’ trunks and branches. Here, the red oaks are still clinging to their leaves. When the light passes through the canopy, the bright red leaves seem to catch fire in the sun. Against the bright blue Thanksgiving sky, the image was striking. A few rays of light even slipped through the canopy and passed through the peeling bark of a young birch tree by the creek. The glow was softer, but just as vibrant. Despite the cold, the woods were still full of magnificent colors.

Sunlight Hitting the Red Oak Leaves

Sun Filtered Through Peeling Birch Bark

Admittedly, I’m glad that I got to visit home again. I may have underestimated the beauty of Pennsylvania, especially at this time of year. With snow coming to Vermont, this last image of fall is quite refreshing. Though I am also shocked by how different the forests are here. I only saw one large white pine, compared to the large number of towering evergreens and saplings at Rock Point. Most of the trees were deciduous, and some were still holding on to their leaves. The oaks were especially resilient. I saw the same trend in Vermont, but by now, the oaks have mostly lost their leaves following the storm. The milder weather in Pennsylvania seems to have a drastic effect on color change, allowing the trees to keep their leaves much longer, despite a relatively small difference in temperatures. I also encountered many different deciduous species which I have not seen in Vermont, such as Ironwood and River Birch. Red Oak and Red Maple were far more common than they are at Rock Point, where Sugar Maples are the dominant hardwood. I saw far less wildlife, suggesting that either less animals stay for winters here, or the environment at Kocher Park is less suitable overall. This may be due to the difference in habitat size. Kocher Park is a very small piece of land compared to Rock Point, which would provide less habitat and resources for larger or more numerous species.

Overall, I’ve found that Kocher Park and Rock Point represent two very different kinds of natural areas. Kocher Park is small and relatively tame. The landscape itself is beautiful, but it strikes me as a place better suited for recreation and casual strolls. Rock Point in more wild. You have to hike into the larger forest, which is dominated by its residents. It still serves the plants and wildlife, while Kocher Park primarily serves the people. Both serve their own purpose, and both are magnificent in their own ways. It all depends on what kind of experience or relationship one hopes to have with nature.

 

After the Storm

Last weekend, Vermont endured quite an impressive storm. The remnants of a tropical storm came north, bringing rain and howling winds with it. Within in the city, it seems like little has changed; however, the effects of the storm are far more obvious out in the wilderness. Yesterday was my first chance to return to Rock Point since then, and it strikes me as a very different sort of place than the first time I saw it.

The trees have lost almost all of their leaves to the high winds and dropping temperatures. The ground is now hidden under a layer of slick, wet leaves instead of soft white pine needles. Each stem now stands out, especially the bright white bark of the birch trees. Dense shrubs now look like tangled masses of sticks. Many young trees suffered damage. Some have broken branches; others were blown down entirely. Behind the treeline, the fallen leaves are mixed with twigs, branches, and entire trees.

This week required a slightly different approach than my previous visits. Up until now, I’ve been trying to document a progression over time, but now I have to account for the major disturbance that struck a week ago. Obviously I couldn’t watch the changes as they happened; instead, I have to read the signs they left behind. In a way, I must say that I’m grateful for that change. I found myself noticing some very small but fascinating details that I had entirely overlooked before. All of these observations have been cataloged in an event map, which Hannah Hinchman describes in her article, The World as Events. Essentially, an event map is a cross between an actual map, an illustration, and a notebook. It places events roughly where they occur, but they are not drawn to scale. Instead, the illustrations are meant to highlight important observations and features. Each event also has some sort of caption to explain exactly what happened. This exercise forced me to pay attention constantly, and the final product is fascinating to examine for different patterns.

My Event Map

As you can see, animal activity was spread throughout the area, though different species seem to appear in very distinct areas. Once again, the chickadees made themselves known and stayed for most of the time that I was there, though the tended to stay near the meadow or the treeline. In contrast, the titmice have always appeared behind the treeline and deeper into the forest, near the edges of my plot. Other species appear to come and go as they please. One large bird was flying around behind the treeline, and it only stayed for a brief time. Its white breast and crested head make me think it was a blue jay, especially since I have heard them calling in the forest before, but never seen one. And others have been even more scarce, only leaving signs of their presence. I found an old, dying white cedar near the rocks with huge holes in its trunk. The size and shape of these holes reminds me of a pileated woodpecker, but I haven’t yet observed it directly. We discussed pileated woodpeckers during lecture, so I am extremely curious. The large number of snags and presence of older trees are ideal, but I do worry that my location is too close to the forest edge. Hopefully, I’ll see more signs of activity in the future.

The Holes Found in the Dying Cedar

One a similar note, I spent quite a bit of time observing snags on this visit. Enough dead trees are present in my area that I’ve noticed a large variety of ways in which they contribute to the ecosystem. After this storm, I expect to see even more diversity from the trees and snags that were broken or blown over. One small snag near the path was uprooted and covered in moss. One dead paper birch was still standing and now has fungi growing on its side. Another must have been recently blown down in the storm; it is now leaning against the rocks at the edge of my plot. The snag near the edge of the meadow is still standing, and I’ve often seen it used as a perch by the chickadees and other birds. The sheer complexity of this single aspect of the ecosystem is astounding. With each visit, I feel that I’ve discovered another layer of the ecosystem, and this week was no exception.

The Moss-Covered Snag

Fungi Growing on the Paper Birch Snag

Fallen Snag Leaning Against the Rocks

Fall seems to have taken full hold at last. Temperatures have stayed lower this past week, reaching no higher than the low seventies. During that time, most trees have almost completely changed color. Some are still holding onto their leaves, while others have already shed the majority of their leaves. Both clearly stand out from the evergreens now, which has highlighted the large number of white pines along the edge of the path, in the meadow, and in the forest.

The Treeline as it Changes Colors

As fall goes on and winter begins, I suspect that these evergreen trees may become essentially for wildlife, as they will be the only trees to provide significant cover. Since beginning this blog, I’ve noticed how essential cover is for many of the bird species which I have seen. They seem to favor dense vegetation which makes them more difficult to spot, such as dense thickets, leafy canopies, and healthy evergreens. This week, the tufted titmice returned, and I saw one fly from a dense mass of buckthorn into a small cluster of white pines. Once again, the chickadees also returned, and one actually hopped out of the same buckthorn to hide among the tall, herbaceous plants in the meadow itself. Their behavior is fascinating to watch, and I do wonder how they’ll adapt once the deciduous trees and herbaceous plants have died back for the winter. Will they rely almost entirely on the evergreens, or will they have another way of surviving the harsh winter?

Up until this point, I’ve been relying primarily on natural landmarks to define boundaries of my place and describe it in these posts. Given that the landscape is changing so much, it seems prudent to provide a more detailed and concrete map of my location. Its shape is still rather irregular, primarily due to the natural barriers in this location. One edge is defined by a rocky outcrop that stretches through the forest behind the tree line.  The opposite edge is marked by the evergreen trees in the middle of the meadow. Another edge is marked by a shrub at the end of the path, and the last edge near the red oak where I previously saw the woodpecker.

A Hand-drawn Map of My Place

As you can see, my location contains mostly sugar maples, paper birch, and white pines; however, I also found a surprising number of dead or dying trees in the area. This large number of snags likely explains the presence of the woodpecker, and it suggests that I may find more species which rely on these dead trees in the future. You’ll also notice the one, blank corner on this map. That area is more meadow, but it is much more difficult to access. The forest edge on that side of the path is extremely dense, so it is difficult to get through. As of yet, I’ve also tried to avoid walking directly through the meadow due to the density of plants. I believe in causing as little disturbance as possible, so for the time being, I plan to leave that area alone. From now on, feel free to reference this map whenever you wish to pinpoint landmarks at my place. I’ll also be including this image in the “Maps” tab above.

Fall Comes to Vermont

I have to admit, I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not making it out to Rock Point last weekend. Thankfully I was able to make the trip again today. First, I have one quick update from my last post. Last weekend, I had a chance to speak with Dr. Strong, Rubenstein’s resident ornithologist, and he was able to help me identify that strange bird I encountered. Based on his advice, I believe it was a ruby-crowned kinglet, a species which I was honestly unfamiliar with until now. I did do a bit of research on my own, and the information I found matched up shockingly well. Not only did the physical characteristics match, but ruby-crowned kinglets also tend to migrate in early October, which is when they are most often seen. It’s a small discovery, but admittedly it has me very excited for what I might see in the future.

The heat wave that struck Vermont finally passed over the last two weeks. When I returned to the meadow, it was clear that fall has set in. There were only a few flowers still blooming; most have now gone to seed. The plants that had already gone to seed, such as the jewelweed patch, are just starting to die back. Many of the deciduous trees are also starting to change colors and lose their leaves; however, the different species are changing at various rates and becoming different colors. The green ash trees have already turned almost completely yellow, and the paper birch trees have turned about half yellow and brown. Some sugar maples have just started to change yellow, while the red maples are just starting to get their signature, bright red color. The northern red oaks are also just beginning to show a dark red color.

A Red Maple Leaf Beginning to Change Color

As for wildlife, I heard much more than I saw today. When I first arrived, I was greeted by a small group of sparrows hiding in the shrubs. They weren’t quite as bold as many of the birds I’ve encountered here in the past, preferring to stay hidden most of the time. Judging by what I could see of them, I believe they were song sparrows. Not long after I arrived, they left. It was quiet enough that I could hear the buzzing and chirping of the insects, though most of the butterflies and bees have disappeared. The only insects that I actually saw were too small to identify, or mosquitoes.

After a short while, the black-capped chickadees returned once again. They were exceptionally friendly today, and I do have to wonder if they’re actually starting to get used to my presence. Some flew right over my head, close enough that I could hear their wings beating, and a few let me get close enough to take pictures. That may not sound like much, but trust me, it’s not an easy feat with a cell phone camera. There was something that I simply found awe-inspiring about the experience. I’ve started expecting to see the chickadees, but I don’t think that anyone can anticipate such close encounters with nature.

The chickadees departed eventually, and I heard one more bird call which, unfortunately, I can’t put a name to. It was an exceptionally loud and almost piercing sound. They were calling from behind the line of paper birches and eastern white pines, so I decided it was time to more thoroughly explore the small section of forest beyond the treeline. The undergrowth isn’t very dense, but there are various different kinds of saplings. The ground is mostly covered with fallen white pine needles; I will be curious to see how that changes as more trees start dropping their leaves. As for the birds that led me back there in the first place, they turned out to be more cautious. Almost as soon as I found them, they fled. They were rather large birds with pale undersides, but that was as much as I saw before they disappeared deeper into the forest. That being said, I have to be grateful to them. They encouraged me to explore more thoroughly, and I have to wonder what else might be hiding just beyond that treeline.

One of the Black-Capped Chickadees Perched in a Tree

I’m from a small town in rural Pennsylvania, so when I came to Burlington for my first year of college, I knew it was going to be a huge adjustment. Without a car, I didn’t think I would be able to get out of the city and enjoy nature quite the same way that I used to. Thankfully, this project made me aware of opportunities that I likely wouldn’t have discovered on my own. Through the resources my professors provided, I found a place called Rock Point. It’s a natural area just outside of the main city, owned by a local church. The church does have a few facilities, but most of the land is undisturbed and open to visitors for a small fee. All you need to do is pick up bus 7 downtown, then get off at Burlington High School. Walk past the school, and take the first road on your right into Rock Point. Wander through the forest, or find a nice places to relax overlooking the lake. It’s a beautiful landscape, and it’s only a short ride away from the main city.

But what really makes Rock Point special? At first, I was drawn there because of what I’d read about wildlife sightings. My heart has always belonged to the animals, and I wanted to find somewhere that I could make a connection with the local wildlife. So I decided to go exploring, and I wasn’t disappointed. Last Saturday, I spent most of my afternoon following the calls of birds. Over the past few years, birds have managed to carve out a special spot in my life. They’ve been a key part in some of my most personal experiences with wildlife. So when I went out searching for my exact spot, I decided to put my trust in them one more time and see where their calls led me. After a bit of wandering, I found myself at the edge of the forest. There’s a small meadow tucked into the trees, with a few evergreens in the middle. The meadow is filled with tall grass and various wildflowers, and the weather was still warm enough to bring out the butterflies and bumblebees. A small group of black-capped chickadees flew in from one of the evergreen trees and landed in a basswood tree right besides the path. Many birds tend to be skittish, but they were just so curious. One flew down to a low branch and looked at me, its head cocked slightly, before jumping up a few more branches and preening its feathers. They just seemed so calm, as if they didn’t mind my presence. I’d been hoping for some kind of sign, and it seemed like the chickadees had welcomed me. I knew that I was in the right place, and I’ve affectionately nicknamed that basswood The Chickadee Tree.

When I returned this week, the heat wave had broken. Most of the butterflies had gone, though there were still bumblebees flying from flower to flower. The chickadees greeted me again, but they weren’t alone this week. Just beyond the treeline, I caught glances of a grey, crested bird which I believe to be a tufted titmouse. Then, I had my most exciting sighting of the day by far: a large woodpecker drumming on a red oak at the end of the path. Judging by the banding on its wings, I believe it was a red-bellied woodpecker. I had a few other bird sightings as well, though I only caught glances of most of the visitors. One bird stuck around for quite a while, but as of yet I’ve been unable to identify it. It was small, similar in size to a wren, greenish-tan in color, with a single white band and one or two black bands on its wings. Its beak was thin but not exceptionally long, and it had a white ring around each eye. I haven’t been able to confirm its identity yet, but I plan on continuing my searching and hopefully seeing it again.

My first two weeks at my location have been extremely encouraging, and I’ve started documenting its permanent residents as well as visiting wildlife. Because I’ve chosen a forest edge, I’ve found a great variety of trees and other woody plants. Paper birch seems to be dominant right along the edge of the forest, along with young eastern white pines. One larger basswood grows on the opposite side of the path. A few young eastern hemlocks are scattered throughout. Some species only appeared along the edge as small saplings, including sugar maple, northern red oak, green ash, and red maple. Large sugar maples and northern red oaks are prevalent just beyond the birch dominated edge. Unfortunately, buckthorn was common throughout and often grew near the bases of larger trees.

Since almost half of my location is meadow instead of forest, I also decided note as many herbaceous plants as I could. The most prevalent plant in the field was solidago, more commonly known as goldenrod, some of which was still in bloom. A larger, purple flower was also common, which I believe is a form of aster. Most of the area which isn’t covered with wildflowers is inhabited by tall grasses and red clover. A species of fern is growing both at the edge of the field and under the cover of the trees. A large patch of jewelweed is also growing in the shade, and its seed pods are beginning to develop. Unfortunately, my knowledge of herbaceous plants isn’t very extensive, but I believe it is important for me to document as much as I possibly can. The change in weather over the past week also caused a surprisingly noticeable change in the landscape, and I may see just as significant of a change next time I return. I plan on documenting as many changes as possible, so when I look back on these posts months from now, I will be able to string together a clear picture of this landscape.

A bumblebee on an aster flower in the meadow

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