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A Final Visit

I must admit that today is somewhat bittersweet. It’s a gorgeous day outside; it’s warm enough with a nice breeze to cool you off on occasion. There’s barely a cloud in the sky, and it’s clear that spring is finally here to stay. The school year is coming to an end, and while I’ll be glad to get away from the stress of school for the summer, I will miss my somewhat regular trips to Rock Point. Today was my last trip to the meadow, at least for now. Hopefully I can make it back next year and see what’s happened in the time that I’m gone.

The past week has been consistently warm, and it seems like nature has taken full advantage. When I returned today, the meadow was finally turning green again. Grass is growing and buds are bursting. Though I was greeted by one sad sight. A storm blew through last night, and it knocked down the snag right by the path. The trail was blocked, and I had to navigate around the debris to explore the woods on the other side.

The Fallen Snag

That being said, the woods were full of life today. I could hear birds singing almost constantly. Most stayed in the treetops, jumping from branch to branch, though I noticed a few closer to the ground or even on the forest floor. A few highlights include a Northern Flicker, which was perched on a gnarled old tree branch. I also found a strange, smaller bird which I’ve been unable to definitively identify.

The Northern Flicker

The Unidentified Bird

I also got to do a bit of people watching today. The good weather has brought out the locals. Some come for the walking trails, some head towards the lake to swim, and some were even volunteering to clean up after last night’s storm. There’s a sense of community at Rock Point. People form connections with others, whether it’s a deepened connection to a friend or a new bond with another volunteer. It’s clear that people care for each other and for the place itself. As the weather has improved, I’ve seen trails being improved, new kiosks being built, and more and more people taking advantage. Even as a visitor, I find a certain satisfaction in leaving Rock Point as pristine as I found it. This is a place where the city’s residents escape and connect to Vermont’s beautiful natural landscape.

In some way, I must admit that I have a special bond with this place. Over time, it feels like the place has almost grown accustom to my presence and accepted me there. I’ve seen so many little things: the regular visits of the chickadees, the woodpeckers, the ruby-crowned kinglet, the weasel tracks, and the list goes on. To me, that feels special. I’ve been gifted with the opportunity to experience so much in this place and see things that I only could have hoped for. So for anyone who’s read this and thought about doing it yourself, go out there and find a place you care about. Visit regularly, and let yourself just exist in the present. Savor the small things, and be grateful for all of it. There’s much you can do in your corner of the world, and there’s so much the natural world can do for you.

One Last Picture of the Meadow

A Wild Start to Spring

April is already almost halfway gone, and yet Vermont still can’t quite decide if spring is here. The weather has been rather inconsistent lately; I actually put this trip off last weekend because it had started snowing again. When I woke up this morning, the day seemed a bit more inviting, and I finally made the journey back to Rock Point. It was still a chilly and windy day, and the sky was covered in a layer of grey clouds. I’d hoped that this was just a sign of spring rain, but I looked out my window this afternoon and a new layer of snow had fallen over campus. So it seems that we’re not entirely out of winter just yet.

On the way to the meadow, I had a rather special encounter that I feel I should share. I ride the city bus most of the way to Rock Point, but it is a decent walk from the entrance to the meadow. On the way, there are plenty of sights that I’ve grown used to. Usually I’ll see some wildlife on the way in: songbirds, squirrels, and crows usually. Today, I rounded a bend and saw a large black, white, and red bird fly into the trees. So I took a small detour off my normal route, following the sound of the bird calling. Based on its calls and the brief glance I’d gotten at it, I was able to identify it as a Pileated Woodpecker, and I eventually found it clinging to the side of a large tree. As an admitted bird lover, I had to admire such a gorgeous and ecologically important bird.

The Pileated Woodpecker on the Side of the Tree

When I did reach the meadow, I was immediately struck by one major change. The fluctuating temperatures have brought many windy days, and one of those storms was enough to uproot the dead evergreen tree in the middle of the meadow. I came out of the forest to see the snag lying across the ground.

The Uprooted Snag

Despite the cold, there were still subtle signs that spring is definitely on its way. The ground is completed saturated with rain and snow melt, turning the meadow into something between a marsh and a mud pit. In some places, my feet sank straight into the earth or slipped on the soaked layer of decaying leaf litter. In others, the ground had become so saturated that there were small, standing pool of water. It was a relatively dismal scene at first glance, but there were many smaller signs of life.

The first spring plants have started to appear from the muddy ground. Most were still extremely young, so I haven’t been able to find any easy reference with which to identify them. Hopefully as the days become consistently warmer and the plants continue to grow, I’ll be able to identify them officially. I was also shocked by the number of distinctly different ferns I found near the treeline and in the wooded area. Most were also quite large given how early in the year it is; they seem to have done well despite the odd weather.

Sketches of Fern Pinnule Shapes

Unidentified Plants

Beyond plants, the chickadees and tufted titmice also made a reappearance today. I was wondering if I would see any more spring migrants or amphibians, but the cold and winds seemed to discourage most wildlife. The chickadees and titmice were around all winter, so they could deal with the colder temperatures, and even they vanished not long after I arrived.

A Tufted Titmouse

All things considered, I was admittedly shocked that I didn’t see more unfamiliar faces; however, I do have a theory as to why. The area which I am focused on is specifically an edge. Both the meadow and the forest are mostly undisturbed, save for the small hiking trail, but it is an edge none the less. This means that it won’t provide habitat for forest interior species, which would rather stay deeper in the wooded areas. Instead, this site serves species that specifically thrive in edges. When I first chose my sight, the meadow was full of tall grasses and wildflowers, and it was absolutely teeming with insects. It could provide food and cover for a wide variety of species. Currently, the dead grasses are sodden and beaten down, and there are less obvious signs of insect activity. If the meadow cannot offer as much food or shelter now, then species which rely on those features have no reason to be there right now. I suspect that I might see more activity as the meadow regrows and the insects become much more active. Hopefully, this may bring in some different species from the surrounding woodland and result in many more exciting sightings as spring finally settles over the state and brings the meadow to life again.

It’s the middle of March already, and that means a short break from all the stresses of college life. Though calling it “spring break” in Vermont might be a bit generous. I was able to spend the weekend at my family’s new home on the shores of Beebe Pond in Hubbardton, VT. The area is mostly rural. There are a decent number of vacation homes around the lake, but most are only temporary residences, so it’s always been extremely quiet when I’ve been there. Some areas also cannot be developed for various reasons, so there are a few large, empty plots right next to the house which I took the time to explore during our stay. I’ve added a map below, centered on the forested plot next door where I spent most of my time. You’ll also be able to find this in the Maps tab for later reference.

I chose to head out early in the morning, while many of the birds were active. The day began with the noisy, varied calls of blue jays in the trees. I was honestly astonished by the number of jays in the area; at one point I counted no less than nine individuals. I consulted my Audobon app, and the reason soon became obvious. As it turns out, blue jays are quite fond of oak trees, and the canopy was dominated by red and white oaks. They aren’t particularly shy birds, so they do well in this habitat, even near our house. I must admit, I love having the opportunity to watch them in the mornings. They’re striking and expressive birds; I never know quite what to expect from them each morning.

A Blue Jay Perched in a Tree Near the Lake

As I traveled farther into the woods, I was struck by the complexity of the forest. In some ways, it’s actually similar to Rock Point. The woods border the lake, which creates an edge along the water with a different composition than the interior; however, the exact compositions are significantly different. The edge is dominated by paper birch and eastern white pine. Meanwhile, the interior is primarily red and white oaks as well as american beech. The understory has a large number of sugar maple saplings, as well as a variety of shrubs. There was also a surprising amount of dead material, including fallen trees and standing snags. Due to the thick layer of snow, I can’t say exactly how much dead material is lying on the ground, but judging by how many logs I ended up stepping on, it may exceed the amount of dead material at Rock Point.

The prevalence of standing snags in the area also makes it excellent habitat for woodpeckers. Loud drumming alerted me to the presence of a hairy woodpecker, which was drumming into a dead oak branch. Hairy woodpeckers are extremely similar to the common downy woodpecker, but they are larger and have noticeably longer beaks upon careful inspection.

The Hairy Woodpecker on the Dead Oak Branch

Further into the woods, I noticed a flash of red and found another woodpecker clinging to a tree trunk. Initially, I wondered if it was a northern flicker, which would not be unusual. However, the bird clearly had a red cap, not a red mark below the beak. Given this difference, I believe that it was actually a red-bellied woodpecker, which would be a more unusual sighting this far north.

The Red-Bellied Woodpecker on the Tree

I’m still astounded by how much I was able to discover in my short visit, and I look forward to getting to know this place better as well over the coming months and years. I’m sure there are more birds to see, plants that will soon spring to life, and an entire underwater world that is currently hidden under the ice. As the seasons progress, I hope to record the specific changes and details of this place so that I can appreciate the more subtle differences between these two little corners of Vermont.

The First Thaw

This February was particularly interesting. Temperatures rose into the fifties and sixties for a short time, resulting in the first, albeit short, thaw of the year. Now, temperatures have dropped back below freezing, and a layer of wet snow has fallen over the ground again. Regardless, it seems like the harshest parts of winter have passed, and spring is fast approaching.

Spring is well known for widespread change. Once temperatures rise, it starts a sort of chain reaction. Snows melt, plants resume their daily business of soaking up sun, and animals return from their long stays in the tropics. The landscape functions as a huge, interconnected web, and as spring begins in one area, it sends waves through the surrounding communities. These communities can be classified based on various attributes, such as soil, plants, animals, and position within the landscape. This early thaw gave me a slight hint at what’s to come this spring and how the meadow will fit into this dynamic system.

The meadow is in a somewhat unique position within Rock Point. Most of the surrounding area is sloped inward towards it, and the rocky slopes allow water to easily drain into the lower elevations. However, the soil in the meadow is not very well drained. It’s rich in clay and calcium, derived from the limestone bedrock and sediments deposited when the landscape was underwater. Now, decomposing organic material is constantly adding to the soil, resulting in nutrient-rich but rather poorly drained soils. For anyone interested, I’d suggest visiting Burlington Geographic for more information about bedrock and soil types, as well as a map with information on those features in different parts of the state.

Due to all of those factors, I arrived to find most of my site covered in heavy snow covering a thick layer of ice. In some areas the ice was thinner, and I could hear it crunching under my feet. In others, it much too thick to get through. I also found a few interesting locations were holes in the thick ice revealed liquid water lying underneath. Specifically, I found one location right off the main path by the edge of the woods, and another in the middle of the field near the base of the evergreen trees. When the full thaw comes, I’ll be curious to see if  water pools in those areas for a significant amount of time.

Water Visible Through the Ice Near the Path

Water Under the Ice in the Middle of the Meadow

This unique set of circumstances has also resulted in a diverse living community, including both plant and animal life. A wide variety of trees can grow in the woods, so long as they can grow in the wetter soils. Currently, eastern white pines dominate most of the canopy, along with old northern red oaks and some paper birches along the edge. The understory supports a large number of different species. Red maples are able to do well in the moist soils, and sugar maples and american basswood are able to thrive in the nutrient rich environment. Some young eastern hemlocks and northern white cedars are also present. According to the Vermont Agency of Natural Resource’s Biofinder map, my site and the surrounding areas are also potential habitats for multiple rare plant species. The conditions at this site and around the rest of Rock Point are extremely diverse and interesting, so I strongly encourage anyone interested to take a look for yourself.

Judging by its position in the landscape, soil type, and tree species, I believe this community is (or has the potential to be) a Valley Clayplain Forest, as described in “Wetland, Woodland, Wildland.” These communities were once more common in the Champlain Valley, but the deep and nutrient rich soils were ideal for farming. Most of this land was cleared for agriculture, but some communities survived, specifically those in conserved areas or with soils too poorly drained to farm easily. This community has seen some human disturbance, such as clearing the meadow for human use. This change is what resulted in the large number of shade intolerant, early successional species such as white pine and paper birch. Many of the other species indicative of a Valley Clayplain Forest have started growing in the understory as other species, primarily paper birch, have started to die off. Given more time with little human disturbance, the area would likely look even more like the community described in the book.

So as spring closes in, I’m honestly excited to see what part this place in the greater scheme of things. The first thaws are coming, and on this visit, I was greeted by a few unfamiliar bird songs as I made my way back to the meadow. Animals are starting to become active, and the first migrants are making their way back to Vermont. So far, none have made themselves known, but I know I’ll have many more chances to explore. And while it may be a minor note, I must admit that I was more than happy to finally see the chickadees again. I’ve heard them multiple times throughout the winter, but I haven’t seen them near the meadow in some time. They’re the first to return with the coming spring, just as they were the first to greet me on my initial visit to Rock Point. It seems rather apt, and I’m looking forward to see what my next visit will bring.

A Chickadee Perched on a Fallen Tree

Winter and Weasels

After about two months, I’ve finally been able to return to my site at Rock Point. The landscape is both familiar and somewhat alien to me. Perhaps that’s because the entire landscape is covered in snow. A fresh coating fell a few days ago, and I arrived to a white blanket which had hidden most of the field and forest undergrowth from view.

The Meadow Covered in Snow

The snow will conceal most of the herbaceous plant life until spring comes; however, it reveals an entirely different layer of the ecosystem. Animal tracks are recorded in the snow, revealing the activities of the local species when I am not around to see them. The chickadees that I observed over my last semester were far from shy, but many other species are more cautious. I may never see some of these animals in person, but their tracks reveal their presence and tell their stories.

The most abundant tracks belonged to grey squirrels, which I must admit are no more timid than the chickadees. I was fortunate enough to see a few squirrels this afternoon, and I must say that they are fascinating to watch. The squirrels moved partially through the trees and partially over land, so their tracks are not a single, continuous trail from point A to point B. Instead, they leave trails between trees, then jump from tree to tree before climbing down at another location.

A Large Number of Squirrel Tracks at the Base of A White Pine

I followed one trail to the base of a tree. As it turned out, the squirrel was still sitting in one of the branches above me. Occasionally, small pieces of debris fell from the tree and into the snow. When I looked up, I noticed the squirrel, which was happily eating in one of the high branches. I found similar patterns of debris at the bases of a few other trees at my site, suggesting that these are the most popular locations for the local squirrels to stop and eat.

The Fine Debris Dropped by the Squirrel

Soon after I found this squirrel, I noticed a similar set of tracks nearby. These tracks, however, were all similar in size, unlike the longer tracks left by a squirrel’s back feet. Five toes were visible in some of the tracks, and they were grouped more closely together. They appeared to be the tracks of a weasel.

A Set of Weasel Tracks

The tracks led to the edge of the woods, then followed the edge for a short way. Eventually, the tracks led to a small hole in the snow. Weasels spend a significant amount of time within networks of tunnels through the snow, formally known as the subnivean zone. The snow provides insulation against the worst of the cold; it may be near 0 on the surface, but remain near 32 under the snow. Many small animals spend the majority of their time under the snow during the winter months, including the rodents which weasels hunt. This hole may be the home of the weasel, or an animal which it was hunting. Regardless, I find this physical evidence of the activity occurring underneath the snow to be extremely exciting.

Tracks Leading to the Hole

Just like the snow changes our view of the animal world, winter completely changes what we see from the plant kingdom. While some plants are entirely hidden, the deciduous trees become bare, leaving their branches visible. The lack of leaves makes trees much harder to identify at a glance, but it also reveals their buds, which can be just as distinctive. Below, I’ve created a basic sketch of a twig with buds and labeled parts. You can refer to this for basic terminology.

A Sketch of a Twig with Labels

Some trees, such as white oaks, can be distinguished by their clustered terminal buds. Others are easily distinguished by color. For example, red maples have distinctive bright red buds. However, they are not the only trees with reddish buds. American basswood also has deep red buds. These buds are darker than those of a red maple, and the basswood is alternate branching as opposed to the opposite branching of a red maple. In alternate branching species, buds will be staggered, like the drawing above. Opposite branching species will have two buds straight across from one another.

The Buds of an American Basswood

Some buds can be somewhat misleading, such as the buds of the paper birch. The new growth is much darker than the white bark which is iconic to this species. Close examination shows that they do actually belong to the same tree.

The Bud of a Young Paper Birch

Winter tends to be associated with dormancy and even death, but all of the signs across the landscape show that it is very much alive. Animals adapt to the harsh conditions, and while the trees may appear barren, the signs of new life are already present on their branches. I don’t expect for the landscape to become any quieter over the next few months, and I look forward to documenting the hidden stories of winter.

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

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