Following an especially long, harsh and challenging winter, the organisms that call Centennial Woods have survived and began to grow from the ground for another season. Though no wildflowers could be found at my site, many sprouts of grass and other plants were just beginning to get established, looking forward to the bountiful summer that lies ahead. In the canopy, few trees have broke bud, though many are on the cusp of doing so. An exception to this is the ambitious red maple, which has broke bud and began its reproductive cycle. Its soft, red flowers bring life to a barren canopy.
The warm sunlight has enveloped the marsh, and recent rains and snow melt have made the area not only greener than it has been since October, but also the most soggy I have ever seen it. The birds are calling, temperatures far from falling; this is a Vermont spring.
Given the saturated ground in a Centennial Brook’s floodplain and the plant composition of the area, I would classify my phenology site as a mixture of both a sedge meadow and a cattail marsh. Some people could argue the area to be a rivershore grassland as well, as the area is mainly comprised of grasses and wildflowers. Thinking back to the warmer and more pleasant days of September, cattails, grasses and burdock were the most numerous in the flat floodplain. Along the edges, ash, hemlock and white pine stake their claims, though not a part of the natural community being studied.
In the late summer when I visited my phenology spot for the first time, the floodplain was dry and teeming with life of all kinds. Come fall, the floodplain began to become muddy as the flora and fauna began to dissipate. As of today, no animals were seen, with the ghostly tracks the only remnants of a once vibrant ecosystem. The skeletons of dead plants litter the landscape, though in less than a month they will rise again. The ground, covered in six inches of snow, with frozen mud underfoot, will soon thaw as well, yet the reaction between hydrology and substrate is petrified for the time being. Potential squirrel and fox tracks were found along the edges of the marsh, with deer tracks littered throughout. Life will soon balloon, with days becoming longer, temperatures warming and the days slowly rolling towards the vernal equinox.
I added the pictures from the first trip out to my phenology spot just to show how large of a change has occurred between the seasons. An area once teeming with life of all types- plants, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals- is now quiet, barren and covered with a thick layer of snow. A lush meadow is now only marked by human tracks in the snow- people in search of nature they will seldom find at this point of year. Not much has changed since the last visit, though the few bird calls I had heard last time would have been welcomed with open arms. The forest was eerily silent during my whole trip- no birds, no animals, not even wind, as the falling snow muffled my ears.
When entering Centennial Woods on a clear, 27 degree day in December, I expected the forests to be less active, yet nothing would prepare me for just how inactive it actually would be. In previous trips, birds enveloped the canopy in harmony and melody alike, filling my ears with the cadences indicative of life. Today though, I entered a forest I have been studying for 4 months only to find it to be something completely different from what I knew and loved. During the 30 minute duration I spent in the woods, all I saw was human tracks (and corresponding dog tracks), half a dozen squirrel tracks and very few bird calls (1 chickadee tweet and 2 cardinal calls). Compared to weeks ago when hordes of goldfinch, robin, wood pecker, junco, cardinal and others made their presence known, this was a polar opposite. One cause could be the lack of food. Barberry and wild rose hips are the only remaining fruit, as grape vines have been picked clean, along with all the seeds of wildflowers along the trail. If there is no food, that is cause to not be in a certain area, as well as the cold being a cause to hunker down. The floodplain has been altered once again in several ways. The first being that the unseasonable amount of snow has pressed the vegetation down into mats close to the ground. With the snow came lots of water, and such was seen throughout the woods. The ground along the trail and in the floodplain was extremely saturated, turning the once dry land into marsh. In hindsight from the beginning of the year, huge changes have occurred in every aspect (hydro-logically, flora and fauna, etc.).
With the arrival of a Nor’easter early last week, the flora and fauna of the area effectively barred their doors in preparation for a cold and wet winter to lay ahead. With the exception of fleeting glimpses of Pileated Woodpeckers, Juncos and Cardinals, I saw nothing more in an area teeming with life in the summer months. The rattlesnakes of the area, some of the densest population in the state of NJ have all migrated over the ridge to their den nested in the crags of the humble Ramapo Mountains. The deer, wary of the ongoing hunting season, have retreated into the impenetrable marshes thick with vegetation, as animals such as bear, raccoon, woodchuck and possum have entered stages of dormancy or hibernation. This is the time that all the mentioned have planned for for months on end. Winter is here and for most the best way to cope is to hunker down. A season of heavy rains has saturated the grounds, and letting plants grow more than usual. This year is a boom for small rodents, with heavy amounts of rabbit, chipmunk, squirrel and woodchuck making their presence known. Predators such as red foxes, grey foxes, coyote and bobcat all take advantage of the good times, though all are seldom seen in person. In a hardwood forest, no trees but some ghostly beeches retain their leaves, with the remnants of others coating the pond’s surface with detritus. These are the hard times, only to worsen in the coming months.
In comparison to my Vermont phenology site, my hometown site was very much different, but has roots in the same ideas. Both locations are steeped in agrarian pasts, Brushwood an area for cattle grazing with the onset of the 20th century, virtually cleared with not a tree in sight just a century ago. Much is the same at Centennial Woods, old farmland with a personally unknown land use history. Centennial, like Brushwood was deforested in the early 20th century and has undergone a remarkable succession and return of the hardwood forest. In NJ, the reclamation of the woods was undertaken by black birch, cherry and oak species, whereas the Centennial site was first taken by the lofty white pine and followed by humble beeches, just starting to stake their claim in the under-story. Much like Centennial, the woods surrounding Brushwood have their roots in secondary succession with fagus grandifolia. As said in the prior passage, their ghostly leaves are the only remnants of a lively summer. Though bird populations in Centennial Woods may appear more abundant, one may say that they are only concentrated to a further degree than in NJ. An island of trees in a surrounding suburban landscape, Centennial provides refuge for birds as they sustain themselves in the Burlington area. Brushwood Pond is enveloped by over 12,000 acres of undeveloped forest land, so birds and other fauna, though abundant, can be hard to find as they are spread out among the different niches of the area. Though Brushwood may represent one area with a pond and clearing, the remainder of the area contains hardwood forest, few stands of white pine and spruce, numerous kettle hole swamps, and clearings the product of a pipeline.
Though the majority of my observations are on the map I created, it is important to emphasize the more important aspects of my trip on Friday 11/2. Squirrels are making a last ditch effort of eating easily-attainable food, and much is the same for the birds in the area. Bugs have almost entirely disappeared from the landscape, so birds are reliant on the remaining berries, grapes and seeds that are left on plants, trees and vines throughout. Almost all the trees, inducing the oaks who are late to fall, have fell; stick season is upon us. The warm weather resulted in a micro-hatch of small flies, which seemed uncharacteristic for how cold it had been in preceding days. Nature is slowing down, battening down the hatches for an oncoming Vermont winter. Winter is coming.
Today I witnessed a forest that was flush with life 20 days ago experience a die-back. The bees that once buzzed around the marsh appeared to have met the fate of the frost, though bugs like dragonflies, flies and wasps still remain active, though limited in magnitude. Most birds, with the exception of goldfinches, wrens and chickadees have seemingly left the woods, though the few remaining birds are easily audible. Milkweed and other lighter seeds fill the sky, drifting with the current of the wind as all the maples brown out and the oaks are priming themselves to follow suit. The ferns that carpet the forest floor are beginning to show less and less life, as with the high majority of plant life throughout the woods.
My spot is nestled into the marshlands of Centennial Woods, found by keeping left on the major trails of the nature preserve and heading 200 yards downstream. The area consists of reeds, tall grasses, joe pye weed and cattails in the moist, swampy areas, with hemlock, eastern white pine and ash trees “high and dry”. The amount of light the plants receive, as well as the moisture in this basin is uncharacteristic compared to the rest of the surrounding forest, thus hosting a dense assortment of flora and fauna, which I hope will make the phenology process slightly easier.