Forest Explorations

December in the Fells

Winter is for me a moment in time when I naturally delve into forest details that escaped my attention all the other seasons. This time, I had planned to spend more time looking for birds, but as often is the case, I got distracted by something else that popped along the path: arthropod signs, mammal scats, a few logs. Many of our discussions led to reading the forest floor, musing about it, as well as understanding the meaning of what we were seeing to the Fells habitats and its inhabitants. Each Forest exploration walk brings its load of wonders and this December Fells’ exploration wasn’t any different.

Once a month, Claire and Kathy lead a biodiversity walk in the Fells. It’s a free-form activity of ours which only purpose is to explore what Nature wonders are in season: what is flowering, fruiting, passing by, living here? Here are highlights of what we enjoyed this time!

We had was a good team with us on the trails: A great mix of wonderful naturalists and guests. We love that our walks have become a regular conversation among friends in the forest. Kathy, Joe, Tinie, Bill, Tom, Audrey… all have interesting nature experiences and knowledge that they share generously. On this walk, we also had new faces including two young budding naturalists (Sammy and Caleb). Very quickly the guests joined in the chat, and the magic happened: little groups formed along the trail, looking at things together. Each one moved naturally from one group to the other, listening, commenting, wondering together. The conversations were lighthearted and vibrant.

Insects & Spiders in Winter

Shortly after a gentle climb away from the main Cross Fells trail, we started looking around more intently.

Hidden underneath a leaf: Could it be the egg sac of a spider? | © Claire O’Neill

Guests are often surprised when we announce that we’ll look for insects and spiders at this time of the year. But it really took no time to see the first signs of arthropod life: Eastern tent caterpillar (Malacosoma americana) egg cases on a Black cherry, Pine tube moth (Argyrotaenia pinatubana) casing on a White pine, and what I suspect is the egg silk case of some spider species.

Tent caterpillar egg cases | © Claire O’Neill

Pine tube moth casing | © Claire O’Neill

Eastern tent caterpillars (on the left above) are a species of moth, whose larvae are among the most social larvae. Fully formed caterpillars can be found within the eggs. They remain until spring then chew their way out of the eggs at the time when the leaf buds of the host tree burst out. In the case of the Pine tube moth larva (on the right), when the tube walls have been mostly eaten down, the larvae abandon their tubes and begin constructing new ones. The species overwinters in the pupal stage within the tube.

Trails Are Not Equal

Early on, we stopped along the trail and looked at an inconspicuous yet visible path crossing ours. That path gave me the opportunity to raise attention to a big issue in the Fells: habitat fragmentation. The trail that I was showing is not part of the DCR trail system. This is a rogue trail. Rogue trails are also known as social trails, user trails, pirate trails, or informal trails. I just happened to track that one specifically the day before the walk to evaluate its penetration into the forest and record it in our Rogue trail citizen science project.

As guests of those woods, we often don’t realize that we have a big impact. Any trail (rogue or legitimate) affects wildlife. When one walks a trail, that impact often translates into the wildlife stopping to evaluate danger. While it does so, it diverts energy that was spent doing something else such as foraging for winter, courting in mating season. Disturbance also increases the risk of predation, etc.

Corridors of influence on wildlife and then areas of impact can even be estimated. For instance, a typical corridor of influence has an area of impact on mammals that equals about 400 feet in all directions. That area of impact for birds is about 150 feet, and 60 feet for amphibians [More: How the presence of humans can disturb wildlife up to half a mile away (Dertien, J., Clemson University, and al. ) | Trail for People and Wildlife (USFWS) ]. Speaking of birds: a recent study showed that it is not the trail itself that impacts negatively wildlife, but rather us on those trails. Disentangling the effect of forest trails from the presence of humans showed the number of birds, as well as bird species, is lower when trails are used on a more regular basis. This is also the case when trails have been used for many years, suggesting that forest birds do not get used to recreational activities. 

The point is that the Fells is already streaked by a huge number of ‘legit’ trails. Any ‘other’ trail diminishes further the viable wildlife surface area. In a sense, two trails are not equal. It is something to be aware of so that we move successfully towards a form of recreation that enables conservation.

🗺️ Stay on the DCR trails and give a chance to wildlife. We’ve made a map to help you protect the many habitats of the Fells while you’re hiking. Click on the EwA Fells Legit Trail map, and you’ll see where you are in relation to the DCR trails right from Google Map.

Fungi Foray Continued

After a drought summer, the Fells saw a resurgence of fungi starting about in October. We witnessed this during our October and November walks. This past Saturday gave us the satisfaction to see a few more of the usual suspects.

We sighted about 19 species of fungi including the Luminescent panellus (Panellus stipticus) below on the left which–as its name suggests–is bioluminescent (i.e., it glows in the dark). The species grows in dense clusters on the logs of deciduous trees including oak, beech, and birch. What you see is actually the fruiting body of the fungus attached to the decaying wood with a stubby stalk. The top of the cap is usually yellow-orange to brownish. They start as little knobs then grow kidney or fan-shaped caps measuring about 3 cm in width (1.2 in).

Luminescent pannelus cluster | © Claire O’Neill

Crimped gill with its uniquely patterned cap’s underside | © Claire O’Neill

We also spotted (above on the right) the Crimped Gill (Plicaturopsis crispa). There’s something more organic about the shape of its cap compared to the cap of the panellus. Its underside is whitish, streaked with gills, and provides a key to identifying it. That is, the pattern is fairly unique. It resembles veins that may fork, and ‘curve’ rather than run straight radially from the stalk to the edge of the cap.

When looking at fungi, remember to note the habitat or the species that host them. Is it growing on soil, wood (like these two), or another fungus? Be as precise as you can. If growing on wood or on another fungus, then what’s the species (or genus or family)? All these pieces of information are usually necessary for strengthening an identification. Also know that many fungi are only identifiable to species by inspecting them through a microscope.

Knowing or not the name of the species is not the end game for us. It’s just a means of saying ‘Hi’. What’s most important is rather the journey of noticing, wondering, and marveling at them together.

There is so much that we enjoyed during our December walk. If you’re curious about our other sightings, you can check them out here

Thanks again to all who joined us this month! It was wonderful to see both familiar and new faces. We will be scouting the woods again this Winter. Winter is quieter in the forest, but if you wander with us you’ll see that there is a lot to admire. 📅 Join us next month to explore the natural beauties to be found in January.

Other December Highlights

Biodiversity Documentation & Forest Explorations

Dec, 15th 2020 | by Claire O’Neill 

The photos of species in this article are the visual observations that the EwA team recorded when scouting for and during the 2020 December Forest Explorations event (© Claire O’Neill, @ Joe MacIndewar,  © Bill MacIndewar). Click any photo and see the corresponding record in EwA’s iNaturalist Fells project (and its author). Photos are licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC).

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