Forest Explorations

February in the Fells

Heavy snowfall might at first seem like an inconvenience, or even threat, to wildlife. In actuality, snow accumulation is essential to the winter survival of many species. 

This February’s Forest Exploration shed light on the many benefits of snowpack (layered snow buildup) from temperature regulation to protection from predators. In addition to exploring life beneath the snow, we examined deer and mouse tracks on its surface and discussed how both flora and fauna brave New England’s harsh winter conditions.

About the Author: Mina Burton ➔

“Seeing the Fells through a naturalistic lens instead of a purely recreational one fundamentally changed my perception of the space. I began to pay attention to places differently, noting not only individual species but also the relationships between these species and their environments and interspecies interactions. Observing and recording these kinds of details over time can show us the effects of climate change on biodiversity and inform how we protect that biodiversity.”

Mina’s interest in natural history took root during a New England field studies course at Lesley. This course involved learning about ecology and plant identification at local parks and urban wilds. One of these sites was the Middlesex Fells...

Once a month, EwA leads 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?

We invite our guests to write about the walk. Here are highlights of what Mina and we enjoyed this time!


Shelter from the Storm

Small animals and insects have a few options when it comes to avoiding the worst of winter’s cold weather. The first of these options is small cavities in and under trees and fallen logs. These cavities shelter these critters from the wind and can improve temperatures by up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Cavities aren’t the only way small creatures warm up in winter months; snow can also offer a layer of insulation from the cold. Snow accumulation of several inches or more, known as snowpack, offers small mammals such as voles, shrews, and mice as well as certain insects a safe haven during the winter. These creatures reside close to the ground, within the bottom layer of the snowpack. This little space beneath the snow retains heat and moisture which keeps temperatures stable and also shields residents from the watchful eyes of predators. You can detect the presence of mammals by their vent shafts, or small holes leading to the snow’s surface that release CO2 and other harmful gases. 

Due to climate change, we are losing our annual snowpack in New England. We may see a decrease in small mammals over the next few years as these animals are heavily reliant on snowpack for survival.


Footprint Findings

Rodent tracks | © Mina Burton

White-tailed Deer | © Joe MacIndewar

Above (left) you can see mouse tracks spanning from one hole to another, a common pattern for small mammals. If you look closely, you can even see the imprint of the mouse’s tail dragging in the snow. The photo on the right shows a deer track; this track is so clear you can make out an impression of the deer’s rear toe pad behind the hoof print. 

One attendee was curious as to how one can differentiate between dog and coyote or fox prints. An easy way to distinguish between the two is that the tracks of wild canines are typically straight, defined tracks, whereas domesticated dog tracks will often loop or sway. This pattern occurs when dogs double back to their owners.


The Sweet Pepperbush’s Unusual Phenology

Sweet pepperbush | © Mina Burton

Sweet pepperbush (Clethra alnifolia), shown above, gets its name from the peppercorn-like appearance of its mature fruit. It is a common shrub in wetlands and can often be found surrounding vernal pools at the Fells. In addition to common phases such as the changes in leaves, flowers, and fruits, sweet pepperbush has an unusual phase during which its flower stems, usually found upright, break and bend downwards.


Hard to Let Go

Tightly packed buds (American beech) | © Mina Burton

Marcescent leaves (American beech) | © Mina Burton

Identifying trees without leaves can be a challenging task. Luckily for those of us less familiar with tree identification, one common tree at the Fells holds onto its leaves for the winter. Beech trees can be identified solely by their tightly packed, pointy buds (left), but their lingering dead leaves do provide an additional identification clue. 

Marcescence refers to the retention of plant parts, such as leaves, that are normally shed. Come autumn, most deciduous plants stop supplying water to their leaves. This halt in water movement occurs when a layer of cells, called the abscission layer, develops at the stem base of a leaf, closing off water pathways and causing the leaf to drop. In some trees, including the beech, this abscission layer does not fully develop, thus preventing the leaf from shedding. The leaves are instead retained until spring when the tree’s leaf buds expand and swell and old leaves finally drop. 

It is important to note that the brittle, dried-up leaves you see above are different from colored leaves; colored leaves refer to still-living leaves, while leaves held onto due to marcescence are dead. This distinction is important when it comes to monitoring phenology phases. 

 


A Different Type of Footprint

Insects are hard to find during this time of year, but indications of their presence linger. The wavering lines above are the work of White pine barkminer moth (Marmara fasciella) larvae. These larvae mine the trunk and branches of trees, then spin cocoons under the loose bark at the end of the mine.

White Pine barkminer moth | © Claire O’Neill


A Much Needed Reminder

To many (myself included) winter can feel long and at times somewhat dreary. Although leaving my warm home (or worse, bed) for a winter walk might not always feel compelling, I never regret it once I’m out the door. This month’s Forest Exploration reminded me that, even during its harshest months, there is much to appreciate about winter in New England. 

As always, thanks to all who joined! We hope to see you again soon. For those that couldn’t make it, you can check out the rest of our records from Saturday here!



March is a month when our resident animals and plants ‘feel’ impatient, eager to see spring arrive. 📅 Join us next month to discover the first signs of spring in the Fells.

Forest Explorations


Feb, 21th 2020 | by Mina Burton 

Editing & layout by Claire O’Neill. The photos of species in this article are for the most the visual observations that the EwA team recorded when scouting for and during the February Forest Explorations event (© Mina Burton, © Claire O’Neill, and © Joe MacIndewar ). Click any species 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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