March in the Fells
For many New Englanders, the beginning of springtime comes as a welcome relief. This past winter has been especially challenging and, to me at least, the beginning of spring this year feels even more needed than usual. During this March’s Forest Exploration, we enjoyed spring’s early risers; green and purple Round-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica americana) leaves peeked from the soil, and chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches chattered away above us.
“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!
Signs of Spring
Though the Fells was still quite bare at the time of our walk, our group appreciated newly visible greenery on the forest floor. All three of the plants below Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata), Spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), and Eastern teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens) are evergreens, but up until recently had remained concealed by snow. Eastern teaberry is a personal favorite of mine; its bright red berries provide a food source for small mammals and birds and the plant’s extract can be used to flavor tea, candy, medicine, and chewing gum.
Pipsissewa | © Mina Burton
Striped wintergreen | © Bill MacInderwar
Eastern teaberry | © Bill MacIndewar
Round-Lobed Hepaticas were another reminder of the onset of spring. These wildflowers are among the first to bloom, beginning as early as mid-March in some places. The hepaticas we spotted had not yet developed their blue, white, or pink flowers, but their vibrant leaves alone were a sight to appreciate.
The Thin-walled Maze Polypore’s (Daedaleopsis confragosa) name is derived from its pores, which can be circular, angular, maze-like, or even gill-like. The fungus is also called the “blushing bracket” because its underside turns pink when bruised, although it just as often turns brown when bruised or scratched. The pore surface is usually light-colored if a specimen is young, but brownish if a specimen is mature. The specimen we saw on our walk was mature. The thin-maze polypore is a saprophyte that causes white rot decay on deciduous logs and stumps, especially birch, beech, and willow.
Residents and Visitors of Vernal Pools
The organism that garnered the most enthusiasm on our walk was one that many of us could barely even see. The Springtime fairy shrimp (Eubranchipus vernalis) below blended near-perfectly with leaves that had fallen into its vernal pool. Fairy shrimp are obligate species in vernal pools, meaning that their residency in a water body proves that the water body is, with certainty, a vernal pool. These tiny crustaceans only display an active life cycle of a couple weeks, so our group was lucky to catch a glimpse of not one but several fairy shrimp. Please note: only individuals with permits are allowed to enter vernal pools so if you do want to check out fairy shrimp, be sure to stick closely to the edges of pools and don’t enter the water!
Fairy shrimp weren’t the only creatures utilizing the vernal pool our group passed. Zoo New England is conducting research on amphibians at vernal pool sites in the Fells and it was at the same vernal pool where we spotted fairy shrimp that our group happened upon one of the zoo’s coverboards, shown below. The board featured signage encouraging visitors to participate in the study by lifting the boards and emailing photos of any resting amphibians to the zoo. When doing so, one should be very careful to replace the board lightly, perhaps even wedging a small branch between the board and the ground to avoid crushing any amphibians that might be taking shelter beneath it. This is also good practice when lifting branches to look for amphibians. It is best to save log-lifting for warmer months, as moving logs in winter can disturb amphibians and potentially cause them to freeze to death.
Human Harm on Large and Small Scales
Though we did see a few snowstorms this winter, the vernal pools we passed during our walk were relatively dry due to a lack of snowpack. As many of you may know, vernal pools provide important breeding habitat for many amphibians. Some of these amphibians, such as spotted salamanders (Ambystoma maculatum), are lucky in that they have flexible developmental stages that can adjust to accommodate changes in water volume or duration of sitting water in vernal pools. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all amphibians.
Climate shifts are not the only anthropocentric problem affecting wildlife at the Fells. Even the most well-intentioned and aware outdoor enthusiasts are guilty of occasionally straying onto rogue trails (trails not a part of a park’s formal trail system). This issue is worsened by the fact that some rogue trails at the Fells are difficult to differentiate from formal ones. As the Fells becomes increasingly fragmented, viable habitat for wildlife diminishes. EwA is the process of developing a conservation project addressing rogue trails which we look forward to sharing with you as it progresses!
Thorn and Tendrils: An Uncommon Pairing
The Roundleaf greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) below is a common sight at the Fells and offers several benefits to the reservation’s wildlife. The berries of this native plant serve as a food source, while its prickly, thickly entangled vines offer protection. I learned on this month’s walk that greenbriers–also known as catbriers–are the only vines that sport both thorns and tendrils (shown on the right below).
I’ve greatly enjoyed this winter’s Forest Explorations, all of which taught me that there is much to learn even when it feels like life has hit the snooze button. With that said, it was an undeniable relief to return to the Fells on a day with temperatures above freezing! To me, spring sometimes feels like it happens in the blink of an eye – one moment the ground is blanketed in snow, and then as if from nothing, lush greenery has reinstated itself. I appreciate that each month’s Forest Exploration encourages me to slow down and investigate what is really happening throughout the seasons. Thanks to all who joined us this month and for those who couldn’t make it, you can check out more of our March sightings here!
April is an anticipation month: Spring ephemeral, vernal pool life. We’ll be busy! 📅 Join us next month to witness the life of ponds and pools in the Fells.
March, 23rd 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 March Forest Explorations event (© Mina Burton, © Claire O’Neill, and © Bill 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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