Forest Explorations

October in the Fells

This October’s Forest Exploration was marked by reminders of the current drought. This summer and fall have been extremely dry; last month our group noted prematurely fallen, unripe acorns, and this month an especially thick layer of moistureless leaf litter crunched underfoot. Fungi were scarce and the mushrooms we did spot were clearly parched. Despite these unusually dry conditions, many forms of nature continue to flourish at the Fells. During this month’s Forest Exploration, our group spotted painted turtles basking in the sun, appreciated the lingering goldenrods, and learned more about red oaks.

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, 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?

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


An Exceptionally Dry Season

This past Saturday saw temperatures soaring into the high 70s, but even the warm weather couldn’t conceal the fact that fall is well underway. Aided by the ongoing drought, this past weekend’s heavy winds brought a blanket of golden leaves to the ground. While the sudden leaf fall is a sobering indicator of the season’s harsh, dry conditions, it will actually be helpful come winter.

Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) © Claire O’Neill

↑ Among the many leaves now covering the forest floor are those of oaks. Oak leaves are composed of 60% tannins, making them resistant to decomposition. The leaves remain intact on the ground and provide shelter and warmth throughout the coldest months of the year. This leaf layer is especially important as climate change threatens to decrease the amount of available snowpack, an accumulation of compacted snow that creatures of all sorts rely on to stay insulated during the winter.


Fewer Fungi Finds

Fungi were notably lacking on this walk; even Lophodermium pinastri, a spot-like fungi commonly found on fallen pine needles at the Fells, was completely absent. The lack of fungi in an area where they are usually present is once again likely the result of the recent drought, as many fungi (with the exception of lichens) prefer moist environments.

Toadskin lichen © Mina Burton

Possible crowded parchment © Mina Burton

↑ The toadskin lichen (Lasallia papulosa) (left) and what might be crowded parchment (Stereum complicatum) (right) that we spotted were both shrunken from lack of water.

The beginning of the trail that we explored lies alongside the Quarter Mile Pond. There, we did see a birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina) that appeared to be in better health, likely because it had been fortunate enough to fix itself to a fallen birch located directly at the bank of the pond.


Soaking Up the Sun

Eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta ssp. picta) © Joe MacIndewar

Although the water in the pond we passed was quite low, young painted turtles (Chrysemys picta) seemed to be enjoying soaking up the morning sun. Turtles hatch around this time of year before settling into a period of dormancy beneath the mud.


The Last Blooms of Summer

The ecologically significant goldenrod (Solidago) genus includes around 120 species. During our walk, we noticed several such species in close proximity to one another, nestled beside a patch of baby pines.

Silverrod © Mina Burton

Bluestem goldenrod © Joe MacIndewar

↑ While most goldenrods are yellow (hence the “golden” prefix), silverrod (Solidago bicolor) (left) has whitish-silver flowers. Bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) (right) is a familiar wildflower at the Fells and can be identified by its blue stem and flowers that grow in clusters attached directly to that stem. Goldenrods are known to support approximately 80 types of galls. 

If you’re interested in learning more about these great late-blooming wildflowers, check out our September ecological almanac which focuses on this incredibly varied genus of herbaceous plants, the abundant wildlife it supports, and its associated lore.


Speedy Succession

The baby white pines (Pinus strobus) next to the goldenrods were intriguing in their own respect.

Most of the trees surrounding the patch of pines were much taller, older oaks. Why had all these young pines cropped up in a tree community predominantly composed of oaks?

The culprit became clear when one of our attendees pointed out a fallen tree hidden amongst the saplings. When a tree falls in a forest, it frees up space and light for new plants to grow. White pines are succession plants and germinate faster than many other tree species in the area. This gives them an advantage when it comes to colonizing newly open terrain. The downside of so many pine saplings springing up here is that, due to competition, they won’t survive as long in a group as a solitary pine would.


Galls & Their Many Makers

On previous nature walks, we had mentioned three types of galls; those created by insects, bacteria, and fungi. There are actually two more types: both nematodes and plants are also capable of creating galls. 

Banded bullet gall wasp (Dryocosmus imbricariae) © Claire O’Neill

Insects and mites are the most common architects of galls, with a majority being created by wasps. The wasps that create galls are generally not the classic black-and-yellow wasps many of us are familiar with. On oaks, for instance, many are the doing of wasps of the family Cynipidae. These wasps are usually much smaller and often fully black.


A Closer Look at Red Oaks

The focus of the final portion of our walk was northern red oaks. Northern red oaks (Quercus rubra) are the fastest-growing of all oaks and can live up to 300 years. The appearance of red oaks can vary greatly between one tree to another. That is because the development of red oaks reflects the conditions it grew up in; red oaks in forests are usually taller and more slender to access light, whereas those in cities tend to be shorter and wider.

Young red oak © Mina Burton

Mature red oak © Mina Burton

↑ In addition to differences between red oaks growing up in different conditions, there are also differences in the appearance of red oaks of different ages, even if they are growing in the exact same condition. The bark of red oaks varies greatly from youth to adulthood. Young red oaks (left) have much smoother bark featuring lenticels (small pores for gas exchange) much like those found on a young birch. As the tree matures, its bark becomes increasingly furrowed (right). 

When inspecting the bark of red oaks, our group also discussed the trees’ acorns. Red oak acorns have harder shells than those of the white oak and germinate slower as well. Animals such as squirrels that feed on acorns are clever enough to realize that it is to their advantage to store red oak acorns, as they will remain intact longer. White oak acorns, on the other hand, germinate quickly and should therefore be eaten in a more timely manner. Another detail about red oak acorns is that, unlike white oak acorns, they are not produced annually. Red oaks are sporadic producers and usually put forth acorns once every two years.


Double-crested Cormorant © Claire O’Neill

As we headed back we also got a chance to admire a double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), a vulnerable seabird species here in Massachusetts. It had appeared on a rock that was bare when we passed it at the beginning of our exploration. There’s so much to see and enjoy at the Fells throughout the seasons!

Thanks to all who joined us this month! I am consistently so amazed by the knowledge and enthusiasm of all of our attendees and greatly enjoy learning with and from them every month. If you’re curious about our other sightings from October, you can check them out here

📅 Join us next month to explore the natural joys to be found in November. We will be on the lookout for the activity of insects taking advantage of the last warm days of the year and signs of winter preparation.

Forest Explorations


October, 18th 2020 | by Mina Burton 

Editing & layout 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 October Forest Explorations event (© Mina Burton, © Joe MacInderwar, © Claire O’Neill). 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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