Trail Walk in Winter

winter_stream.jpgDeborah and I along with two of our ecology students, Rachel and Crystal, went out on the campus nature trail today. We wanted to check to see if the skunk cabbage plants that grow in the small wet areas enclosed by the bends of the creek were up yet. We expected that we were still weeks away from seeing these “hot blooded” spathes pushing their way up through the snow (see a spathe and learn more about skunk cabbage here), but in these years of unexpected patterns, we wanted to be sure.

The trail was beautiful although buried under a compacted layer of about eight inches of wet, heavy snow. There were a few tracks on the trail, though. Someone had taken their dog (from the paw sizes and patterns I could picture a loping, black lab tearing up and down the hillside) and had walked all the way down and across the bridge over the stream. We followed along the same way and noted deer trails crossing and re-crossing our path.

barberry.jpgThe snow had buried all of the non-woody vegetation. We looked for the “winter” ferns (Christmas fern and evergreen wood fern) but only saw one tiny, green frond sticking up through the snow. The scattered clumps of Japanese barberry still had most of their red, oblong berries attached. I wonder if the birds avoided them because of their high acetic acid content and bitterness, or because of the presence of toxins (including a chemical called berberine the berries at very low levels, but I don’t think that you ever want to feast on barberries or barberry juice!)? These toxins at high doses can interfere with cardiovascular and respiratory functions. Or, I wonder if there have just been very few overwintering, berry-eating birds out on the trail this winter and, so, the berries are lasting far into the season? All of the spicebush berries are gone, and all of the poison ivy berries, too. Only the barberry berries remain.

students_in_winter2.jpgWe hear a crow cawing as it flies over us. It is the only bird we see or hear today.
The young beech trees still retain last year’s leaves. The coarse, dry leaves rattle and buzz slightly in the occasional breezes but still seem very tightly anchored onto their twigs and branches. The older (taller) beeches have all lost their leaves. Too much wind, I guess, high up in the canopy for any leaves to stay attached. All of the oaks (tall and short) are leafless, unlike the young scarlet oaks in my back yard that are still tenaciously holding onto last year’s foliage.
We get to the bottom of the ravine and look out over the snow covered wetland. No skunk cabbage yet. We take some pictures and then start the long, slow climb up and back. When we finally get back to the lab we are ready for a big cup of something warm.

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