Signs of Spring 2: Hardwood Forests

Photo by D. Sillman

We had a mid-February Saturday afternoon that was 63 degrees and full of sunshine. The skies were a deep “Colorado” blue, and the air smelled fresh and alive. Deborah and I went for a walk down on Roaring Run to stretch out our winter legs and look for some signs of spring.

The Roaring Run trail follows the old Main Line Canal route along the northern bank of the Kiskiminetas River. The canal was built in the 1830’s and almost immediately became obsolete because of improvements in railroad technology. The canal was filled in and covered with railroad tracks which were themselves replaced in recent decades by a really excellent hiking and biking trail. On one side of the trail a short slope drops off steeply to the river while the other side a long hillside rises up to a tall, bordering ridge. The hill up to the ridge top is forested with a mix of fast growing tree species that have filled in after repeated clear cuttings. The original trees were cut in the “timber phase” of Pennsylvania forest use and then two or maybe even three regrowth stages were cut in the Pennsylvania “charcoaling phase.” Red maple, yellow birch, yellow poplar, white ash, black cherry and red oak (with a few sycamores and catalpas thrown in) dominate the forest.

Photo by D. Sillman

The first thing I noticed as we started down the trail was an abundance of downed trees and branches.  Tree trunks were sawed and stacked alongside the trail at the ends of leading trails of fresh sawdust that indicated where they had fallen across the trail path. This has been, overall, a mild winter but there have been enough windstorms to severely thin out the trees. Many of the downed trees were poplars, but many of limb piles were red maple branches. Poplars have soft trunk wood and are easily broken by wind. That’s why you only see old, large yellow poplars in sheltered stands of trees or in deep, protected hollows. Red maples (possibly the most abundant tree of the eastern hardwood forest!) have relatively brittle limbs and branches. I pick up fallen branches under my red maples all year round.

The consequence of this thinning, though won’t be seen for another couple of months. With all of the trees still in their leafless winter aspects, the sunlight poured down to the leaf covered forest floor. You could feel the warming of the litter and soil and the stimulation of seed germination and root growth. All this sunlight will start the growth of the early spring wildflowers and other understory plants (these hillsides are covered with blankets of white flowered trillium in April!). Then the tree canopy leaves will unfurl, and the forest floor vegetation will settle into a shady, cool, moist, low energy dynamic for the duration of the summer and early fall.

Photo by D. Sillman

In the canopy spaces made by the fallen trees, though, the sunlight will continue to warm and energize the forest floor. A race among seedlings of maples, poplars, ashes and cherries that have been subsisting in the shadows of the over story trees begins and the fastest seedling to grow, or the one luckiest enough not to be browsed by deer, will quickly take over the open spot in the canopy. The wind pruning lets the forest reestablish itself. It is an opportunity to start a youthful patch of trees that will live well on into the next century.

Just as Deborah strode on ahead on her walk (she walks faster than I do!), a sudden gust of wind broke a medium top branch from one of the sycamores on the river side of the trail. The branch snapped with a loud “bang” and clattered down through the canopy carrying other, smaller limbs with it. The branches landed in a pile right on the river’s edge. They will be carried away when the river swells up with our spring rains. I am glad that it didn’t fall on my head!

Photo by D. Sillman

I didn’t see any birds on my walk. Deborah did see, though, an old oriole’s nest hanging from a limb of a tall poplar tree. The distinctive basket-shaped nest would be hard to spot when the tree was in summer leaf, but today its stood out clearly against bright blue sky and black, bare branches.

Deborah also saw a small bat (a little brown bat?) flying around the bridge that crosses the Roaring Run stream. It is possible that the past two warm days woke up the bat from its hibernation and that he/she will return to his/her cave when night falls. It is more likely, though, that the bat woke up because of the irritation of the white nose fungus and in a half-awake state had burned through its winter fat stores and was now out of its cave and desperately seeking food. We did see some stoneflies out today, but not enough to feed a hungry bat.

A stone wall alongside the trail in between the two-mile trail marker and the bridge is part of an old lock from the Main Line Canal.  In the summer, this is a good place to look for snakes (I have seen garter snakes, black snakes and even copperheads around here in warmer months). Today the early leaves of Dutchman’s Breeches were visible in the crevices between the rocks. A few years ago a troop of Boy Scouts “cleaned up” this part of the trail and did a great deal of damage to the wildflowers that had been growing in the rock wall.  Thinking that were removing “weeds” the scouts pulled up Dutchman’s Breeches and Indian Corn and who knows how many violets and other spring flowers. Sometimes the urge to make things neat and tidy should be resisted!

Near the start of the trail an informational sign talked about the on-going program to control the exotic invasive plant, Japanese knotweed. The sign talked about a two pronged herbicide application that effectively killed the knotweed. There was a picture of a riverbank choked in knotweed and discussion of the benefit to native plants to have this dense, shading invasive removed. Looking up from the sign, though, all I could see was a forest of knotweed. I don’t think that the chemical offensive was at all effective.

Many people were on the trail today and lots of them had their dogs with them. We met a three month old pit bull and several, more mature terriers, beagles and hard to identify mutts (my favorites!). They seemed to enjoy the warmth and sunshine, too.

I will have to have a long talk with Mazie about her “six more weeks of winter” prediction from House Cat Day. Looks like she (and Phil the Groundhog, too) missed this year’s early spring.


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