Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Thoreau Pine - State Champion of Massachusetts

Bob Leverett, Old-Growth Forest Explorer

 For decades, my friend Bob Leverett has been searching out the remnant stands of old growth forest that (surprisingly) can still be found in New England, particularly in western Massachusetts. Although he's now retired, Bob hasn't slowed down a bit, and his engineering background manifests itself as a continuing compulsion to measure trees (he calls it an obsession), preferably but not necessarily in old forests.

Bob has sized up virtually every native tree species to be found in these parts, as well as a number of non-natives; he's also done similar field (er, forest) work throughout the eastern U.S. (and then some). As an author of a number of old-growth-forest related publications, co-founder of The Native Tree Society, and an authority on measurement guidelines for the American Forests national champion tree registry, he knows his trees and their statistics.

New England's Tallest Trees

Bob realized long ago that the tallest tree species in New England's forests would be the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). He has made a practice of naming some of the most notable and noble of our forest trees to honor some of our most notable and noble people.
The Thoreau Pine: Massachusetts State Champion White Pine

A few days ago, we trekked into some old growth forest in the Deerfield River gorge to visit one of Bob's most spectacular discoveries, the Thoreau Pine. The hike had several purposes; one was to show the tree to Richard Higgins, a Thoreau researcher and author. Another was to take an end-of-year measurement of the tree to gauge its continuing growth.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Peregrine Falcons of the Mount Tom Range

Massachusetts Peregrine Falcons

Mt Tom in western Massachusetts was one of fourteen historical peregrine falcon cliff-nesting sites in Massachusetts. According to a Massachusetts Fish and Wildlife document, in 1948 the state ornithologist, Archie Hagar, discovered that the eggshells in the nest of peregrines at Quabbin Reservoir were unexplainably broken. It was later discovered that the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which accumulated in the food chain and became concentrated in peregrines (and others), was the cause of the weak eggshells.
Mt Tom Range, above the Connecticut River
Mt Tom Range, above the Connecticut River

As a result of the devastating effect DDT had on eggshells, peregrine reproduction completely collapsed. 1955 saw the last of nesting peregrines in Massachusetts (Great Barrington), and by 1966, not one nesting pair was found in the eastern US.

After the ban of DDT in 1972, attention was given to restoring the falcons. Early efforts in the 70's failed in Massachusetts. In the 80's, release of captive-bred chicks in Boston resulted in the first post-DDT nesting (1987). Today, there are approximately 30 nesting pairs of peregrine falcons in the state, many of them in western Mass.

And one of those pairs nests on the Mt Tom range. A male who has nested on Mt Tom before, and a new female from NY state successfully raised two female chicks this year. It was quite a treat to watch these birds develop, get fed by their parents, and learn how to fly.

Mt Tom Peregrine Falcon Video

Two photographers, Ray Asselin and Rich D'Amato, spent many long days watching and filming the growth of these raptors over a period of months. Linda Henderson, who has spent many hours over the years photographing nature on Mt Tom, unfortunately broke her wrist this spring and was unable to continue her photography; but she contributed some welcomed video from early in the nesting. Rich and Linda have extensive photos from the 2014 season as well.

As well as the "dirt time" invested in the photography, there were technical challenges to it too. Distances from vantage points to the birds were substantial, making it necessary to use telephoto lenses for virtually all shots. And there were few vantage points that put us within reasonable reach of the birds. Most shots were taken at ranges of 75 to 200 yards, a long reach for targets as small as a peregrine.

Mt Tom's Young Peregrine Falcons of 2015
Mt Tom's Young Peregrine Falcons of 2015

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

It's All Red, Gloria

The Red Colors of a Summer Forest

Summer in an eastern forest is all about green. Everything, so it seems, is green. We have adequate rainfall to thank for that. The green is a good thing, since it means that chlorophyll-containing plants are photosynthesizing, and therefore growing and releasing oxygen to the atmosphere. And it's just so darned pretty!

But what it also is, that green world, is a great backdrop for all the other color highlights to be found in the forests. Probably most people's favorite such color would be red. It's a rich color, uncommon enough in the woods to be special.

Wild Columbine Flowers
In reviewing months of video footage I've recorded this year, I noticed a number of red splashes among the greens, and thought I'd feature just some of them. There's unquestionably more to be found out there, so this isn't intended to be an exhaustive display. Just a few to point out what a treat it always is to discover a bit of red in the woods. Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Ambush in the Goldenrods

Late July brings the first of summer's goldenrod flowers into bloom here in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. It's triple-H weather time: hazy, hot, and humid. Not all that welcome by humans, but goldenrod seems to thrive in it.
Goldenrod- beauty, danger, and excitement lurk here.

A few days ago, while on a short walk, we came upon a patch of goldenrod, brilliant yellow and shining like the sun.

Despite broiling in the searing sun of this miserably humid Sunday, I couldn't resist spending some time examining the few newly popped flowers of goldenrod waving in a very gentle breeze. It became clear that the sun played an important role in the plant's life... the only spots where any goldenrod was already flowering were in full sun. I tried to find some in shadier sites where I could be a bit (no, a lot) cooler, but no luck.

The reason I wanted to check the flowers was that I recalled past times when there were Ambush bugs to be found in them.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Massachusetts Old Growth Forest

What? Old growth forest in Massachusetts?

Yes, there is a bit of it still intact, believe it or not. And some of it is stunning. What saved it from the axe is its location... on steep, difficult-to-log mountainsides. These places often grow boulders as efficiently as they do trees. But the combination of the terrain, the boulder fields and ledges, the soaring trees, and the lush green carpet of ferns and mosses make these relic forests irresistible to me.

Late afternoon in a western Massachusetts old growth forest

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Unknown Squirrel

All of us in New England are thoroughly familiar with the ubiquitous grey squirrel, the notoriously clever and persistent raider of bird feeders. They thrive virtually everywhere among us. (By the way, those greys that make their homes in the deeper forests are much more wary of humans than their backyard and suburban park counterparts; try to get close to one in the more remote woods (if you even see one!) and you'll discover a different animal. Photographing a truly wild grey squirrel is more of a challenge than you'd guess.)

Gaining (or regaining) ground in many areas, including the northeast, is the black squirrel, which is really just a melanistic grey squirrel. It is said that black squirrels were much more abundant, in fact predominant, in our old growth forests before European colonization occurred. Their dark color afforded them protection in the dense shade of ancient forests.

And raise your hand if you've never seen a chipmunk... I don't see any going up. 

Eastern Chipmunk

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Spring Awakening

This past winter I began a project to create a video that will be a sampling of the many forms of life to be found in a certain Massachusetts forested state reservation. It will include animals, of course, but also wildflowers and other plants. The original plan was to showcase the trees, supplementing with some wildlife. But when spring broke through the heavy snow cover, it started to become clear that the profusion of wild critters declaring their presence was the dominant theme.

It began in early March. A lot of snow was dumped on western Mass this winter. I had been trudging through it for weeks in February, in search of anything that moved under its own power, since video is mainly about "motion" pictures. There wasn't much of that to be found, at least not by me, not in this place. There was plenty of deer sign, too much in fact. Tracks everywhere. You literally would have a difficult time moving through this forest without treading on deer scat (droppings). Every kind of plant life within their reach had been a survival meal. So I practiced taking video clips of still subjects, such as deer beds in the snow, their tracks, their browse damage; frozen streams, geologic formations, etc. It was getting a bit boring.

Then one cold day (March 9th, to be specific), I hoofed my way to a frozen beaver pond. As I stood there gazing across the still waterscape, a movement on the pond's snowy surface caught my eye. A small critter was clumsily scooting across the pond. Running looked terribly inappropriate for this animal somehow. It had a squat, chubby body with very short legs, a pointed snout, and a rat-like tail. It clearly was not designed to be a runner, yet it was hastily treading across the snow. What rodent sized critter could this be (although it technically is not a rodent)? I quickly got the camera running, which was in slow-motion mode. Here is a frame from the video.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


Topics related to the forests of New England, particularly those of western Massachusetts, will be the theme of this blog.

Having spent many years exploring, photographing, and appreciating the varied forests of this region, I'm still as enthusiastic about spending my time in them today as I was decades ago.
Old Growth Yellow Birch

If you're like me, you feel a sense of mystery and excitement when you explore a forest, expecting to see, at any moment, something intriguing and delightful. After these many years, I still can't help but wonder what's over that next ridge; what awaits my senses in that deep, shady hemlock forest; where that stream originates.

Black Birch reaching to the sky
The trees and other plants that we call a forest are completely worthy of my time; however, a forest is more than plants. Its denizens are as much an integral component as are the plants. A woodland devoid of animal life (if there is such a place) is a sad place indeed. Animals are the life blood of a forest, the element that puts the motion and spirit in it, the very things that give a deep dark wooded glade its mystery and excitement. They are why I have a reverence for the woods. They live there, night and day, through the seasons, in all manner of weather. Their hidden movements and habits, as mundane as they may be to the critter, are all the romance to me. After all, the trees I appreciate so much are destined to live out their lives rooted in the spot where they began life; they don't and can't move about every day in search of food. They, and the smaller plants, provide most of the structure, habitat, and environment of a forest. But animals constantly move about, and you cannot rely on seeing one in the same spot you saw it yesterday.

Eastern Coyote

The unpredictability of what wild and free animal I might encounter is what drives me to explore deep forests. How will my path intersect with its path? What secret activity of its daily life might I discover? Will it sense my presence and flee, or will I be stealthy enough to observe it undetected? Will I be able to capture it in a photo or video to share with you?

There are many topics to discuss, we're just getting started. Old growth forests. Elusive predators. Colorful birds. Big trees. Wetlands. The seasons. Wildflowers. Bugs. And much more.
Otter with fish

You're invited to comment and relate your experiences in our New England woodlands. Do stay tuned, lots to come!