Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Finding the Massachusetts Champion Yellow Birch Tree

By mid-morning on a snappy early-December day, Jared Lockwood, Arnie Paye, and I were leaving a warm vehicle and trudging off into unfamiliar woods in part of the Monroe State Forest near the Vermont border in Massachusetts. Our mission was to locate and explore an old hemlock stand described to us by friend and old-growth forest expert Bob Leverett, to evaluate its potential inclusion in an old-growth forest documentary film.

First, Old Growth Hemlocks

Small, but older hemlocks
 Unaware that there was a trail nearby we could have followed, we instead plunged into thick forest and bushwhacked our way across a steep slope, enveloped in both sun and snow flurries. It quickly became evident that this was an older forest than the typical second growth woods so common in this region. Hemlocks were tipping us off to that fact with their rugged, aging bark. They weren't the largest diameter hemlocks to be found in this forest, yet their bark, trunk, and limb characteristics were clues to their advanced age, likely 200 or more years in many cases.

A hemlock soon to be downed by wind?
One old hemlock we encountered will soon be hugging the ground, judging by a huge crack in its trunk. It's hard to imagine it surviving the winds and snow loads of another winter.




Wednesday, December 7, 2016

An Exceptional New England White Pine

The following is an essay by good friend and guest writer Bob Leverett, a nationally recognized expert on eastern old growth forests. The text and photos were supplied by Bob, except as noted.  Enjoy!

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Saheda, Profile of a Great New England White Pine

by Robert T. Leverett

December 6, 2016



On November 27th, my wife Monica and I went to the Elders Grove in Mohawk Trail State Forest (MTSF). We wanted to walk off some of our Thanksgiving turkey, especially the stuffing, but that was not my only mission. I wanted to re-measure the huge Saheda white pine to record its end-of-2016 statistics.
The Saheda Pine

 I keep close tabs on the annual growth of this tree, and was absolutely thrilled to confirm a height of 171.0 feet and a girth of 12.0. Saheda has finally arrived! 
The big Mohawk pine has the distinction of being the second tallest tree we know of in New England, and the combination of its height of 171 feet and girth of 12 feet places Saheda in even more exclusive company. So far as we know, only one other white pine in the entire Northeast has achieved the combination of 12 x 170: the Seneca Pine in Cook Forest State Park, Cooksburg, PA. It is a marvelous old growth specimen that reaches 12.6 feet around and 174.9 feet in height.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Global Worming

The Unexpected Threat to Northern Forests

Well friends, here we go again. There's a long list of threats to our forests that have come about as a result of our human activities. Now there's another serious invasive pest, one that we have welcomed, and thought was completely beneficial; one that has insidious behavior, yet seems so benign and desirable to have around. It's advancing into our northeastern forests, altering their composition, even destroying them. And there's nothing we can do to stop it. What hideous critter is this?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Mt Tom's Peregrine Falcons: 2016 Season

Peregrine Falcons on Mt Tom

A previous blog article (here) chronicled the 2015 nesting of two peregrine falcons on the Mount Tom Range of Western Massachusetts, and provided a link to a video (here) on our companion New England Forests youtube channel. That video documents the lives of the two female peregrine chicks raised last year.

Because the video has been well received, and continues to attract a steady stream of viewers, fellow photographer Rich D'Amato and I decided to produce a short video this year to update interested viewers with the results of the 2016 nesting.

Adult Male Peregrine Falcon Nesting on Mt Tom
Mt Tom Adult Peregrine Falcon (RJ D'Amato)
The same two adult falcons that nested on Mt Tom last year (2015) mated once again in 2016. They chose the exact same nest site as last year. The female, in her third year of life, originated in New York state; last year was the first time she raised young. The male, now in his thirteenth year, was originally banded in Vermont, and had nested on Mt Tom with other females prior to his current mate.

Rich and I did not spend as many long days watching the birds this year as last year, although Rich put in much more time on the cliffs than did I. But we've assembled a short video summarizing the falcons' 2016 nesting season, a season with good results, and some unexpected, sad news.

You can view the new 2016 video on the New England Forests Youtube channel (here), or in the player window below (may not be visible in email feeds).

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Mt Tom Wild - a new nature video

The Metacomet Ridge in Massachusetts

Through the heart of the Connecticut River Valley in Western Massachusetts (an area also known as the Pioneer Valley) runs an ancient basalt mountain range known as the Metacomet Ridge. Its history goes back to the time of the split of the North American continent from Africa and Eurasia. The Connecticut River runs through a gap in the chain; on the east side of the river lies Mount Holyoke, and the Seven Sisters peaks of the Holyoke Range. On the west side is the Mount Tom Range.
Mt Tom Range as seen from the Mt Holyoke Summit in Autumn
Mt Tom Range, from Mt Holyoke

Both of these mountains are steep, and steeped in history. Each had famous summit houses in the 1800's that were well known far and wide, and were cherished destinations for those seeking exquisite views of the expansive valley. President and Mrs. William McKinley visited the Mt Tom summit house in 1899, accompanied by dapper Secret Service agents.

Both ranges are now state owned, open to the public for passive recreation. Mt Tom State Reservation is almost entirely forested (as is the Mt Holyoke Range), and, together with abutting forest lands, offers many square miles of wildlife habitat of varying types.
Mt Tom's mature forest habitat
Mt Tom forest

Wildlife Video of Mt Tom

For the last two years or so, my daily life has revolved around Mt Tom, since I undertook a personal self-challenge to document via video footage as much of the wildlife there as I could. The goal was to present a four-season story of wildlife on the range, one that would hopefully surprise some of my valley neighbors with scenes of critters whose presence they were unaware of, or at least would rarely get to see.

I've been doing this kind of thing on and off for many years, so I knew how to go about it. To candidly capture wildlife on "film", you need to be sitting very quietly and patiently for hours on end, day after day, and in many places all at the same time. Otherwise, it will take decades to get enough lucky opportunities to film a variety of wary creatures.

A Turkey Vulture Scavenges Carrion on the Mt Tom Range
One of the Mt Tom clean-up crew

Of course, I didn't have that much time to wait, and couldn't be but in one place at a time. So, thankfully technology has come a long way since real "film" was the rage. Digital high-definition video camera traps (aka trail cams) are now available, and they can be on the job 24/7, freeing me to spend daylight hours hunkered down with a video camera in a lesser number of productive locations. The camera traps are motion activated, and completely silent in operation; some also use invisible infrared light to illuminate subjects at night, so animals won't be spooked.

These cameras are a godsend. Well-- the right ones are. My first investment in five of them turned out to be months of frustration and disappointment. Oh, they got triggered by moving animals alright. But, rarely was the resultant video clip worth much. Daytime color shots were grossly over-saturated, often badly overexposed, and out of focus; night shots were worse. They would allow identification of what's moving in the area, but didn't produce video I'd want to show anyone. And, those cameras were the "flagship" model of the manufacturer. Yikes.
An Adult Barred Owl in the Mt Tom Forest
Snoozing Barred Owl

I finally, as they say, bit the bullet and bought five replacement cameras, at four times the cost. That wasn't a particularly easy decision to make, but it was the right one. The new cameras performed much more admirably and reliably (although they really should do even better considering their cost).

At any rate, technology made it possible to accomplish most of my goal in a comparatively short time (ie, compared to sitting in one place at a time over a period of many years).

"Mt Tom Wild" really was a labor of love. Love of the forest and its flora and fauna. One of the most difficult aspects of it all was leaving so much out of the final product. In a project like this, you can accumulate an astounding amount of footage. Much of it of course isn't of value, but you just can't show all of it that is. And you want others to enjoy and appreciate it. But alas, no can do.

There are so many species that I haven't been able to film yet. Plus, there are several rare and/or endangered species on the Mt Tom range that I didn't pursue; they don't need to have me putting more pressure on their existence, nor do they need more exposure to those who would harm or collect them.

So, the hope is that the final 80-minute story is a fair representation of the Mt Tom fauna, and some of its flora. And if it should generate a greater conviction in our collective minds that "special" places like the Mt Tom Range should be protected and preserved forever, well, that would be truly rewarding. But these shouldn't be "special" places, they should be much more common.

You can watch Mt Tom Wild (and other videos) on the New England Forests channel of Youtube, or below. I'd be most interested in your comments. Enjoy!


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Birch, Sweet Birch - New England's Forest Birches

Bob Leverett and Black Birch

During his several decades of measuring and documenting the remaining old growth forests of eastern America, Bob Leverett began to notice a discrepancy. The commonly used tree reference sources (field guides, internet sites, etc)  report that black, or sweet, birch (Betula lenta) typically attains maximum heights of anywhere from 40 to perhaps 80 feet or so (depending on the source). But Bob was routinely finding black birches in Massachusetts that exceeded 80 feet. In fact, he and others have documented them at well over 100 feet high.
Bob Leverett Measuring an Old Black (Sweet) Birch
Bob Leverett measures Black Birch

Being a retired engineer and mathematician, Bob is a numbers guy. The discrepancies didn't set well with him. The record had to be corrected! And since Bob is a co-founder of the Native Tree Society, a national web-based group of like-minded tree measuring afficionados, he put out the call for everyone to seek out and measure the black birches in their environs. And he continued to do the same, to build a database of birch statistics here in central New England. The results clearly show that black birch quite easily exceeds the paltry 40-foot mark, and handily overtops the 80-foot level as well. In fact, we have many 90+ foot birches in western Mass, and some topping 100.

Smooth Bark of Young Black Birch (Betula lenta)
Typical young black birches

The Old Black Birch

Two or three years ago, Bob got me excited about helping to set the black birch record straight. I recalled a particularly old, fat one we saw many years ago on one of my first hikes with Bob and his son Rob, on the Mt Tom range in western Mass. It didn't resemble at all the beanpole black birches I had known up to that point. I was immediately taken with its look of great age, and I never forgot it. So I was eager to learn more about these sweet birches, and to help promote more appreciation of the older ones we have.

Finally, after several attempts to locate the big Mt Tom birch of my memory, I finally succeeded one day, in 2014. It was like finding the prize on a treasure hunt. It was still there in the forest, and I felt a real excitement at being next to it again, as though it was an old friend I thought had passed away years ago. 

So we began to re-explore some of the more mature forests in the area, happily measuring, documenting, and photographing the black birches, to defend their honor. After more than a year-and-a-half of that pursuit, it's very clear that the black birch's growth potential is widely under-reported. Why?

One reason may be because black birch hasn't been allowed to grow to anywhere near its full potential in most New England forests for a long time now, except in those places where cutting doesn't occur. 

Big Black Birches of the Past

The large, old birches of yesteryear were taken down long ago to become furniture, cabinets, and flooring. It takes at least 150 years for them to become large enough in girth to be particularly attractive to the lumber industry. So commercial forest managers, who generally prefer to keep forests on a roughly-60-year rotation, usually now harvest it before it ever has an opportunity to show its potential. It's not deemed economically justifiable to allow a tree to take well over a century to earn its keep. And that's understandable in today's context. But it's lamentable. 

 And there's more history that adds to the story. If you scratch the thin bark off a twig of black birch (or yellow birch), you'll be able to sniff the delightful aroma of wintergreen. That was discovered long ago, and led to the demise of countless young sweet birches. Oil of wintergreen (methyl salicylate) was distilled from the tree (after it was cut down and parts pulverized, of course), as late as the 1950's in some areas. The oil was used as a flavoring agent in foods and medicines. Black birch trees of any size actually became uncommon in some locales. And since it takes so long to grow to, say, a couple feet in diameter, large and old ones are hard to find today. But they're on their way back in forests that have been protected for a long time. In fact, they're filling in the voids left by the disappearance of the American chestnut, hemlock, and even oaks killed off by gypsy moths.

Black Birch Bark Breaking into Plates
Bark broken into curling plates

The Cornflake Bark of Very Old Black Birch
A very old black birch

Growth Habit of Black Birch

Black birch is a bit peculiar in its growth habit. Being intolerant of shade, when it manages to get a start in a forest clearing it shoots up quickly toward the light. Often this plays out where a fallen tree opens a hole in the canopy, allowing enough light to reach the birch seedling and get it going. The sapling birch rapidly becomes a spindly pole of perhaps 5 to 10 inches in diameter as it climbs ever closer to the canopy. This is the black birch diameter range that most people experience in New England, and elsewhere. At this stage of its development, the dark gray bark is either still smooth, or is somewhat cracked and/or broken into large plates whose edges curl away from the trunk. As time goes by, the curled edges of the plates break off, leaving narrowed plates. With greater age, new bark layers under them emerge, and go through the same process of stretching, cracking, and breaking up. But each successive bark layer starts off looking more mature and dull than the original, somewhat shiny sapling's bark. With enough time, the bark attains a thickly plated look that some describe as "cornflake" bark, which is reminiscent of old black cherry or even spruce or pine bark (in fact, another common name for B. lenta is "cherry birch"). Birches that old are rare in New England, so very few people recognize the tree at that stage. Some of the finest examples of old, big, black birch in all the northeast are found in the Mt Tom and Mt Holyoke ranges in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts.

The Forest Birches of New England Video

Back to Bob... 

Well, if you're at all interested in trees, he's got a way of getting you fired up about big and old ones. It's infectious. Since I already had that bug, the fire was already burning. We spent a lot of time wearing out knees on steep terrain to find those full figured birch beauties. Since I was also interested in photography (especially of the motion variety), and Bob was eager to get the black birch record corrected, I suggested we tell its story with a documentary video. Didn't have to say it more than once. So we began that project in September, 2014. It would take a lot of time, and meant revisiting several places where we had found and measured exemplary sweet birches, but that was just fine. Then one day, Bob had the grand idea that "maybe we shouldn't limit the video to black birches; why don't we include all the birch species in New England?". Um, uhhh, ok. I guess. (I now think it's to my benefit to keep him so busy and tired that he can't think up new projects. He's relentless.).
Black Birch Tree Roots on Tiptoes
Black Birch on tiptoes

Black and yellow birches are arguably the most artistic in their growth habits. They often sprout from seed atop rotting stumps. They send their roots down the sides of the stumps, eventually creating the look of "trees on tiptoes" once the stump fades away. Yellow birches seem to have an affinity for boulders on steep, moist, old-growth forest mountainsides. Their roots wrap around the rocks, like a raptor's talons grasping prey.
Yellow Birch Growing on a Boulder
Yellow Birch on boulder

Well, that video is finally done. It took trips literally across the state, to the Merrimack river area near Boston (ugh) to film river birch (B. nigra), and to the Deerfield river gorge in the northern Berkshires (yay!!) for yellow birch (B. alleghaniensis). Covered in the film are white, gray, river, black, yellow, and heart-leaf birches, although the focus (pardon the pun) is on the forest birches (black, white, yellow). All in all, it really was great fun, and we have similar ideas for other tree species.

You can watch the video on Youtube here, or watch the embedded version below. Let us know what you think.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Broad Brook Forest

What follows is an essay by Bob Leverett on a relatively small tract of forest that is literally in his back yard, in western Massachusetts. The text and photos were supplied by Bob.  Enjoy!

The Mature Forests and Exceptional Trees of Upper Broad Brook

An essay by Robert T. Leverett

Cofounder and Executive Director of the Native Tree Society
Cofounder of the National Cadre of American Forests
 Cofounder and President, Friends of Mohawk Trail State Forest

The Laurie Sanders White Pine on Broad Brook, Northampton MA
The Laurie Sanders Pine
Upper Broad Brook, Northampton, MA


There is an attractive little stream that runs for about 5 miles, starting and ending in Hampshire County, Massachusetts. Its name is Broad Brook. It is not broad, and few people, other than local citizens, know of its existence. But Broad Brook has a story to tell. First, it is the primary stream source of Northampton’s popular 800-acre Fitzgerald Lake Conservation Area, and secondly, it harbors a valuable mature forest on its upper stretches, the focus of this article.