An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide


Red Bark Phenomenon

In the past five years an odd phenomenon has been observed on the bark of over twenty species of trees in New England — an intense reddish-orange coloration.  It’s been determined that this is due to the presence of a microscopic green algae (Chlorophyta), tentatively identified as belonging to the genus Trentepohlia.  A branching mat of thick-walled algal cells containing a bright orange-red pigment alters the color of the bark.

Red Bark Phenomenon is especially prevalent on White Pine, Eastern Hemlock, Red Oak and American Beech trees.  Affected trees appear to be of varying ages and are often, but not exclusively,observed near bodies of water, such as swamps and rivers. Frequently (as pictured) only one side of a tree is affected.

The exact conditions that promote this growth of algae are not known, but theories include climate change in the Northeast, in particular warming seasonal temperatures, increased precipitation punctuated by droughts, and more turbulent weather.  (Photo by Adeline Casali)

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Distinguishing the Hornbeams

1-23-17-hophornbeam-img_5028There are two trees, both in the Birch family, which, due to the similarity of their common names, are occasionally mixed up with each other. One is known as American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and the other as American or Eastern Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana). Due to the hardness of their wood, they also both go by the name Ironwood, adding to the confusion. A perfect example of when Linnaeus’s binomial system, which gives each species two scientific names, one of which is unique to each species, is helpful.

While the fruits and leaves of both species are superficially similar, their respective bark is very different. Carpinus caroliniana’s bark resembles flexed muscles (see ), earning it yet another common name, Musclewood, while Ostrya virginiana’s bark (pictured)  has a “shreddy” appearance, with the bark broken into small, narrow plates which curve away from the trunk. Look for C. caroliniana in valleys and along streams, and O. virginiana on well-drained slopes and ridges.

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Beavers Consuming Herbaceous Plants

8-31-16 beaver cutting fern 052

One associates Beavers with a fairly strict diet of bark and twigs. While their winter diet consists primarily of woody plants, they consume a variety of herbaceous and aquatic plants (as well as woody) during the spring, summer and fall months. Shrubs and trees make up roughly half the spring and autumn requirements, but as little as 10% of the summer diet when herbaceous plants such as sedges and aquatic plants become available.

Recent observation of a local active Beaver pond revealed that Interrupted Fern (Osmunda claytoniana), Jewelweed/Touch-Me-Not (Impatiens capensis) and grasses are high on the list of preferred foods of one Beaver family during the summer, although woody plants such as poplars (Populus spp.) and Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) have also been consumed in fairly large quantities.   All too soon Beavers in the Northeast will be limited to the bark of branches they’ve stored under the ice. Until this time, they take advantage of the accessibility of more easily digested herbaceous plants. (Thanks to the Shepards and Demonts for photo op.)

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Southwest-facing Sides of Trees Have Most Stress in Winter

1-19-16 sun scald by Ginny P1000772A tree’s cells are normally dormant in the winter because of the cold temperatures, but the side of a tree trunk that faces the sun on a clear day can warm up enough that the cells become active. Even on a cold day, bark can warm to more than 50 degrees with direct sun on it. Once active, the cells are unable to return to dormancy by the time the sun goes down, which is when the temperature drops and can cause the active cells to die, resulting in what is referred to as sunscald. Dark bark can be a detriment to trees in winter, in that it absorbs rather than reflects the sun’s rays, thereby promoting the freeze-thaw-freeze cycle of cells.  This phenomenon occurs less frequently in forests, where the proximity of other trees offers some protection. (Photo by Virginia Barlow)
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Porcupine Artistry

1-5-16 porcupine incisor marks  634The patterns that a porcupine’s incisors leave when a porcupine has been removing bark down to the cambium can be a work of art. The way in which a porcupine makes these patterns is as intriguing as the patterns themselves. “The porcupine removes the bark in small triangular patches, each patch composed of five or six scrapes converging on an apex, like sticks in a teepee. The apex represents the position of the upper incisors, held fixed against the bark. The lower incisors scrape, moving over a fresh path as the lower jaw swivels in a narrow arc.” (Uldus Rose, The North American Porcupine) Fortunately, porcupine incisors, like those of all rodents, grow continually. Even though each incisor loses 100% of its length to wear in a year’s chewing, its length always remains the same. Juvenile porcupines leave a much less “organized” set of incisor marks (overlapping, randomly placed) than adults.

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Black Cherry – well known to most readers!

black cherry tree silhouette IMG_5114Black Cherry, more than most tree species, often has several identifying features even after it loses its leaves. The buds of Black Cherry have about ten scales, each of which is brown at the tip and green at the base. The bark of young Black Cherry trees is typically smooth, reddish in color and covered with grayish, horizontal lines called lenticels — small openings that allow the passage of gases in and out of the tree. The bark on older Black Cherry trees consists of squarish scales, curved outward at their vertical edges, somewhat resembling burnt potato chips. Black Cherry is one of several trees on which the fungus Apiosporina morbosa causes Black Knot Galls. Lastly, Black Cherry is the primary host for the Eastern Tent Caterpillar moth. These moths encircle Black Cherry branches with their egg masses, and the eggs hatch just as Black Cherry’s leaves emerge from their buds, providing food for the young larvae.

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Good Winter For Meadow Voles – Not So Much For Woody Plants

4-16-15  meadow vole sign 009Warming temperatures have revealed the considerable amount of activity that occurred under the protective deep layer of snow this past winter. In addition to a multitude of exposed meadow vole runways, there are ample signs of the voracious appetite of this small rodent. Given that more than 90% of a meadow vole’s diet consists of vegetable matter, that it can eat more than its own body weight in 24 hours, and that it breeds throughout the year, it is no surprise that the bark of many woody plants was consumed this winter, resulting in much girdling, and thus the demise, of many shrubs and saplings.

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Living Hollow Trees

12-31-14 hollow yellow birch 027Occasionally one comes across a living tree with a portion of its trunk, or its entire trunk, hollow. How is it possible for a tree to thrive even when its center, or heart, has completely decayed? It comes down to the different kinds of wood that are produced by a tree: sapwood and heartwood.

Sapwood (often light-colored) is the younger, living, outermost portion of a woody branch or tree trunk (just beneath the bark), while heartwood (often dark-colored) is the dead, inner wood. All wood in a tree is first formed as sapwood. Sapwood’s principal functions are to conduct water from the roots to the leaves (via xylem tissue) and to disperse nutrients made by the leaves to the rest of the tree (via phloem tissue). Heartwood (so called because of its central position, not because it is essential to the health of the tree) is basically non-functioning xylem tissue that has become blocked with resins, tannins, and oils. Although the dead heartwood can lend stability to a tree, it is no longer part of the transport system, and therefore, not vital to the tree.

Cavities and hollows typically result from an injury to a tree (usually caused by fire, storms, lightning, insects or birds) that exposes the heartwood. Bacteria and fungi lose no time moving in and beginning the decaying process, which can result in a hollow tree. Because the sapwood, and therefore the transport system, is still intact, the tree lives, despite the loss of its inner heartwood.

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Striped Maple Buds

3-11-14 striped maple terminal bud 132Striped Maple (Acer pensylvanicum), also known as Moosewood and Moose Maple, can easily be identified summer or winter by its greenish bark bearing vertical white stripes (hence, its common name). Because the bark is so distinctive, one needn’t rely on Striped Maple’s buds for identification purposes, but they are well worth investigating, nonetheless. Their graceful shape, smooth surface (few bud scales) and pinkish-red coloration distinguish them from all others. These buds and young branches that bear them are devoured by rabbits and hares, are frequently eaten by porcupines and beavers, and provide browse for deer and moose.

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Shagbark Hickory Nuts Ripening

11-19-13 shagbark hickory 043Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata , a member of the Walnut family, is named after the shaggy appearance of the bark on older trees. Shagbark Hickory produces nuts which initially are covered with thick husks. As time goes on, the green husks turn brown and open, exposing the nuts, which fall to the ground if squirrels haven’t managed to eat them while they are still on the tree. It takes about ten years for a Shagbark Hickory tree to start producing nuts, but large quantities are not produced until it’s 40 years old. Nut production continues (a good crop every three to five years) for at least 100 years. Shagbark Hickory nuts are very sweet and highly nutritious. They were a staple food for the Algonquians and squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, mice, bears, foxes, rabbits, wood ducks and wild turkey also feed on these excellent sources of protein, fats and carbohydrates.

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Ribbed Pine Borer’s Winter Pupal Chamber

11-6-13  ribbed pine borer winter shelter 132The larva of the Ribbed Pine Borer, Rhagium inquisitor, (a beetle) lives just under the inside of a pine tree’s bark. It is a long-horned beetle, and in the fall, when it’s ready to pupate, it creates an oval cell by chewing a relatively flat chamber approximately 1 ¼” long. The Ribbed Pine Borer uses the woody fibers it chewed to form a raised “wall” surrounding the chamber. It then pupates inside the wall, and overwinters in the chamber as an adult beetle, emerging to mate in the spring. (Thanks to Kitty Stanley for photo op.)

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Red-eyed Vireo Nest

10-31-13 red-eyed vireo nest  033 Abandoned bird nests are evident now that leaves have fallen off the trees. Consider the time and effort that goes into the construction of one of these single-use nurseries. Take the Red-eyed Vireo’s nest you see here lying on the forest floor. The female selects a nesting site — a time-consuming task, as the requirements are that it conceal the nest and provide shade for her young. (Too much sun will cause her to abandon the nest. One female who had selected a sunny spot was observed pulling nearby green foliage over her nest and fastening it in place with spider webs.) The female vireo then collects nesting material for the three layers of her nest: Exterior – tree bark, spider-egg cases, wasp-nest paper, lichen, green leaves and pine needles. (Nests exposed to sunlight may be decorated with light-colored tree bark such as birch bark.) Interior – bark strips and plant fibers. Inner lining – grasses, pine needles, plant fibers and animal hair. She then weaves these materials into a cup-shaped nest that is suspended from a forked branch by its rim. A trip for materials is made every 3 – 11 minutes and roughly twenty seconds is spent working each load into the nest structure. This intensive work takes the female vireo approximately five days – all accomplished without the aid of any hands or tools, and she only uses the result of all this work once. Fortunately, recyclers make good use of her efforts.

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Red-osier Dogwood Stems



4-8-13 red-osier dogwood IMG_8874Red-osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), as its name implies, lends color to wetlands year-round, but it really comes into its own at this time of year.  In early spring this shrub is especially noticeable, as its red bark becomes much more vivid due to anthocyanin pigments which are affected by light intensity.  Although it can tolerate light shading, the stems and branches in shaded sites tend to be greener.  Native Americans utilized every part of this shrub,especially the stems and shoots.  Inner bark was used in tobacco mixtures during the sacred pipe ceremony, branches and shoots were made into baskets, dreamcatchers, bows and arrows, and peeled twigs were used as toothbrushes for their whitening effect on teeth.

Porcupines Tapping Out

porcupine tap IMG_3494At least one porcupine got a jump on humans this sugaring season. A porcupine eats outer tree bark in order to access the phloem (layer of inner bark cells that transport nutrients) and cambium (produces phloem and xylem cells) layers of a tree, its primary winter diet. In eating these layers, the porcupine unintentionally cuts into the xylem, or sapwood, where water and dissolved minerals (sap) are transported between the roots and crown of the tree. Unintentionally, porcupines tap the trees whose phloem and cambium they eat. In this case, the weather had warmed up enough to cause pressure in the tree, which in turn caused the sugar maple’s sap to flow just as a hungry porcupine happened along. Soon thereafter, the temperature dropped, causing the sap to freeze, forming icicles. While they looked good enough to sample, one whiff of them told me that sap was not their sole ingredient! (They were located beneath the porcupine’s den in a hollow tree, from which urine flows freely.)

A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!

American Hornbeam

American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) goes by many names, including Musclewood,  Bluebeech and Ironwood. Its smooth, gray bark that appears twisted and somewhat muscular is very distinctive. This member of the Birch family usually has several trunks, and is usually less than 30 feet tall. Its fruit is in the form of clusters of small nutlets, each attached to a papery bract. A good seed crop is produced every three to five years, at which time it benefits ruffed grouse, cardinals, evening grosbeaks and American goldfinches, all of whom prefer it over many other seeds.

White Pine Blister Rust Attracts Rodents

When a white pine has been infected with white pine blister rust (a fungus), cankers appear on the branches and sometimes the trunk of the tree.  A large amount of sap-like ooze flows from the cankered areas, sometime drying and resembling a sugary-looking crust or film.  These areas are, in fact, high in sugar content, and rodents frequently chew them.  It’s likely that a red squirrel visited and sampled the infected white pine in the photograph, leaving a freshly-gnawed patch in the bark.

Black Walnut – Identification in Winter

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Black walnut (Juglans nigra) is a relatively easy tree to identify, as it has so many distinctive qualities. In the summer there are round, tennis-ball-sized nuts, which have a delightful smell.  The bark of black walnut is dark and deeply furrowed.  Best of all are the twigs and buds.  If you cut a twig at an angle, you will see the central portion, or pith, is chambered.  It is also brown.  The only other tree that is chambered (not solid) like this is its relative, butternut (Juglans  cinerea), and butternut’s pith is buff colored.  The buds of black walnut are greyish and fuzzy – lacking bud scales.  By far the most amusing thing about black walnut (and butternut) is its leaf scars – the scar left when a leaf falls off.  The vessels that transport food and water, called vascular bundles, are darker than the rest of the scar, and are shaped in such a way that the leaf scar resembles nothing more than the smiling face of a monkey!  (Butternut leaf scars also look like monkeys, but they have a “furrowed brow” of fuzz on the top edge of the leaf scar.)


Yellow Birch (Betula alleghaniensis)

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Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis) buds are oval and pointed, and there are two shades of brown on each of their 3 – 5 bud scales.  The buds and twigs of yellow birch taste like wintergreen.  In the early morning and late afternoon, look for ruffed grouse filling their crops (“budding”) in yellow birch trees, as these buds are one of their favorite foods.  The thin bark of a mature yellow birch is a very distinctive yellow-bronze color (the bark of saplings is a shiny red-brown color), and curls when it separates from the trunk.