Walking through a park or along a forest path, trees are all around us! In the great diversity of our Appalachian forests, each tree species has a beauty all its own, and an amazing story to tell us about its unique features and role in the environment. Between November and April, when deciduous trees are essentially leafless, are you able to identify them? Can you differentiate between a red oak and white oak and chestnut oak by looking at their twigs and bark? A black walnut and a bitternut hickory? How about a sugar maple, Norway maple, and red maple?
On our November 19th field trip at Swartswood State Park, eleven Sussex County Bird Club members met the challenge and discovered the joy of identifying winter trees! Under the skillful tutelage of trip leader Merle Tanis, participants quickly learned that a dichotomous key and a hand lens can open up a whole new world of wonder and fun!
Starting with “mystery twigs” brought from her home, Merle introduced the group to minute twig details such as bud scales, leaf scars, and bundle scars, as well as the proper use of a dichotomous key. Developed by National Audubon, this simplified twig key proved to be a very “user friendly” tool. As each pair of choices was considered based on the twig’s features, the group was able to progress through the “key” and eventually arrive at the correct name of the tree! In no time at all, participants discovered that the twigs with opposite leaf scars, brownish buds, and solid pith were actually from a sugar maple tree, while those with alternate leaf scars, fuzzy buds, and unstuffed chambered pith came from a black walnut tree.
With “keys”, hand lenses, and great enthusiasm, the group tackled many “mystery trees” in the Swartswood landscape. Some contributed their knowledge about trees from personal experiences. Working with the “key” became a fun game – a treasure hunt! Everyone successfully identified Ailanthus, the “Tree of Heaven” that thrives in the most inhospitable environments. Norway maple twigs with their larger buds and milky juice were quite different from those of the sugar maple, and bark differences were obvious. Like the maples, white ash had opposite buds and branches, too, plus a beautiful smile of bundle scars on its large, concave leaf scars. Although the oaks all had alternate buds and branches, as well as star-shaped pith in cross-section, the red oak (our New Jersey state tree) and the white oak displayed striking twig and bark differences. American beech buds were alternate, too, very long, sharply pointed, and silky. This tree’s tendency to keep its leaves on well into winter made correct observations of the leaf scars challenging.
Although the focus was on deciduous trees, conifers were compared, contrasted and identified as well. The group learned that spruce needles are four sided, so roll easily between the fingers, while hemlock needles are flat. Red cedar has two types of leaves: three sided needles and scales!
Based on both their success with the “key” and their wonderful enthusiasm throughout the morning, Merle pronounced everyone in the group to be official “Twiggers”! Sharing her own experience, she assured them that over time, recognizing trees on a winter walk is like encountering dear old friends! She is convinced that the more personally connected people are with their natural environment, the greater advocates they will be for it.
At the outset, Merle reminded everyone that whenever a bird was heard or spotted, twigs and keys should be dropped immediately. After all, the trees weren’t going to take off! The first intermission was actually for a lively red squirrel! Although the group spent its time in a relatively small area, 26 avian species were identified, with several in the surrounding trees. The lake was very low due to the drought plus a deliberate lowering at the dam, yet the group was treated to views of common loon, pied-billed grebe, hooded merganser, and bufflehead. Marianne Ofenloch prepared a species list which is included at the end of this article.
All in all, the morning nature walk was truly delightful – the people, the trees, the critters, and the unseasonable balmy weather! Everyone was peeling off layers as the warm sun and lack of wind made it feel like a late May day! What a change – and a shock – to have snow on the ground the next morning!
A number of the trip participants asked if “Twigs and Tweeters Part 2” could be arranged for some time this winter. After all, although it seemed like late spring, the goal was to identify trees in their “winter condition”! And… there are plenty of “mystery trees” out there! Merle has agreed to try to schedule another trip, and will send out information via club email, the Flyway, and/or the website. If you missed Part 1, do not hesitate to come for Part 2! There will be a review. You will catch on quickly, and achieve “Twigger” status by the morning’s end!!
“Tweeters” sighted and/or heard:
Canada goose Turkey vulture Tufted titmouse
Mute swan Sharp-shinned hawk Wh-breasted nuthatch
Mallard Red-tailed hawk Golden-cr kinglet
Black duck Ring-billed gull Eastern bluebird
Bufflehead Red-bellied woodpecker Dark-eyed junco
Hooded merganser Downy woodpecker Wh-throated sparrow
Common loon Northern flicker House finch
Pied-billed grebe American crow American goldfinch
Black vulture Fish crow