Category Archives: Winter

Elks Preserve – A crisp January hike!

Elks Preserve is located on Crusher Rd in Hopewell.

Link to the trail map.

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I rarely see the sky so brilliant blue as I do in the winter season. It was 25 degrees F when my friend and I met at the Elks Preserve in Hopewell, but the wind was still and the sun was strong, so it did not feel nearly as cold as it actually was. Even though it was freezing, the birds in the forest were raucous and exuberant in their singing. I don’t know why they had ants in their pants, but they were making such a fuss that it had us both excited to head out into the woods.

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The contrast between the dormant forest floor and vibrant blue sky was enticing. It was as if the forest was whispering to us to come in and explore.

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When I saw this plant covering one section of the forest floor, I was completely stumped! It seemed similar to an Eastern Red Cedar or an Arborvitae, but not quite so. I spent a lot of time reading online and searching through my plant ID books before I narrowed it down to a species in the Diphasiastrum/Lycopodium genus.

I am fortunate to know people with expertise in identifying the local flora. I reached out to a local expert, Gemma Milly of Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space. She informed me that it was Club Fanmoss/Running cedar, Lycopodium digitatum.

Gemma also said that “In the old days, they used to collect them to use the spores to fire photographic flashes– it’s highly volatile!”. When I touched the strobili (the candelabra like structures above the leaves) and the sporangia (the yellow candle part of the candelabra) a cloud of spores came floating out. I was in a trance kneeling on the side of the path, watching the clouds of spores drift around in the morning light.

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Can we all just take a moment to “oooh” and “aww” at this gorgeous plant?

The clustered, red drupes on the left are a type of Viburnum, Viburnum spp… The berries on the right are of Japanese Barberry, Berberis thunbergii, single drupes that are often paired along the stem.

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Evidence of a cambium eating insect. Since I don’t know what species of tree this is (there was no bark left to help me identify), then my ability to find clues as to what type of insect or larvae made these marks is limited. I love fallen logs, there are always goodies hiding on, in or under them!

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We spotted a frog frozen under the water. At first, I had thought it was a wood frog, but I was confused since I know that wood frogs could freeze during the winter but they usually did so on the land.

I reached out to two local herpetologists, Jeff Hogland of the Watershed Institute and Mark Manning of Hopewell Valley High School for their input. They both informed me that this was a Pickerel Frog, Lithobates palustris, not a Wood frog, Lithobates sylvaticus, and that unfortunately, my amphibian friend was most likely dead – not hibernating.

Jeff told me that “Several species of frogs can actually freeze, and survive – the spring peeper, wood frog, and gray tree frog included – but pickerel frogs are NOT among them”.

Mark said that “pickerel frogs in mountainous habitats like the Sourlands tend to move towards spring seeps and seepage areas during the winter, where the temps stay around 55 degrees F, the oxygen is high and the insect larvae provide food. If the main body of the stream remains moving during cold periods, it might duck under rocks but I’ve never seen one frozen on the top like that. The recent warm temps probably brought this frog into a mid-winter activity period, and it might not have moved fast enough to escape the cold blast today”.

I love that there are so many people in this area that are so knowledgeable and are willing to share information with others!

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My friend took this picture and said: “FOR SCIENCE!”.  Sometimes you have to get dirty to get the picture you need 🙂

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I love Pin Oak, Quercus palustris, acorns. They are really small but have such beautiful stripes!

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My friend observed the deer tracks at this little pool.  She was able to see that the deer had stepped into the slushy pool to take a sip (you can see the hoof print where her hand is). The deer put its face into the pond to take a deeper drink and then continued walking (see in the picture below).

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In this picture, you can see the “dribble” line from the water dripping off the deer and the hoof prints on both sides in the slush. If my friend hadn’t pointed it out, I honestly don’t think I would have noticed this at all!  One of the most fun things about hiking with others is that even though you both may be in the same place at the same time, you will each experience it differently.

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I have never seen anything like this before! I don’t know why the heartwood is creating these rays on the sapwood, but I wished that I could cut this log up into “cookies” and bring them home to make something with. What an absolutely beautiful treat in the forest!

If you look at this cross-section of a tree, you will see multiple layers. On the outside is the outer bark, which provides protection for the tree. It helps keep moisture in and the cold (and hopefully – but not always) insects out.

The next layer is the inner bark or phloem. The phloem moves sugars produced through photosynthesis in the leaves downwards to the rest of the tree. The phloem is short-lived and over time, dries up and becomes cork which works as a protective layer along with the outer bark. Sometimes the phloem layer is referred to as “inner bark”.

Next to the phloem is a powerhouse – the cambium layer. This is a thin layer of cells that will differentiate to create new phloem, xylem (the next layer) or new cambium cells. The cambium is the growing layer, causing the trunk, branches and stems to grow in diameter every year.

Xylem, the next layer, moves water up from the roots to the leaves of the trees. Sometimes the xylem layer is called “sapwood”.

The strongest layer of the tree is the heartwood. The heartwood is comprised of “dead” xylem and it forms the structural component of the tree. The heartwood of a tree is often a different color than the rest of the tree because it contains extractives that can have antifungal properties, decrease desiccation and promote stability.

At the very center of the trunk is the pith, which is made up of spongy cells called parenchyma. Different types of trees can have different types of pith. Some piths are star-shaped (stellate) such as in Oaks.  Alders have a triangular pith and Ash trees, Elms and most other trees have round (terete) piths. Piths can also be solid or chambered, hollow, spongy and come in a multitude of colors such as pink, yellow, brown, green, black or white.

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A bluebird, Sialia sialis! I am not very proficient at bird IDs, but there is no mistaking this bird! It has such a vibrant blue back and a big, round rust-colored chest and belly. Until now, I had only seen this bird in meadows and I was so excited to see it here in the woods.

Somerset Sourland Mountain Preserve – A Winter Solstice hike with my oldest.

The Somerset Sourland Mountain preserve is located on Mountain Rd in Hillsborough.

Link to trail map.

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The Winter Solstice has come and gone and though it will still be cold, I am looking forward to the longer days. Life can be hectic this time of year with all the holidays and many people are so busy trying to clear their desks before the new year that it often seems that there is more work to accomplish than there are hours in the day.

I had to put the brakes on, slow down a bit and spend some time with my oldest. His budding independence is evident in his questions and desire to explore for himself. I decided to let him lead me on a hike through the woods. I asked him where he wanted to go and he said on a hike with “lots of rocks for climbing”.  My first thought was of the Sourland Mountain Somerset County Preserve. There are also a lot of rocks for climbing at the Sourland Mountain Hunterdon County Preserve and I often take my Wild Boys there when I am hiking with them. The area is fairly flat, which makes it easier for me as the littlest will inevitably want to be carried. This time, however, it was only the two of us.

There were a lot of people in Somerset Preserve that day. I rarely see others while I am out on the other Sourland trails, and the Wild Boys are also not used to encountering other people while hiking. My oldest asked me what all the people were doing there. He thought that it was odd that no one was stopping to lift up logs, smash acorns or climb on rocks. A couple of times, he tried to show a passerby some of his discoveries just to have them say “oh, that’s nice” and keep on walking without pausing to take a look. My heart sunk at the disinterest of others.  I told my son that many people come to walk in the woods in order to exercise and not to explore. We really enjoy exploring and we always go slow and take in the beauty and mystery with the anticipation of discovering something new that day.

Today’s hike was led by my oldest. He picked the trails, and told me what to take pictures of. I loved watching him explore and decide what needed to be photographed.

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A Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, stood out on the mostly brown and gray landscape. My big dude ran right for it and pointed it out to me.

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All of the boulders needed to be climbed!

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Multiflora rose, Rosa multiflora, in fruit. When I asked my son what he thought this plant was, he said “Truffula seeds!”. The Lorax has been in regular rotation as a bedtime story in our house and he has been very passionate about planting trees and spreading seeds around so that the Lorax and the Brown Bar-ba-loots, Swomee swans and Humming fish will come back.

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We found a hole in a tree! Anyone home?

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Nope! We pondered the possibility that it might be home for a small animal like a squirrel. Maybe an owl? Or a perhaps a bat?

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Moss with seta and some spore capsules, Tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, samaras and a Hickory, Carya spp., nut. We loved touching all of the different plants and plant parts. They were soft, hard, crunchy, cold and wet.

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This tree was so big that he couldn’t give it a proper hug.

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This tree was just right.

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A Winged Euonymus, Euonymus alatus. We felt along the branches and found that sometimes the “wings” come out on 4 sides of the branch and sometimes only on two sides.

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Getting a really good look at the moss.

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My big dude wanted to make sure I took a “big” picture of the moss so everyone could see it as well as he could.

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A boulder with “polka dots” aka Lichen!

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We picked some Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata, and sniffed it. I was informed that it was “peee-ew, stinky!”. As a side note, I was trying to look up the proper way of spelling what sounds like “P.U.”. Some linguists believe this arose from the latin word “puteo” which means “stink” or “rotten”. If you have any other ideas on where that phrase came from, let me know!

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Checking for trolls under the bridge.

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The cold crisp December air and the bright blue sky.

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Ice needles! We were crunching along the frozen ground and accidentally kicked up a chunk of soil only to discover that it was not really soil but ice needles. We picked them up and turned them over observing all of the beautiful crystals that crunched satisfyingly under our feet. Ice needles are formed through a process called “Ice Segregation”. This process occurs when the soil is saturated with water (from all those rains we have been having!) and the temperature of the soil is above 0 degrees C and the air temperature above the soil is below 0 degrees C. Ice begins to form at the interface between soil and air, and through capillary action, pulls up water from the soil to form these little needles as the water freezes and expands. Read more about them here!

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The “sitting tree”. This tree had a perfect trunk for sitting, thinking and getting a better view.

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An empty Shagbark Hickory, Carya ovata, hull filled with ice crystals. We talked about how the the empty hull was like a little cup holding water that animals could drink from.

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Breaking some Red Oak, Quercus rubra, acorns open with a rock (because we do not have teeth as sharp and as strong as a squirrel).

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The inside of the acorn is white!

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The mesmerizing layers of an acorn cap.

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A really soft patch of moss growing in a crack in the rock.

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The fruit of a Tulip Poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera. The fruiting body is comprised of many samaras. A samara is a nut or seed that has a wing or wings. Another example of a samara is the fruit of the maple tree.

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I love listening to the rattle of marcescent leaves of the American Beech, Fagus grandifolia, as the wind rings them like chimesMy oldest asked why some of the trees still had leaves and others did not. I explained to him that some trees keep leaves on to help them stay warm in the winter. A deeper dive reveals that leaf marcescence occurs when a deciduous tree does not drop its leaves. This phenomenon occurs in quite a few species belonging to the Oak (Fagaceae) family. A marcescent leaf does not form an abscission zone at the petiole (the leaf’s base) and the twig it is attached to does not form a protective cork layer. Generally, in most deciduous trees, a hormone called “Auxin”, is sent out from the leaf to the tree saying “I’m working hard!” and the abscission zone does not develop. If the amount of Auxin decreases due to stress (drought, disease, injury) or lack of photosynthesis, the abscission zone will form and the leaf will drop off. It is not entirely clear why some trees exhibit marcesence and others do not, but it is more typical on younger trees. It is thought that these inactive leaves may protect from herbivory or protect young leaf buds from desiccation during the winter.

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He asked me why people write all over the tree and if it hurt the tree. I often ask myself the same questions as to why people would carve their names into a tree. I told them that it was probably so that they would remember their time in the woods and that while it wasn’t good for the tree to be cut, it wasn’t going to harm the tree too badly as long as they don’t cut too deep.

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A slippery-slide trail down the ridge!

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Investigating the miniature waterfalls.

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Could we possibly go on a hike without me skipping at least a few heartbeats? I dare say, “Not!” The icy, slippery rocks needed to be jumped upon because they were “jumping stones”, after all.

Omick Woods in Winter

Omick Woods is located on Rock Town Road in East Amwell, NJ.

Link to NJ Trails maps and description

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I really enjoy hiking in the late winter/early spring.  There is still the quiet and stillness of winter, but there are little hints of spring’s promise popping up.

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Spring Beauties, Claytonia virginica, working its way out of the blanket of leaves.

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Red maple, Acer rubrum, buds bursting at the seams.

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Tulip poplar, Lirodendron tulipifera, seeds ready for flight.

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Fruit of Shagbark Hickory, Carya Ovata, open and bare.

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Death.  Perhaps a leg bone of white tailed deer, Odocoileus virginianus?