Nature Column #9904 - St. John Valley Times - Week of Feb.17,1999



On Jan. 30 we spent the afternoon working on a section of the Can-Am Sled Dog trail. It was a cold day, in the single numbers. As we traveled through the hilly fields in Wallagrass we were amazed at how much smooth, wind-scoured ice covered the fields. It had a blue cast to it and covered the open fields from edge to edge. When the sun shone on the fields the ice looked like a mirror. In the lower parts of the fields, not exposed to the winds, snow covered most of the ice.

When we passed a stand of European Larches, we saw that their rather large cones (compared to our native larches) had traveled hundreds of feet on the smooth crust. That same day I had noticed how far spruce cones had traveled from their parent trees in the very strong winds we had earlier that week.

On Pooler's Run, there were no moose tracks. In previous years we have seen many tracks - sometimes with moose still in them. Perhaps the thick crust has kept them from traveling so far this year. I tried walking through some unbroken snow, and found it very difficult. Moose would probably have some trouble, too. The breaking crust trapped my legs, throwing me off balance and making progress painfully slow.

While clipping brush we could hear White-winged Crossbills twittering in the tops of the spruces. The crossed bills of these birds are perfect for extracting the seeds from cones. We couldn't see the crossbills, because the tops of the spruces were so thick and crowded with cones. It was too cold to stand still long enough to catch sight of the busy feeders. We had felt perfectly comfortable clipping brush in the sunshine on Pooler's Run, but this was on Gilmore Hill and the trail was in the shade, where it felt much colder. Earlier in January on a 3F sunny day, riding on a snowmobile was comfortable in the sun, but in the shade of the woods it felt chilly. On a windy day when it's that cold, entering the woods makes one feel warmer.

On Feb. 6 we were on the same section of Can-Am Trail to drag it. The 8" of snow had covered all the shiny ice that had been visible the week before. The crust is still there, though buried, and again there were no moose tracks. While clipping more brush, I saw that the alder cones were loaded with seeds. Alders and birches are similar in their catkins, cones, and small, flattish, wing-margined seeds (called nutlets). The wildlife food value of alders is low compared to their wide-spread availability. Dense stands of alders provide good cover from the weather and enemies. Moose browse on the twigs some, but the seeds of the alders are very important to redpolls, siskins, and goldfinches. The cones hold the seeds for a long time, so they are good winter and early spring feed for those birds.

The brushy growth on the sides of the trail needs more trimming this year because the snow is not so deep as last year. Last year's deep snow covered the old stub and new growth. This year we are getting down to the stubs of two or three years ago. As I was breaking off some dead wood, I noticed a dried mushroom attached to a twig. I soaked it in water, and the little twisted mass expanded into a brown, ear-lobe-shaped jelly fungus about 3/4" x 3/8" . The upper surface is smooth and wavy. The under surface is irregularly and deeply ribbed. It is thin and rubbery. It's called Tree-Ear (Auricularia auricularia). Brown Ear Fungus, as some call it, is found throughout North America on decaying coniferous and deciduous wood. It can grow to 6" and is edible. A closely related species is cultivated widely and sold in Chinese markets.

Gale L. Flagg

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