The Great BRF Tree Project: Shotgun Sampling


Dr. Schuster taking aim

Today, I collected leaf samples from six maple trees using a shotgun.

Well, technically, I didn’t use the shotgun.  Dr. William Schuster, the director of Black Rock Forest and an experienced hunter with all of the appropriate certifications, used the shotgun.  But the trees he shot at were trees I had marked a couple of days earlier, and the branches he shot down were branches from which I clipped leaves to test as part of my project.

Let me back up a bit.  In the 1980s and 90s, ecologists started to take an interest in the canopies of tall trees.  They wanted to delve into the canopies of rainforests and examine the complex communities in the tops of redwoods. This interest would develop into the field of canopy research, a collaboration between biologists studying ecosystems and foresters with a deep working understanding of the trees under study.

How does one do research at the top of a tree hundreds of feet tall?  Early methods, which included towers built in the middle of the forest and adapted weather balloons, were expensive at best and hazardous at worst.  Eventually, scientists improved upon these methods; today, tools such as a lift truck more commonly seen at construction sites carry tree ecologists high into the air.  (Black Rock has a lift truck, which I got to ride when a graduate student was using it to track photosynthesis in the canopies of spruce trees last summer.  It was more exciting than most amusement park rides.)

But then, what if you want to study leaves, bark, flowers, fungi, or anything else that might be growing at the top of a tree, but don’t have the time and funds to build a tower or borrow a lift truck?  What if, just to pick a random example, you’re an undergrad student on a limited budget who needs to collect leaf samples from red maple trees in a specific part of Black Rock Forest, but all of the trees in that area are too tall to reach on your own (even with your trusty friend the pole saw)?

In that case, a shotgun – responsibly used – may be a valuable new friend.  One simply aims the gun a high branch and fires a bullet large enough to knock the branch down to the ground.  The technique is much easier explained than performed, though; it’s challenging to aim at thin branches over 30 feet in the air, and often takes several trials to not only hit the desired branch, but also hit it at an angle that will bring it down.  Dr. Schuster explained to me that the best shotguns for this method are those that shoot a case full of large BBs, metal ball projectiles, in a close pattern.  The close proximity of these bullets increases a shooter’s chance of actually knocking down a branch, because one of the BBs will still hit even if the shooter’s aim is slightly off.

Ecologists working at Black Rock Forest have used this method for years, even since before the Consortium was founded.  The forest actually owns its own shotgun and BBs; the gun is kept in a secure location and locked, so that only specific staffers who have received training can use it.  Researchers are also careful to consider their environment when shooting branches, by picking up shot casings rather than leaving them to litter the forest.  I have helped with this part of the process twice now (Dr. Schuster also shot a few branches for me a couple of weeks ago in a different part of the forest), and am becoming adept at spotting the bright red cases amid the forest debris.

Here’s what the process looks like in a short clip; Dr. Schuster demonstrates the trial and error of aiming for high branches (warning for a loud noise):

But sometimes, a researcher can shoot down a branch on their first try, as Dr. Schuster does here (again, warning for a loud noise):

Shotgun sampling is an exciting means of collecting leaf samples – it’s certainly much louder than my usual clippers and pole saw method.  Yet with great branch height comes great responsibility.  As Dr. Schuster and I returned to the Black Rock science center after shooting branches, he realized that his car was low on gas, so he instead drove to the edge of the forest and we waited for another staffer to help us out.  While we waited, he turned on the local radio station – which was playing live coverage of the shooting that occurred this afternoon at the office of a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.  In Dr. Schuster’s hands, a shotgun is a tool for science, but in another person’s hands, this tool quickly becomes a deadly weapon.

We sat in silence for at least half an hour, listening to the broadcast.  I imagined myself in that Annapolis newsroom.  I imagined a shooter invading a Bwog pitch meeting.  I imagined a hundred other scenarios until the shotgun in the back of the car felt less like a fun toy and more like a heavy weight, pulling me down beneath the dirt.

Sometimes, just because something can be a useful tool for science doesn’t mean it should be.  If stricter firearm regulations were imposed, ecologists could always find other ways of collecting branches from tree canopies.  The Annapolis journalists can’t recover so easily.

Photo and videos via Betsy Ladyzhets

The Great BRF Tree Project: My Best Friend the Pole Saw

Picture this: you’re out in the woods.  You find a maple tree.  It’s a species you can confidently identify, it’s not too far from the path, and it has clean, healthy leaves.  Or in other words, it’s perfect for clipping off a branch for leaf samples.  There’s just one problem… all the branches are at least 10 feet off the ground.

This dilemma is pretty frequent in my line of field work.  Trees are tall.  No shit, Sherlock, you’re probably thinking.  And, like, I’m aware that, intellectually, we all know that trees are tall.  But this knowledge doesn’t really hit on a physical level until you’re standing at the base of a huge oak, staring up at branches that you’d never be able to reach even if you were a champion high jumper.  And that’s just the lowest branches!  The peaks of some older trees at Black Rock Forest are hundreds of feet in the air.  Walking on forest trails sometimes feels like walking through New York City, except much cleaner and quieter – I’m always looking up.


My good good pole saw

There is an easy solution to this dilemma, however.  To collect leaves from above my arms’ length, Black Rock Forest has kindly allowed me to borrow a pole saw during my weeks here.  A pole saw, as I’ve described in previous posts, is basically a long saw on the end of a pole.  Gardeners use it for pruning trees and large shrubs, and plant biologists use it for collecting leaf samples from branches too high for them to reach on their own.

My best friend pole saw (as I’ve affectionately taken to calling her) is a fairly simple model.  She’s about six feet long in its usual state, and extends to twelve feet when I pull out the extendable piece.  When I lift the instrument into the air, my own height adds on a couple more feet; thus, with the saw, my range is a total of about fifteen feet.  That’s over double the height I could reach on my own.

To operate my pole saw, I stand directly beneath a branch I’d like to cut and position the pole perpendicular to that branch.  I adjust the pole until the saw part (mounted on top) is settled around the branch.  Then, I pull down on the rope attached to the saw, causing it to swing down and chop the branch off.  It’s basically thrusting a knife into the air, positioning it in a specific spot, and then pulling it down to cut.  The technique takes a good sense of balance (which I don’t have) and a whole lot of patience (which I definitely don’t have), but I’m getting better with practice!

It’s impossible to fully capture this technique with a written description, but I think this video might help you get a better idea:

(Big thanks to Ellery for taking this video!)

I’m also getting pretty attached to this pole saw, as you might be able to tell by the story I told at the beginning of the video.  Not only is she an invaluable tool in my field work, she’s also a companion on my long hikes through the forest.  The saw doubles as a walking stick, an instrument for testing whether the ground ahead of me is stable, and an imaginary conversation partner.  I’ve gotten into the habit of apologizing to her when I lose balance and let the pole swing out abruptly or let the blade hit the ground.


My research mentor operating a 30 foot pole saw

My pole saw is a good friend.  She may not be as tall or as sturdy as other pole saws, and she may not be able to reach high branches like a lift truck or the shotgun method (topics for future posts.)  She may be difficult to balance, and she might get heavy on long walks, and she might sometimes get stuck in a spruce tree and give me ten minutes of extreme stress.  But she’s always ready for an adventure – and what more could you ask from a friend?

Photos and video via Betsy Ladyzhets

The Great BRF Tree Project: Betsy Has Been Hauling Ass

Hello, dear readers!  This is a quick and dirty post from your favorite forest cryptid with a brief update on the status of my project (and this blog.)

In the past week, my modus operandi has been:

(The photo is a screenshot from the script of Thor: Ragnarok (2017).)

Because a good scientist is always precise in her definitions, here’s what I mean by hauling ass: pushing myself to physical and mental limits in order to locate and process leaf samples from a truly exhausting number of trees.

Last Monday, it hit me that I only really had two and a half more weeks at Black Rock (since I’m taking half of this week off to attend my sister’s high school graduation and other assorted family events.)  So, of course, I’ve become determined to blast through my field work goals and make every day count.  I’m a bushwhacking, branch carrying, leaf clipping machine.


Sphagnum Pond, where I collected a few samples today

In the past week (except on Saturday), I have:

  • Collected an average of 11 samples per day (and in the past my goal was 6 per day!)
  • Hiked at least 2 miles per day
  • Stayed in the lab past 7 pm every day
  • Ventured into new parts of the forest
  • Found a species previously undocumented at Black Rock
  • Tore up my arms and legs with thorns and prickers

… and other tasks of similar magnitude.  As you might imagine, feats such as these leave a girl exhausted at the end of the day.  I can barely work up the energy to make myself dinner, let alone construct witty blog posts about my research.  This is why the blog has been a little slow recently.  I apologize for the lack of updates.

But I will persist!  I will prevail!  I will listen to more instrumental Gaelic Storm tracks!

I’m going to put up another research methods post tomorrow (this one about My Best Friend The Pole Saw), followed by a combined summary of last week and the first half of this week on Wednesday.  I may also put up a post on my organizational methods later in the week.  A more regular schedule will resume next week.

Thank you for bearing with me during this tiring, sweaty time.

The Great BRF Tree Project: Tree Identification 101

Update, September 26, 2018: This post has been adapted into an article on BRF’s website, “The Forest in Fall: Tree Identification and Leaf Color.”

As I’ve said on this blog before, half of my work in gathering samples is finding the right trees.  Such a task may sound easy.  You just go into the woods, you pick out all the maples, and you’re out, right?  Wrong.  There are 455 species of tree native to eastern North America listed in my Peterson Field Guide, 65 of which have been documented at Black Rock.  For every tree on my list of species to collect, there are at least two or three other trees for which I could easily confuse it, on the basis of probability alone.  And that’s not even talking about the numerous shrubs (weedy and established) that I’ve added to my species list this year.

Finding my desired trees in this massive forest is like trying to find a green needle in a stack of other green needles.  The needle I’m looking for might be a slightly different shade than the other needles, or it might be slightly thinner, or slightly sharper.  But it also might be slightly wider, or slightly duller, if it’s younger or has lived in a different part of the forest.  Or it might be torn up by insects.  Or it might be just imperceptibly different from all the other needles, but is on a branch ten feet high where I can only get a closer look after wrangling my pole saw for several minutes.

All in all, tree identification takes a lot of practice and a lot of trial and error.  I’m far from an expert, but I’ve had enough concentrated practice that I trust my skills at least with common species.  During several weeks of working on this project last summer and two weeks of getting back into it this summer, I’ve used information from the Peterson field guide, online resources, and the experienced BRF staff to identify over 20 species on my own.  (Although I usually check with staff members when I’m unsure about something.)

Here are the primary markers I use for determining the identity of a tree or shrub.


bear oak on br mountain

Bear oak and other high-elevation shrub species at the peak of Black Rock Mountain

A plant, like any organism, occupies a specific niche – an ecological term that describes a set of environmental conditions specific to that organism which give it a place in the larger ecosystem.  Niches can include what resources the organism uses, what it eats, when it reproduces, or where it lives.  That last category is often useful in identifying trees, as I can use my knowledge about which species live in which areas of the forest to figure out what I might be looking at.

For example: bear oak, a shrub in the oak (Fagaceae) family, is only found at high elevations, mostly on mountain tops.  Thus, even if I see a plant with similar leaves, if it’s not growing on a high point in rocky soil, I won’t expect it to be bear oak – it’s more likely a different kind of shrub.  Similarly, eastern cottonwood is an invasive species that only successfully grows at Black Rock Forest in highway regions where the native forest has been cut away.  Thus, even if I see a plant with similar leaves, if it’s not growing on the side of a large road, I won’t expect it to be eastern cottonwood.

Leaf shape:

Leaf shape is my go-to identifier for most trees.  The leaves of many species I look for have characteristic shapes: they’re rounded or pointed, simple or compound, smooth-edged or jagged.  This identifier is perhaps most useful for established species that I see often, such as the oak and maple families; trees in both families have leaf shapes that appear similar from a distance, but are distinctive up close.


Although red maple and sugar maple have similar leaf shapes, red maple (left; via Evelyn Fitzgerald // Flickr) has rounder, more jagged leaves while sugar maple (right; via Dcoetzee // Wikicommons) has more pointed leaves.


Red oak, chestnut oak, and black oak also have similar leaf shapes.  But red oak (top left; via Angela Huster // Wikicommons) has more divided leaves with sharp individual points, while chestnut oak (bottom left; via Bruce Kirchoff // Wikicommons) has leaves with rounded edges and black oak (right; via yours truly) has fewer and deeper divisions.  Black oak can also be identified by its darker-colored bark.

Leaf texture:


Slippery elm leaf (via Kristine Paulus // Flickr)

When leaves of different species have similar shapes, another useful means of identification is their texture.  This can be a difficult quality to evaluate, as I have to grab onto a few leaves from a tree (sometimes clipping them from a high branch) to tell if they are leathery, smooth, or soft.

For example: black gum has a similar leaf shape (rounded with one point at the end, no jagged edges) to that of ash trees, but this species’ leaves have a distinctive, leathery texture.  Slippery elm also has a distinct texture: rubbing the leaves of this species between your fingers feels like rubbing sandpaper.  Even the texture isn’t enough to confidently identify slippery elm, though, as I discovered today while talking with Katie, BRF’s research manager.  Hop hornbeam and black birch, both native BRF tree species, have leaves that are practically identical to those of slippery elm – and hop hornbeam even has a very similar texture!  Even though the three trees aren’t even in the same family!



American beech – check out that smooth, dark gray bark

Bark can be a tricky identifier, because depictions in field guides and other resources usually describe the bark of older, mature trees while I often look at younger saplings in the field.  Still, by honing in on older sections of a tree (usually the trunk near its base), I can sometimes solve debates about its identity based on this outer casing.

The case of slippery elm v. hop hornbeam, for example, falls to bark: slippery elm has rough, intensely textured bark, while hop hornbeam has more regular, peeling bark.  (Black birch, another similar species, has smooth bark with horizontal stripes.)  After closely re-examining some trees from which I’d taken branches last week, believing they were slippery elm, I have now realized they’re actually hop hornbeam, based on this test.  Damn.

Another tree that can be easily identified by bark is American beech, another member of the Fagaceae family.  American beech has smooth, gray bark that can appear almost shiny compared to the other trunks in a forest of oaks and maples.



Mountain laurel blooming at the peak of Honey Hill trail

Flowers are useful markers when I look at shrubs.  Although it’s still early in the season and many plants aren’t yet blooming, for those that are, I can spot a particular species from many feet away by looking for specific flower shapes and colors.

Today, for example, I looked for flowers while searching for six samples of mapleleaf viburnum, a shrub with leaves similar to those of maple and clusters of unique white flowers.  I found it along road sides and near one of Black Rock’s reservoirs.

Another distinct flower is that of mountain laurel, which has recently begun to bloom in sunnier spots – on mountain peaks and around bodies of water.  This shrub has gorgeous white and pink flowers that are unforgettable once you clip a few samples of the plant’s branches.  (The flowers got absolutely everywhere in the lab when I processed mountain laurel samples yesterday, though.)

Practice, practice, practice!

Identification is incredibly challenging, and I get it wrong a lot of the time.  But I’m practicing in every way I can.  I point out species to myself when I hike around Black Rock even when I’m not specifically out to look for samples.  I bring small branches of species that I don’t recognize back to the Science Center and ask staffers if anyone knows what they are.  I hold onto small samples and stick them in my pockets for reference when I go out collecting.  After a couple more weeks at Black Rock, I’m hopeful that I’ll be – well, still very far from expert status, but at least able to distinguish between all the different oaks and maples on my own.

All photos via Betsy Ladyzhets unless otherwise specified

The Great BRF Tree Project: Weekly Recap #2

wr 2 view

Arthur’s Pond, where I went to collect samples yesterday

This post should’ve gone up yesterday.  I know.  I wrote in my introduction that I would keep this blog to a consistent schedule.  But, in my defense, it’s hard to keep a consistent schedule when you’re stuck in the lab until 9 pm clipping incredibly tiny leaves off of an incredibly thorny plant.  (Japanese barberry is my new enemy #1.)

In the past week, with the help of my trusty field guide and my best friend the pole saw, I collected 45 leaf samples from 11 different tree species.  This group includes both trees from which I collected last summer and new species, primarily invasive shrubs.  My total sample number is up to 72 – I’m already more than halfway to my goal for the summer!  And I’m starting to get pretty good at tree identification.

Schedule planning:

The easiest part of my work this June is gathering additional leaf samples from trees that are already on my sample list from last year.  Half the work of gathering samples is finding the right trees – carefully examining leaf shape, bark patterns, locations, textures, and more to figure out whether a tree I’m looking at one from which I want to take a sample.  It’s a bit like piecing together a puzzle.  Similarly to looking at the full picture on the puzzle’s box, I use clues at my disposal (information from my field guide, photos saved to my phone, etc.) to make a basic hypothesis about what the tree is from distance.  Similarly to sticking a puzzle piece into a few other pieces to find out what fits, I get up close to the tree, look at one or two leaves, and often feel the texture of the leaf or bark.  And similarly to matching one completed segment of a puzzle to another, I get down branches of the trees that I think I’ve identified successfully and bring them back to the Science Center, where I ask an expert (usually Dr. Schuster) to confirm or deny my suspicions.

If I’m searching for something familiar, such as oaks or maples, those first two steps go a lot more quickly and I can usually skip the third.  Like learning a new language, tree identification gets easier with practice – and I’ve seen enough maple leaves now that I can confidently tell between red maple and sugar maple with a few glances.  Oaks are a bit more challenging (especially distinguishing between red maple and black maple, which have almost identical leaf shapes), but my skills from last summer are coming back to me.  I also was able to distinguish American beech, eastern cottonwood, and slippery elm with decent success this week.

When I ran cross country in high school, my coach always alternated between “easy days” and “hard days” at practice, to keep us from burning out.  I’m using that philosophy to plan my collecting schedule now: I keep a balance between “easy days,” looking for familiar tree and shrub species, and “hard days,” looking for unfamiliar ones.  This week, Wednesday and Thursday were easy days, Friday was a hard day, and Monday and Tuesday were a bit of both.

Some “easy” and some “hard” on Monday and Tuesday:

On Monday, I hauled ass.  I went to Aleck Meadow Reservoir, a location where I’d done a fair bit of collecting the previous summer.  I hoped to find black gum and American beech, both species I’d found there last year, as well as multiflora rose, one invasive species that also grew in the area according to Black Rock’s herbarium.

I found all three species (or at least, what I thought were all three species) and collected 12 samples.  I aim for a minimum of 6 samples each day, so collecting double that number was exciting, even though I had to scramble to process all the samples (i.e. clip off all the leaves and stuff them in envelopes) before a barbecue with Dr. Schuster’s family and the other Barnard students staying at the forest.

Dr. Schuster told me that three of my samples weren’t black gum, as I’d thought, but were actually a species of ash.  Still, I wasn’t discouraged – he also gave me a suggestion for where I could find black gum, in a part of the forest close to Aleck Meadow.  I went there on Tuesday, where I successfully located six trees to sample.  And I got three more branches of multiflora rose – this shrub is a bitch to process because it has thorns on its stems as well as the undersides of its leaves, but it’s easy to identify because of its white flowers.

Also on Tuesday: I noticed something new in the lab.

Re-acquainting with old friends on Wednesday and Thursday:

wr 2

The top of Honey Hill trail – haven for shorter oak trees

On Wednesday, I practiced my oak and maple identification skills by climbing up Honey Hill, a trail fairly close to the Science Center.  This peak is a good place to collect those more established species, especially oak, because they don’t grow as tall in high elevation areas; fully grown trees are short enough for me to clip branches with a pole saw, or even just by hand.  I collected 5 red maple branches, 3 chestnut oak branches, and 2 red oak branches, and marked several more oak trees to return for another day.

On Thursday, I collected a couple of invasive species (eastern cottonwood and slippery elm) out by the highway.  While searching for eastern cottonwood, I did something very brave and very stupid – you can read my full post about that for more details.

Looking for new invasives on Friday:

wr 2 snake friend

Yesterday’s highlight: I met a snake friend!

On Friday, I decided to go for a longer hike.  I walked to Arthur’s Pond, a couple of miles away from the Science Center, and sought out several species of shrub that herbarium specimens led me to believe would be located there.  I grabbed three branches of Japanese barberry (a thorny, rapidly spreading invasive plant from East Asia) and three of what I thought might be knotweed, and brought them back to the Science Center for confirmation.  Dr. Schuster gave me one for two: I was right about the barberry, but what I had identified as knotweed was actually lowbush blueberry.  (I still kept those branches as samples, though, because blueberry is a native shrub species in the northeastern U.S. that will make a useful comparison with my invasive shrubs.)  I also found a lone slippery elm tree at the pond, which was surprising because this species has only been documented along roads.

This week has been a tiring one – I didn’t leave the lab until after 8 pm for three days in a row.  But it has also been a satisfying one.  I found 11 different species, including three that are new to my project, and identified several places to return for more samples next week.  I’m improving my identification skills.  I’m getting into a good rhythm with my collecting methods.  At this rate, I’ll be up to 120 samples in no time – as long as I don’t slip off any rock outcroppings, that is.

All photos via Betsy (CC by-ND 4.0)

The Great BRF Tree Project: Maybe I’m A Gryffindor, Or in Search of Eastern Cottonwood

A couple weeks ago, I got into a conversation with my girlfriend, Laura, and her roommates about Hogwarts houses.

“I think I’m a Ravenclaw,” I said at the time, “but my secondary house would definitely be Gryffindor, because I do a lot of dumb shit.”

This morning, perched precariously on a rock outcropping some fifteen feet above a racing highway, I thought maybe those two houses should be reversed.

Let’s back up a bit.  Today, my sample collecting plans were to look for eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and slippery elm (Ulmus rubra), two invasive tree species that I had found last summer near the highway bordering Black Rock Forest.  (If you need a refresher on what I mean by “invasive species,” you might want to reread part of my intro post.)  Ellery, one of the other Barnard students doing research at BRF this summer, kindly offered to drive me along the highway to help look for these trees.  While driving up the road, I saw a couple of eastern cottonwood trees in front of a large rock outcropping.  Such walls of rock and weedy trees and shrubs are common, at least along highways in the northeastern U.S., where forest has been cut back to make room for the road.

eastern cottonwood

Photo taken from the edge of the highway; the trees I climbed to collect are marked with arrows

Ellery parked at the next available shoulder of the road, and I got out (clippers, tape, and pole saw in hand) to search out my trees.  I walked back to the outcropping and found the cottonwoods I’d spotted from the car: there were two larger trees right at the edge of the highway, and several more smaller trees in different places up on the outcropping.  I collected branches from the larger trees easily, then stared up at the rocky incline.  There were at least four or five more cottonwoods up there – I could tell by their distinctive pointy leaves and silvery bark.  They were maybe ten, fifteen feet up.

I can get those, I thought.

And without a moment of hesitation, I began to climb.

It was pretty easy going, on the way up  I’ve done my fair share of rock climbing between the climbing wall at my old summer camp and the steeper trails at Black Rock.  I just found one hand hold after another, one foot hold after another.  Securely rooted tree, patch of moss, rock crevice… and soon enough, I was up in the air, next to the trees.  I turned around and looked down at the highway.

That’s when it hit me.  A wall of rocks and thin tree trunks was all that stood between me and a fall into heavy underbrush.  One wrong step, and I could slip and fall – and with these rocks, the chances of me banging my head hard were about as steep as the incline itself.

At this time, I had the (before now foreseen) good sense to text Ellery: “so I may have climbed a rock face a little bit.  I think I’ll be able to get down ok but will keep you posted”


The view from the top

Satisfied that at least someone would go looking for me if I slipped and fell, I started to collect samples.  It was challenging to get out my phone, mark GPS coordinates, and label both branches and trees while constantly using at least two limbs to keep myself anchored to the rock surface at all times, but I managed it.  And then I faced the hard part… getting down.

I went through my options.  I could inch back down the way I climbed up, relying on hand and footholds in the rock to secure myself.  I could scoot to a low location on the upper rocky area where I was now sitting, then jump off.  I could call Ellery, give her my GPS location, and ask her to go get help from one of the BRF staffers.  Or I could just cut my losses and call 911.

My limbs started to shake.  My heart pounded loud in my ears.  My feet kept almost slipping – my hiking boots were a half size too big, and this had never been a big deal before, but what if now it would cause me to lose my balance and –

I suddenly understood how cats feel, when they climb to the tops of tall trees and refuse to get down.  Those dumb animals, I used to think when I saw photos of them.  Why do they climb up there if they know they can’t get down?  But now it was me.  I was the dumb animal.  And the fire department would have to come and get me and they’d have to shut down the highway and John and Ben would never let me live it down and –


The face of barely concealed panic

Okay.  Stop panicking, I told myself.  You’re not a cat.  You can get yourself out of this.  You can do this.

For a moment, I kept still on the rock.  Breathing steadily.  Steeling every muscle in my stupid, impulsive body.  I forgot the highway, forgot the potential embarrassment, and focused solely on the span of my arms, the bend of my toes, the slow movement of my lungs.

You can do this.

And then: I climbed down.  Slowly and steadily.  One hand hold at a time, one foot hold at a time.  Checking each crevice and branch before I put my weight on it.  Breathing steadily.  Breathing steadily.

And I was down.  I shouted in pride, then headed back to the car.

“That was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done,” I told Ellery as I climbed into the passenger seat.  “And I’ve done a lot of dumb shit.”

Before we headed back to the science center, we went to a different road just inside BRF for me to seek slippery elm and Ellery to seek coyote scat.  While I was walking on the gravely trail, I noticed a tree up on a steep incline that had an old, fraying label tied around its trunk at breast height.  It was a beech tree I’d sampled the past summer – and as I looked at it, I remembered clambering up the hill, using roots and stones as hand and foot holds, then panicking when I realized I’d have to somehow get back down.  A familiar story.

This dumb, impulsive feeling that led me to prioritize my trees over my own safety today is not a new feeling.  It’s the same feeling that leads me to push off trail into unexplored parts of the forest, wander through swamps, and stick my pole saw high into the trees.  And back at school, it’s the same feeling that leads me to run for leadership positions in every organization I join, (prospectively) write four senior theses, and go out to parties on three hours of sleep.  The Harry Potter Wiki says the traits of a Gryffindor are “courage as well as daring, nerve, and chivalry,” and I think that might just be me.  (Sorry, past Ravenclaw-identifying Betsy.  You’re not as wise as you think you are.)

I can do that, I think.  And I don’t stop to let another part of my brain warn, maybe you shouldn’t.

This dual courage/stupidity will no doubt come back to bite me in the butt sooner or later, but for now, I’m enjoying my myth of invincibility.  At the very least, it makes for good stories.

The Great BRF Tree Project: What’s in my Backpack?

Did you know that there’s a shrub relative of roses that has thorns on the underside of its leaves?  I learned this today while cutting the leaves off of a couple of branches of that very species.  Or, I should say, attempting to cut the leaves off… because the leaves bit back.

There’s a lot of “biting back” in my field work, from thorny branches poking me as I collect leaves, to bushes tripping me up as I venture through off-trail parts of the woods, to clippers in the back pocket of my work jeans literally biting into my back.  But experience has taught me to prepare for it as much as I can, by bringing a full kit of science and non-science supplies when I go out looking for trees.  That brings me to this week’s research methods post: what’s in my backpack?

Here’s my backpack and all of its contents:

what's in my backpack

Taken after I returned from collecting black gum this afternoon

  1. Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Trees.  A field guide is essentially a small, portable encyclopedia on a specific topic.  Field guides to plants (also called floras) tend to include two sections: plates, with drawings of different leaves side-to-side for species comparisons, and text descriptions, including details of each species’ general location, bark, flowers, and other identifying info.  I rely on this field guide religiously, especially if I’m looking for something I haven’t collected before (see: all the sticky notes on the side of the book marking off species I want to find).  But I use it in conjunction with other resources, such as photos from online encyclopedias, samples from Black Rock’s herbarium, and knowledge of the forest’s staff.
  2. Book of poetry by Allen Ginsberg.  There’s no scientific use to this one – I just carry it around in case I need a breather and want reading material.  I am an English nerd as well as a budding biologist, after all.  My all-time favorite poem, “Poem Rocket,” is in this book.
  3. My own notebook.  A good scientist would buy a new notebook to devote entirely to a project such as mine.  I am awful at compartmentalizing, however, so I just use the same notebook in which I write subway poems, fanfiction drafts, and other notes for recording tree data and observations.  Most of my sampling notes are taken on the Avenza app these days.  Still, I like to keep the paper notebook with me just in case (and it’s useful if I’m ever compelled to stop and write.)
  4. Water bottle.  This one is self-explanatory.  Gotta stay hydrated!
  5. Bug spray.  Ben, one of the forest maintenance staffers at Black Rock, always tells me that I shouldn’t wear bug spray.  “Just use unscented soap,” he says.  “You’ll earn the respect of the mosquitoes, and they’ll leave you alone.”  But I am a mere mortal, not a forest spirit like him.  And anyway, I seriously doubt I could find unscented conditioner that works for my hair type.
  6. Sunscreen and sunglasses.  I rarely use these because, between trails and going off-road, most of my work happens in the shade.  Plus, since I wear long pants and a hat when I’m searching for samples, the only body part vulnerable to sun is my shoulders and arms.  I keep them around nevertheless.  (Fun fact: my dad got these sunglasses at a conference; the orange parts read, “Big Data Finance.”)
  7. Black Rock Forest trail map.  Rarely used for actual navigation, now that I have the same map on my phone and can actively track my location on it using Avenza.  Rather, this map is very useful when I need a small, flat surface upon which to write a label.  And it would be very necessary if (god forbid) my phone ever died while I’m in the field.
  8. Trail snacks.  I usually venture out on sampling trips in late morning and plan to have lunch after I return to the Science Center.  But often, finding the trees I seek takes longer than I expect, and I need to refuel before starting to walk back.  My favorite trail snacks are apples, granola bars, and salted almonds (all of which keep well in the heat.)
  9. The backpack itself.  This drawstring bag doubles as a flat surface upon which I can place my phone while sampling – the phone needs to lie flat for a couple of minutes in order to get the most accurate GPS coordinates.  The bag is already showing some wear and tear, so I might have to switch it out in a couple of weeks.
  10. Backup clippers.  Mostly I use the larger clippers (#14) for clipping branches from smaller trees and shrubs that I can reach without the pole saw.  I like to have an extra pair on hand, though, in case I accidentally drop the main pair in a lake.
  11. Marking tape.  This tape is thin and adhesive – perfect for marking the branches I’ve collected, after I get them down from their source trees.  I write down a tree’s ID (something like “AR4” – “AR” for “Acer rubrum,” the species, and “4” for the sample number) on the tape, then tear it off and wrap it around the base of the branch.  This helps me keep track of all my samples on a given day, and match up my eventual envelopes full of leaves with my points on a map.
  12. Identification tape.  This tape, unlike the previous tape (#11), isn’t adhesive; rather, it’s a bright-colored, stretchy substance perfect for tying around the trunks of trees.  I label all of the trees from which I sample with their IDs, matching the IDs on the branch samples themselves.  This makes it possible for me to find the trees later, if I were to mess something up and need more leaves.  If a tree I’m sampling is thicker, I often need to stretch my arms all the way around it to tie the tape – a perfect excuse to hug the tree.
  13. Writing utensils.  It’s much easier to write on the tape in Sharpie, so the pen is more of a backup.  I keep the Sharpie in my front pocket when I’m collecting, which is convenient but incredibly uncomfortable when I need to take big steps to get around prickers or mud.
  14. Clippers.  These have the same purpose as my backup clippers (#10): snapping branches off of shrubs and smaller trees that I can reach with my own arm span.  These are my main pair, though, because they’re larger and sturdier.  They’re also the tool I can feel digging into my right back pocket whenever I take a step.  But it’s all for science, right?

And now, last but far from least, the tool that needs its own picture because it definitely doesn’t fit in my backpack…


The pole saw!

The pole saw is my new best friend.  It helps me cut off high branches from tall trees, like oaks and maples, that I wouldn’t be able to reach on my own.  It’s several feet long when collapsed, and the saw can be extended to twice the length pictured here.  Using this thing is like getting a plate on a stick from a circus, adding five more feet to the stick, and then poking it up into a tree and trying to angle it so that I can cut off a branch.  I love the challenge, though.


Backpack and pole saw out in the wild, next to one of the trees I sampled today

Together, all of these tools help me search out trees around Black Rock Forest, identify them as species that I want to collect, and cut off their branches to bring them back to my lab.  I need all of them to stay on track and keep organized, even if a couple of them do sometimes bite me in the butt.

All photos via Betsy (CC by-ND 4.0)

The Great BRF Tree Project: Weekly Recap #1


My haul of samples from today (ft. my good friend the pole saw), pictured against part of Upper Reservoir

This past Tuesday, May 29th, I moved into housing at Black Rock Forest.  I spent an afternoon settling in (a.k.a. got groceries and went swimming), then started field work bright and early the next morning.  In my three days of work so far, I’ve already collected leaf samples from 27 different trees, updated my collection system, and planned which species I want to seek out this summer.

If you haven’t yet read my introduction post, you might want to look at that first for some context.  But now, without any further ado, here’s what I did this week.

Getting set up:

Students conducting research at Black Rock typically use the Wet Lab, a lab space on the second floor of the park’s Science Center.  I’m currently sharing it with two Barnard students (both also rising seniors working on senior thesis projects): Kiran, who is examining the affect of acid rain on Black Rock’s bodies of water, and Ellery, who is studying animal population dynamics by looking at coyote poop.  Kiran set up a space for her work when she arrived last week, while Ellery (who kindly gave me a ride up from Barnard on Tuesday) and I both claimed tables on Wednesday morning.

For this stage of my research project, the set-up is pretty rudimentary.  I primarily need enough table space to cut leaves off of sizable tree branches, enough small envelopes to store those leaves, a drying oven to remove excess water from those leaves, and a box to put them in once this whole process is complete.  Luckily for me, Black Rock already has all of these things, although I will need to order more envelopes later in the summer.  Once I found some pruning shears and unearthed my old “trees of north America” field guide, I was ready to go.

Using new tools:

One major difference in my field work this summer compared to last summer is that I’m tracking the coordinates of every tree I sample.  (Last summer, I only recorded general locations, which is not particularly useful for anyone who goes out to look for those trees in the future, future Betsy included.)  To track these locations, I’m using Avenza Maps, a GIS mapping and cartography app that works well offline.

Black Rock staffers have made a map of the forest accessible for Avenza by creating a file that incorporates GPS data with the image. When I go out into the field, I can load this map, turn on location services, and track myself as I travel through the park – even when I have no cell reception (which is common here.)  I can also add pins for every tree I sample, including the sample’s ID, location, notes, and a photo.

On Wednesday, I started using this app to do just that.  I already have Avenza pins for my 27 samples so far, including these two maples (both sampled on Thursday):

This summer I’m also improving my technique by using a pole saw; as you might guess from the name, it’s basically a saw on a long pole.  This tool lets me cut down branches over twice my height off the ground – a bit like a step stool that helps toddlers reach cabinets above their heads in the kitchen (similar balance challenges apply).  Black Rock staffers helped me use the pole saw a few times last summer to snip branches from larger oaks, maples, and other tall trees, but this summer, I have borrowed one of the tools for frequent, day-to-day use.  It takes practice to wield confidently (as I said, balance challenges), but I’m already getting pretty good at it!  I might devote a full post to it in future weeks.

Planning sampling priorities:

Now that I’m moved in at Black Rock, I can take advantage of one of the most valuable resources here: the knowledge of the park’s staff.  People such as Director Dr. William Schuster and Forest Manager John Brady have been working in this forest for decades.  Between the two of them, as well as other research and forest maintenance staff, I can access a walking, talking encyclopedia on the tree species at Black Rock – albeit a far kinder and friendlier encyclopedia than any print or online options.

I talked to Dr. Schuster on Wednesday to get advice on the scientific aspect of my project: I asked him if I should focus more on recollecting species I found last summer or on finding new species.  He suggested that I do some of both, then looked at my results from last summer to help me decide which trees I should look for again.  This turned out to be mostly those species that showed errors or high variation in my data: the two maple varieties I’d already planned on looking for, a couple of oak species, and several more weedy types.

Then, on Thursday, I asked John about which invasive species he’d seen at Black Rock in the past couple of summers and where I could find them.  He listed several options, many of which were accompanied with specific directions.

Although I took careful notes from both of these conversations, I expect I’ll be going back to John and Dr. Schuster in the next few weeks to ask them more questions.

Collecting initial samples:

I saved this section for last, because as exciting as setting up and setting goals might be, nothing beats actually going out into the woods and finding some good, good trees.  Sampling expeditions let me get lost in the woods – both physically and mentally.  As I head off trails and push through brush in search of the specific leaf shapes that mean I’ve found the trees I seek, I can sometimes go hours without encountering another person.  It’s a peaceful endeavor, when I’m not frustrated by my inability to find something.

As this was my first week, I set myself fairly easy tasks: collect red and sugar maple (which I know how to identify from last summer) from the Stone House region and the road from the Science Center (both locations where I found these species last summer.)  Maple is easy to spot because of its distinctive leaf shapes – just picture the Canadian flag, and you know how to pick red maple out of a lineup.  Sugar maple is similar to red maple, except more pointed where red maple is jagged.  I found 17 of these trees with branches low enough for me to cut on Wednesday and Thursday (11 red maple, 6 sugar maple), allowing me to practice with Avenza and the pole saw.

On Friday, I challenged myself more by looking for two species I didn’t include last year: black locust and an invasive willow hybrid.  Research Manager Katie Terlizzi helped me find a few examples of both species near Upper Reservoir in the morning; I labeled them, then went back in the afternoon to grab some branches and look for a couple more samples.  Although I lost some time bushwhacking (i.e. foraging off trail) in the wrong direction, I ended up with 9 samples total.  And I can now identify both trees if I spot them elsewhere around the forest!

This map shows all the samples I’ve collected so far (one pin = one tree):


The pins are clustered in together but I promise, there are 27 total

Not bad for a short week!  I’m excited to take the weekend off to do some reading and hiking (on the trails, not off of them), then forge ahead with more collecting next week.

All photos via Betsy (CC by-ND 4.0)

The Great BRF Tree Project: Introduction


View of the Hudson from one of my favorite spots in the forest

Hi, I’m Betsy.  Welcome to my tree blog.

There’s a ninety-five percent chance you’re reading this because we already know each other and I peer-pressured you into it in some way.  But just in case you’re in the minority and found my site through other means, here’s a brief introduction to me.  I’m a rising senior at Barnard College double-majoring in biology and English.  I hail from the great state of Connecticut (where the trees are a major draw rather than the people), and I write everything from investigative pieces for the Columbia news site Bwog to tweets of questionable humor.  My hobbies include taking the one train for a very long time and answering the question, “is this postmodernism?”

This summer, I am doing research for my Barnard biology senior thesis in a continuation of a research project upon which I worked last summer.  My project involves a survey of biomass construction costs of deciduous trees at Black Rock Forest, an ecology research site and educational center in upstate New York.  But what does that mean, exactly?  And why am I writing a blog about it?

Intro to Black Rock:

Black Rock Forest is a 1500-hectare privately-owned forest and biological field station in Cornwall, New York.  It’s basically located in between the Hudson Highlands and Hudson River Basin, adjacent to Storm King State Park.  The forest has been preserved and utilized for research since 1928, when Dr. Ernest G. Stillman consolidated it out of tracts of mountain forest his family had begun purchasing in the late 1800s.

Dr. Stillman bequeathed the forest to Harvard, his alma mater, when he died in 1949.  Many scientific papers were published using data collected at the site, but Black Rock became threatened in the 1960s by plans to build a power plant on Storm King Mountain. In a pioneering instance of environmental activism, the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, the Cornwall-on-Hudson Garden Club, the Nature Conservancy, and other groups came together to oppose the plant. Environmentalism won the lawsuit in 1980, and the forest lived on.


Map of Black Rock Forest

In 1989, the Forest traded hands to the Black Rock Forest Consortium, a collection of research institutions and public schools that includes both Barnard College specifically and Columbia University as a whole.  My research mentor, Columbia ecology professor Kevin Griffin, currently serves as the president of this Consortium.  The Consortium supports research projects examining carbon storage, water filtration, ecosystem regulation, responses to climate change, and other aspects of the forest that have broader implications for ecology studies worldwide.  It provides subsidized housing and equipment, as well as mentoring, to researchers such as myself while we work on our projects.

In addition to supporting research, the Black Rock Forest Consortium supports science education through science summer camps and programs that bring kids to the forest in order to learn about the natural world through hands-on experience.  Such hand-on experience can include, from my observations, fishing in Black Rock’s rivers, long hikes to the Stone House (a favored camping location), and playing with the dog of caretaker John Brady.  (There is, in fact, a group of elementary school students and their chaperones sleeping in the park’s lodge in between days of park exploration as I write this post.)

Between the constant student activity and the long research legacy, Black Rock Forest is an incredibly exciting site for a research project.  Data of young scientists such as myself can be compared with similar data from decades of scientists who have come before me.  Such legacy is especially important for ecology research, as the lifespan of a typical oak or maple tree far exceeds the lifespan of a typical biologist; through collecting information about the same trees (and ecosystems based around the same trees) for decades, we are continually building a more complete picture of how this forest works.  My project is a very small piece of this larger puzzle, and I hope other students can expand upon my work someday.

Goals of this project:

Here’s the research abstract I wrote when applying to grants this past spring:

This summer, I will work with Prof. Kevin Griffin of the Columbia University Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology department to survey energy requirements of deciduous trees at Black Rock Forest.  My survey will be based upon the construction cost metric, which links energy creation processes (photosynthesis) with physiological traits (biomass construction) and provides a basis for ecologists and plant physiologists to track how resources are partitioned in a temperate forest ecosystem.  In this project, I will continue my work with Prof. Griffin from last summer, in which I conducted a preliminary survey and found several possible trends and areas for further investigation.

And here’s what that means in plain English:

This summer, I’ll work with Kevin Griffin, an expert in plant physiology (and overall incredibly knowledgeable plant biologist).  He is guiding me in the collection of leaf samples of a number of broadleaf tree species at Black Rock Forest.  I will use all of these samples to calculate the construction cost, a measurement of how much sugar a plant needs to build one gram’s worth of leaf material.  My resulting data will help demonstrate how trees at Black Rock use the light, water, and nutrients available to them to grow.  I am basing this summer’s work on a similar project I did last summer which was less well organized and didn’t lead to any significant conclusions.

In general science terminology, a project like mine is known as a survey.  This is the basic, entry level of research into a topic, in which researchers collect a lot of preliminary data without asking very specific questions or performing any experimental manipulation.  It’s a bit like sticking your foot into the shallow end of a pool before you go dive in; you need to test the waters before you start drastically changing the environment.  Not much research has been done using construction costs recently, and much of it has come from my mentor and his collaborators.  That puts me on the forefront of a possible new field, and means that the most useful thing I can do is collect as many samples as possible.


Sample collection often involves tree hugging

That being said, I do have more specific goals that guide me in planning what to collect.  Primarily, I hope to find a difference between energy requirements of major species that have dominated at Black Rock for decades (i.e. primarily oaks and maples) and of species that have invaded from other habitats (i.e. tree-sized weeds).  The older, established species are well-settled and can grow slowly, devoting more energy to building their mass as they form strong bark, thick sap, and other defenses against animals that might eat them. (Think industry giants working to maintain their status quo and stay ahead of competitors.)  Thus, I expect these species to have higher construction costs.  Meanwhile, the weedy, invasive species need to grow fast in order to take over new environments, so they use less energy to build the same amount of biomass.  (Think startups grasping at any capital they can find.)  I expect these species’ construction costs to be lower.

Last year, I collected about 130 samples from 15 different species, focusing on this established v. invasive question.  My results showed a general trend in line with my expectations, but the differences between my oaks and maples and my weedy trees was not significant enough to be scientifically valid.  This almost-but-not-really result was a major motivator for me to continue the project this summer.  I plan on collecting more samples from the same species and locations as last summer, while also expanding to new species I couldn’t find or didn’t have time to look for.  Overall, I aim for this project to span at least 20 species with at least 250 total samples.

Another result from last summer that I found curious was the construction costs of my maple samples.  Angie Patterson, a former student of my mentor, collected samples several years ago for a similar project and was kind enough to share her data with me.  For most of the species we had both collected, the results were fairly close, but for both red maple and sugar maple, I was way off her mark.  Red maple in particular was unusually high considering past research has shown it to be relatively inexpensive to construct.  This variation has driven me to collect a lot of red maple and sugar maple in different ecosystems within Black Rock.  I will compare the energy requirements of trees in low and high elevation, wet and dry soil, and other different habitats, potentially providing an explanation for the variation I found.

I have new skills this summer that I plan on bringing to my collection and analysis, as well.  Most notably, I will be mapping all of my samples to gather location data; this will make it easier for me to do environmental comparisons and will give more information to students who might want to do similar studies in the future.  I will also build on my knowledge of the forest and my knowledge of tree identification to make my work more efficient.  Expect more on these topics in future posts!

Goals of this blog:


Casualties of last summer’s lost-in-the-swamp incident

The main goal of this blog is to communicate my research to a non-scientist audience.  It’s easy to say, “I’m surveying construction costs of deciduous tree species at a forest site upstate,” but nobody outside of a fairly niche group of plant physiologists would have any idea what that actually entails on a day-to-day basis.  But when you put it into simpler terms, a lot of research can be informative and entertaining for naïve readers.  Ecology field work is a wild and crazy ride, and you don’t need to understand complex theory to read stories about it.

Through this blog, I’ll document the nuts and bolts of collecting and processing leaf samples, as well as the adventures I have climbing in forklifts, getting lost in swamps, skinny dipping in reservoirs, and so on (all true events from last summer!)  I will also use it to hold myself accountable to my research goals – the more I publicly document what I’m doing, the less time I waste procrastinating on the Internet.  And finally, this blog serves as a medium for me to practice science writing, which I one day hope to pursue as a career.  What better way to learn about writing about science than writing about your own science, right?

My posts will take three main forms:

  • Weekly recaps of my work for the week, posted every Friday
  • Descriptions of specific pieces of my research methods, posted every Tuesday
  • Anecdotal stories about adventures in the field, posted whenever they occur

I’m living and working at Black Rock from this week until the end of June, so expect ten to fifteen total posts from my time here.  In July, I will be living in New York City while I do lab work to further process my samples; I might continue with updates during that time, but the work will be much less entertaining.

That’s all for now.  Keep an eye out for my first weekly recap tomorrow, and feel free to shoot me questions about anything in this initial post via email, social media, or comments.

Map via BRF website; all other photos via Betsy (CC by-ND 4.0)