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)