The Great BRF Tree Project: Weekly Recap #2

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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:

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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:

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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: 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)