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The Explorer’s Notebook

by Julie Hart

Safety first! The world is full of trip hazards like tree roots and rocks, not to mention uneven sidewalks and doorways. Keeping a sharp lookout on the ground may help you prevent some nasty falls, but that’s not the only benefit! There is a wonderfully beautiful and complex world beneath your feet, if you’re willing to take the time to investigate and explore. Go on – bring a magnifying glass and get down on your hands and knees for a closer look!

Whose tracks are those? Most wild animals are shy of humans and good at hiding from view, but when the ground is muddy or snow-covered it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn about our animal neighbors. By examining the size and shape of the tracks, noticing if there are visible claw marks or not, and observing the way the prints are spaced on the ground, you can tell not only which animal made the tracks, but also if they were walking or running.

We usually think of bird nests as things to look for in trees and shrubs, but many species, such as killdeer, ovenbird and woodcock, make their nests on the ground. Killdeer tend to nest on bare ground, ovenbirds nest in the forest and woodcock nests are often found in young upland forests or fields. Please don’t disturb any nests that you find… they may look abandoned but the parent birds are likely nearby, waiting anxiously for you to move away from their nest!

What’s small and green and eats rocks for breakfast? Mosses, of course! Don’t underestimate these tiny plants: as they grow and carpet the ground in shady, moist places, they’re breaking down the rocks and organic materials beneath them. This releases nutrients that will be used by more complex plants and other organisms. The low profile of mosses also reduces wind exposure, which could rob the plants of much-needed moisture.

Maybe you don’t want to pick it up, but when you take a closer look at animal scat (known colloquially as “poop”) you might be able to figure out not only what type of animal it’s from, but also what the animal was eating. Coyote scat will be full of hair because coyotes are predators that eat lots of small furry animals, while bear scat may be full of berry and fruit seeds, especially in the summer.

If you’ve been in the woods following a heavy rain you’ve probably seen them: small, bright orange salamanders walking along, going who knows where. These are red efts, the juvenile stage of the eastern red-spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). They begin life as an aquatic larva and then metamorphose into the red eft, which lives on land. Eventually it matures into an adult, which returns to an aquatic life and has a broad, flattened tail to assist with swimming.

The forest is no place for the compulsively tidy: the fallen leaves, branches and tree trunks can seem like an awful lot of clutter. But look again! The gradual decay of these materials, which are sometimes referred to as “detritus,” will form the building blocks of the next generations of the forest food web, as well as being home to the innumerable species of detritivores like worms, insects, fungi and bacteria that feed on the decomposing organic matter.

And consider this: a dead tree can be the most alive thing in the forest. Roll over any decomposing piece of wood and say hello to the world’s most efficient recyclers! You’ll find worms, beetles, springtails, mites, flies, millipedes, slugs and fungi, all busily ingesting, digesting and breaking down wood. Thanks to their efforts, the soil will be enriched and nutrients will be made available to the trees and plants growing nearby. 
Julie Hart is the DLC’s resident ecologist and Senior Manager of Stewardship & Education. Questions for Julie? julieh@dutchessland.org.


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