Learn From The Land
Throughout the parks, there are various stonewalls and rock piles, remnants from more than a century ago. At the beginning of colonization most of the land in Connecticut was cleared for agriculture. Working the soil was difficult because the land was so rocky. As farmers dug out the rocks to make way for crops, they stacked them into walls that marked boundaries and created pens for livestock. Before that, Indigenous peoples sometimes stacked stones into piles called cairns. Please refrain from climbing on or disturbing these rock walls and cairns as it is disruptive to the many creatures that live in the chasms and crevices. Please do not remove or replace any of these stones. These structures should remain intact as part of the history of the land.
Very large rocks are called boulders. Most boulders were left behind during the glacial retreat after the last ice age thousands of years ago. They often have holes or crevices, and many have trees, moss and ferns growing on or out of them. Plants grow out of rock after soil and water settles in cracks on the surface. In winter, freezing water expands making the cracks bigger, letting in more soil and more water. Eventually seeds which have fallen or been dropped by animals sprout in the soil. Their roots cling to the stone as they grow deeper seeking water and nutrients. Over time, the strength of the roots and the effect of water can actually split the rock.
Most of the trees found here are deciduous, which means they drop their leaves in the fall, but there are many evergreens growing in the forest as well. True to their name, evergreens stay green because they keep their thick, often needle-like leaves all year long. Pines, hemlocks and spruce are some of the tallest evergreen trees, their lofty branches a preferred hiding spot for resident birds of prey.
Mountain laurel, our state flower, is a smaller evergreen which has more traditional leaves. These shrubs often grow next to one another, their twisted branches creating a chaparral.
Rattlesnake plantain is an evergreen ground cover found hiding among the leaves. This plant, whose leaves are marked with snakeskin pattern, is actually a native orchid.
Mosses are the smallest evergreens and there are many, many different kinds of moss. They can grow on the ground, on rocks and on wood. These unique plants don’t have real seeds or flowers and most thrive in shady, moist areas. Moss is often located on the northern side of trees as that side tends to be darker, cooler, and more damp.
Layers of moss at the base of trees provide an oasis for small creatures, especially salamanders who rely on the moisture to keep from dehydrating.
Several different ferns make their home here; most of these grow on the forest floor and are not evident in the winter. Certain ferns do stay green all year long. These evergreen ferns flourish on sloping hillsides and rocky outcrops. The fronds of this aptly named Christmas fern has a “toe” on each leaflet along the main stem that make it look like a stocking!
While not an evergreen, lichens also retain their color in winters. These unique organisms are a comprised of Algae (which can make its own food) and Fungi (which cannot) working symbiotically to survive. This collaboration allows them to thrive on rocks and in other inhospitable places. When conditions are dry, lichens are crisp and easy to crumble, but not dead. When humidity returns to the air, lichens absorb moisture and become flexible and soft. Lichens create some of the most unusual looking textures, shapes and patterns found in nature.
As the agricultural fields returned to their natural state, sun-loving evergreen cedar trees were among the first to grow. Cedars can form dense groves which provide homes for many birds and small animals. Although cedar trees can live for decades, eventually the taller trees in the forest produce so much shade the cedars can no longer survive. Because their wood is very hard and resistant to rot, many of these old gray cedar trunks are still standing upright in the forest and often referred to as "snags”.
There are a few deciduous trees in the forest that stand out due to their extraordinary height and circumference. These are called “wolf trees” or “nooners” and they are the some of the oldest to be found. Mostly white oaks (our state tree), these leafy ancients were intentionally left behind generations ago to provide shade for laborers and livestock as the land was converted from forest to farm and pasture. They were usually left along walls and pathways, and in the days when the main trail at Machimoodus was a farm-cart path they probably would have been the only tall trees on the property.
Not all of the trees that were clear cut during that time have disappeared completely. There are numerous trees in and around the woods that have multiple trunks stemming from the same base. This is evidence that over 100 years ago, the original trees were cut to the base for firewood or lumber. The stumps that remained continued to sprout offshoots; the hardiest and strongest of these grew into new trunks, sometimes three or four per stump! These sturdy many-trunked trees have now grown to be as tall or taller as their ancestors.
Like all living beings, trees have a definite life cycle and are susceptible to damage from storms and strong winds. Wood forestry stewardship practices call for leaving fallen trees and branches on the ground where over time fungi and other soil organisms help the wood decay to become a source of food and shelter for other flora and fauna. Decomposition is important to the ecosystem because it allows nutrients from dead material to be recycled back into the earth where they can be used as nourishment for the next generation of plants.
Vines interlace themselves around stumps and branches and can sometimes damage trees, especially young saplings. These same vines however combine with undergrowth to create dense thickets which give small birds and animals a respite from predators and harsh weather. Many of these vines and understory plants provide food for wildlife as well.
There are some trees that are still alive and standing but have holes or hollow spots on the inside. When trees get struck by lightning, they continue to grow living tissue around the affected area, much like human bodies heal by scabbing. The tree can then survive despite being hollow.
Tree cavities provide shelter for all kinds of animals from raccoons to owls, but they are especially important to chickadees, wrens, bluebirds, and tree swallows who need nest holes but are not able make their own.
Woodpeckers can easily make their own nesting spaces. Woodpecker holes are typically round and can be large enough to for them to live in; smaller holes are made as they search for food. Patches of bare wood on a tree trunk where the bark has been chipped away are tell-tale signs of woodpecker activity. Sometimes there are still visible jagged marks on the tree and woodchips on the ground below, left behind as the birds peck away. Generally, woodpeckers seek out trees that are dead or dying.
Bare spots low on tree trunks where the bark looks worn off are likely buck rubs; Cedar trees may even appear shredded. Male deer grow new antlers every year in the spring and summer. Antlers are formed from living bone and are covered in a soft velvety material. Bucks rub their antlers against the trees to remove the itchy velvet. In late fall and winter, the bucks rub their antlers to mark their territory during breeding season. After mating, the antlers fall off and can occasionally be found on the ground. For more info, check out: www.outdoorlife.com/secrets-antler-growth/
Other animals will also leave marks, scrapes and worn spots on trees. Some animals, like bears and bobcats, do this for scent marking. Others, like beavers, do this in search of food or shelter.
A gall (or a burl) is big lump caused by a disease, injury or parasite. The irritation stimulates plant cells to swell and grow tissue around the site of the damage. Galls can form on twigs, leaves, roots, trunks or flowers and are often species specific. Although they can become fairly large, galls rarely do harm to the affected plant. To learn more, visit: www.discoverwildlife.com/how-to/identify-wildlife/how-to-identify-plant-galls/
Within our parks, there are several areas which have been intentionally preserved as open meadows. The grasses and flowers that grow here are a vital habitat for some of the parks’ littlest and most essential inhabitants. Butterflies, moths, bees, wasps, crickets, grasshoppers and all sorts of other pollinators thrive in our fields of sun-loving grasses and wildflowers. The abundance of insects creates a rich feeding ground for birds and bats, while the seeds provide sustenance for chipmunks, mice, squirrels and other critters. Tall grasses are among the first plants to start growing in the spring. Their fast-growing shoots provide food for both insects and mammals to nibble on early in the spring. One of the many wildflowers that grow here is native milkweed which is critical to the lifecycle of monarch butterflies. The pod produced by milkweed is actually a fruit which contains seeds attached to fluff so that they can float in the wind before dropping to the ground to grow into new plants. With Monarch butterfly populations worldwide in decline, it is essential to maintain these mini-ecosystems. To find out more about how you can help monarchs and other pollinators, please visit: www.monarchwatch.com