It is always a pleasure to spend a few hours with an excellent teacher. I had that opportunity a few weeks ago with John Sly, who was leading a Winter Tree Identification morning at the Buffalo Audubon Society’s Beaver Meadow Center in Java.
About 40 of us met in the center conference room where Sly had on display various twigs and needles. He showed us the clues to identification that those tree parts provided. Then we went for a half-mile hike to experience the trees in their natural setting.
I spent my professional life as a teacher, but I shy away from leading nature walks. In the formal classroom setting, your students’ attention is focused on you. Outdoors, your audience is constantly distracted and you get only brief interludes of attention.
On the rare occasions when I have been dragooned into leading bird walks, I have found myself sweating with my jaw clenched before we even set out. I saw no such reaction from Sly. He was open and informal, greeting newcomers as if they were old friends, responding to all kinds of inquiries and treating everyone with an open, generous acceptance.
He even captured the attention of the preteens who spent the usual amount of time whispering and giggling and pushing each other into snowbanks. Sly did so by sending individual kids forward to break off twigs for us all to investigate or asking them to identify the trees he had described earlier. What I found most interesting about this was the fact that his working with one of these young individuals focused the attention of all of us. I suspect that this was at least in part because we could be next.
So all of us learned a great deal that morning. Notes I took indicate that Sly showed us how to identify about 40 trees and shrubs. That was more than I could process, but I came away knowing many useful field marks for trees in winter. Today I could probably walk that same route and identify about 20 trees with reasonable certainty.
What makes tree identification in winter so different is the absence of leaves on most hardwoods. The major exceptions are oaks and beeches, which retain enough leaves to provide useful clues. For example, leaves of the various white oaks are lobed, while those of red oaks have sharp points.
Evergreens retain their needles – all but the larches – so they, too, retain those clues. Among them, white pines bear needles bunched in groups of five; red pines, three; and Scotch pines, two.
The fruit is almost all gone as well. Even apple trees that I have sometimes seen retaining a few pommes in winter have usually lost that fruit to deer by this season. Sly reminded us that last year’s late frost suppressed the entire crop. But the staghorn sumac retains its scarlet candles through the winter and that makes it easy to identify.
With those exceptions, however, it is necessary to find other means of identification. Sly showed them to us. They include such things as the shape of the tree, its bark, its retained burrs and the position and shape of the twigs and leaf buds. Here are a few Sly pointed out:
Several are immediately identifiable by their bark. Among them are white or paper birch, black cherry and Scotch pine. The cherry looks as though its trunk is strewn with black potato chips and the Scotch pine’s trunk appears orange. Like wildflowers, trees are also separated into groups by their alternating or opposite branching. The ashes, American chestnut and elm have twigs opposite each other, whereas the basswoods alternate.
Broken tuliptree twigs smell like Life Savers. Leaf scars appear just below new buds, and on the black walnut they look like monkey faces.
Buffalo Audubon trains leaders like Sly. If you are interested in volunteering, visit their website or call 800-377-1520.