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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Salter Brook Trout in Southeastern Massachusetts

Tucked away from the beaches, surf-casters, and tourists of southeastern Massachusetts lay hidden tidal creeks and streams filled with America's first sportsfish - the salt-run "salter" brook trout (technically a char). With a two-foot ice-fishing rod in hand, and a container of streamers, I climbed through thick brush to find the Quashnet River in Falmouth MA close to its drainage into Waquoit Bay. 

Only one species of brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) exists with two migratory populations: anadromous "salters" of the northeast, and potadromous "coasters" of the great lakes.  Salters migrate from the ocean to freshwater streams to reproduce. On Cape Cod, they migrate to saltwater in November after spawning, and overwinter there while striped bass and bluefish take vacation. They run again in April, and return to brackish or fresh water by mid-May. Brook trout can differ in appearance from stream to stream, but salters are typically heavy for their length and lighter in color, especially soon after returning from the ocean. 

Not all area streams are as healthy as the Quashnet. In the 1970s, Trout Unlimited began conserving habitat by placing rocks, stumps, native plantings and Christmas trees to add structure. Today ongoing sampling and GPS tracking helps monitor populations. With such success here and Red Brook in Plymouth, MA, other restorations are gaining steam. The nearby Lower Coonamessett River is slated for a wetland restoration this month to transform retired cranberry bogs into the sinuous, cold, and clean stream systems that harbored salters and other diadromous fish like the herring and American eel long before Europeans arrived.

Even without a bite, you will be hard-pressed not to find beauty and solitude in the hidden coastal streams of southeastern Massachusetts. During fall the red berries of winterberry (Ilex verticillata), hips of swamp rose (Rosa palustris), and the changing leaves of tamarack, oaks, maples, beech, and alder will keep you satisfied.

Some Massachusetts fisherman call salters the "fish of 1000 casts" and for good reason. I can attest that they are sparse, easily spooked, and mostly small in size. It was a treat to catch this 12" fish, but I dream of landing a large one this winter in the bay. If you make your way out to this hidden treasure, always make sure to respect the river, avoid disturbaing redds, and practice catch and release. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Alpine Vegetation in the White Mountains

As 95-South was bumper-to-bumper for the fourth, Ashley and I had a care-free ride up north to the presidential range in the White Mountains National Forest. We spent the night in AMC's Joe Dodge Lodge for an easy exit onto Tuckerman's Ravine Trail to summit Mount Washington today. We knew the weather and visibility would be great, but nothing could've prepared us for such a colorful display of blooming alpine vegetation. The White Mountains are known to have over a dozen fine-scale alpine communities with hundreds of species. Leaving the Krummholz behind, we made our way up to Lion's Head lookout where the vegetation began to shift to low-growing alpine species.

It wasn't long before we found sporadic species in the cracks of granite and schist.
Purple mountain-heath (Phyllodoce caerulea) and pincushion plant (Diapensia lapponica).

 Greenland stitchwort (Minuartia groenlandica)

Tufted clubsedge (Trichoophorum cespitosum)

 A terrible picture of moss-plant (Harrimanella hypnoides)

Before arriving at the junction from Lion's Head trail to Mount Washington, we came across a lush alpine snowmelt meadow filled with diversity. 

Bog labrador tea (Ledum groenlandicum)

A diverse snowmelt meadow overlooking Tuckerman's Ravine filled with bunchberry (Cornus canadensis), Indian hellebore (Viratrum viride), and many more.

 Little bluet (Houstonia caerulea)

  Blue-eyed lily (Clintonia borealis) among long beech fern (Phegopteris connectilis).

 Alpine azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens)

 Mountain avens (Geum peckii)

Bigelow’s sedge (Carex bigelowii) and Highland rush (Juncus trifidus)

Bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia)

 Pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) is often associated with waste lands, but grows sporadically in high-quality alpine habitats where windthrow, rockslide, and avalanches have occured.

After hours of botanizing, we finally made it to the summit of Mount Washington. 

What a trip!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Old-Growth Forests of the Smokies

Have you ever wondered what early pioneers saw when they first encountered the aboriginal temperate forests of eastern North America? How lucky were the Scots-Irish "Ulstermen" who found refuge within the very same mountain range they emigrated from during the 1700s - their dialects, whiskey, music, and might continue to flow through the southern Appalachians. How devastating it must've been for the thousands of Cherokee Indians who were forced away from such a spiritual masterpiece during the trail of tears, and the range of management practices that have since ravaged the landscape. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSM) has undergone great change in the past 200 years, but remains the largest example of the biologically diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora in the world, home to large swaths of old-growth forest. 
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of taking a trip through time to explore some of the many old-growth forest patches in GSM. Of the 500,000 acres of land, roughly 100,000 are considered old-growth forest and, with only ~4% of original forest remaining in North America, GSM is undoubtedly a special place worth conserving for future generations. Although we have all come across large trees in the woods, there is something uniquely different about old-growth forests that few will ever witness.

Today, we understand the term "old-growth" to be synonymous with virgin forest, primary forest, primeval forest, and the like. Generally, they are characterized as attaining great age without significant disturbance, and thereby exhibits distinct ecological properties. Since archival records do not exist for some tracts of land at GSM, it is impossible to understand the exact legacy of land within the park. However, the tracts I visited were previously cored and aged to over 250 years old and signify some of the most pristine old-growth remnants of temperate deciduous forest in the country. Of the 28 main watersheds in GSM, only 6 contain old-growth patches - I visited patches in the Roaring Fork, Little Prong Little Pigeon River, and West Prong Little Pigeon River watersheds.

The park is home to five main community types, including the Spruce-Fir forest, which dominates the highest elevations >4,500 feet, and has the largest unbroken tract of old-growth red spruce forest in the world; Northern Hardwood forest, composed of many species typically found in New England; Hemlock forest, which has greatly been affected by the exotic insect, Hemlock Wooly Adelgid; Pine and Oak forest, existing in the driest areas; and the Cove Hardwood forests that not only exhibits the greatest species diversity, but make up over 80% of the park area. 

Besides the obvious difference in tree size upon entering old-growth patches, there were other attributes characteristic of undisturbed forests. For example, the structure seemed to be clearly stratified compared to younger forests, defined by a distinct separation between the ground, sapling, sub canopy, and canopy layers. I also noticed an increase in sheer diversity at all levels, and evenness in the tree canopy. In other words, there seemed to be far more species in older forests, with numerous co-dominant tree species in the canopy versus younger forests characterized by a dominance of one or two prolific species. Further, I didn't see one exotic plant species.

The GSM has over 10,000 documented species, and over 100 tree species within the park, and since the first published flora in 1964 by H. L. Hoffman, there have been over 1600 plant species found. In the Cove Hardwood forest patches I encountered, the canopy was mostly comprised of massive yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolinia), and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera). Aside from composition, the trees are noticeably larger and taller with moss covered trunks. The soil is loose, moist, rich, and uneven due to pitfall gaps from fallen trees, with large fallen logs strewn about that act as nurse logs for numerous species. Although trees in the temperate forest often have taproots and a lack of prominent buttresses, as opposed to many tropical trees, I found buttressing on all old-growth trees I encountered, which help support their increased height and size. 

As I ate lunch below the tall canopy in the Cove Hardwoods forest, I took in the vibrant chorus of spring migrants such as the worm-eating warbler, warbling vireo, blue-headed vireo, cerulean warbler, and many more, while cautiously scanning the horizon after finding multiple instances of bear sign. In the old-growth Hemlock forests, black-throated green warblers kept me company, as I navigated through a labyrinth of rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) at the bases of gigantic eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Sadly, many of the hemlock trees have already succumbed to HWA, but some remain.

Having visited many other forests throughout the country, there is something intrinsically nostalgic to me about an undisturbed, old-growth woodland in eastern North America. They are well protected gems that are nearly extinct. Upon entering, I felt as if I was viewing the world through the eyes of an ancient denizen from a simpler time. Beneath the neon new-growth of this rich mesic forest did I find a deep respect not only for the ancient organisms that have persisted through luck and mercy, but also for the sad story of the natives, and the immigrant mountaineers that lived tough lives, or the calloused CCC men who helped build this country - this forest is a living history of North America. The cool, misty understory, vibrant bird songs, colorful spring ephemerals, and cultural connection is nearly indescribable, but eternally unforgettable. 

Even today, after almost a century, we would be wise to remember the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt when he designated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940: 

"We used up or destroyed much of our natural heritage just because that heritage was so bountiful. We slashed our forests, we used our soils, we encouraged floods, we overconcentrated our wealth, we disregarded our unemployed - all of this so greatly that we brought rather suddenly to face the fact that unless we gave thought to the lives of our children and grandchildren, they would no longer be able to live and to improve our American way of life."

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Mount Washington During Autumn

A spontaneous mid-semester trip in October to the granite state proved to be a great way to recharge from graduate school and to visit one of the most rugged and alluring areas in the east. We originally set out to attempt the challenging bucket-list "Presidential Traverse" hike that includes ~10 peaks above 4,000' in elevation, and makes up part of the presidential range including Mt. Washington - the second highest peak (6,289') in eastern North America (second to Mount Mitchell). Mount Washington not only draws adventurists from afar with its vista views, but also with unpredictable weather that makes hikes challenging and refreshing year round.

The highest surface wind ever recorded by man (231 mph) was observed on its summit in 1934 when the anemometer broke, which is in part why it was designated as having "the worst weather in America," and the cause of nearly 150 deaths since records began in the mid 19th century. There are plenty of taller mountains in North America, so what makes Mount Washington uniquely dangerous? It really boils down to its geography  in relation to weather patterns. The highly erosion-resistant geology of the white mountains shoots up high above the glacially leveled surrounding area to the west, where the summit of Mount Washington interacts with arctic air from the North American jet stream. The mountain range creates a funnel from the southwest to northeast that channels and accelerates air and virtually any storm system emerging from the west. To make matters worse, the North American jet stream often converges near Mount Washington with warmer systems moving along the cost to provide dangerous and unpredictable extreme weather conditions year round. Sign me up!

During this trip, we traveled southbound and only made it to Mount Washington, but we miraculously drove 1700 miles and hiked 12 miles in 39 hours - we live for short, cheap, refreshing trips like this. The photo below shows our route, which began at the Great Gulf Wilderness trailhead parking lot. Even in October, it was below freezing above tree-line, which made the stop at the Mount Washington Observatory for chilly and cornbread that much better!

The Presidential Range is part of the White Mountains, which makes up one-quarter of New Hampshire's land mass. Some states are ironically named after an unnatural occurrence. For example, Maine is "the pine tree state" even though old growth forests such as Big Reed suggest pines were historically a small component of forests during pre-settlement (on a human timescale) compared to other species. Though, New Hampshire was aptly named the granite state in large part due to granite bedrock commonly found in the white mountains, particularly Osceola (green) and Conway (Pink) stone. 

The white mountains have a long, complex history that can be traced back to half a billion years ago. Since then, a complex combination of processes over space and time helped form the White Mountains. Specifically, the Appalachian orogenies from the creation of Pangea, the White Mountain Batholith of volcanoes formed from the rifting of Pangea, and glaciation and weathering has shaped and greatly defined the region's geomorphology. First, the convergence of Gondwana and Laurentia  to help form Pangea paved way for the Appalachian Orogeny (Taconic, Alleghenian, and Acadian orogenies) to form the Appalachian Mountains. Roughly 200 million years ago, the Pangea rift began to push the North American Plate westward forming the Atlantic ocean, and the movement of New Hampshire over the New England Hotspot between 100 and 120 million years ago caused large volcanoes to create much of the White Mountains, and later formed the New England Seamount Chain. Since then, there have been two large glaciation stages (Illinoian and Wisconsinan) of the Laurentian Ice Sheet that left a great impact on North America. Today, we see evidence of all these processes in the form of folded rock outcrops, large cliffs such as Franconia Ridge and Cathedral Ledge that are cooled magma chambers, glacial erratics such as Boise Rock, glacial grooves, and large cirques such as Tuckerman's Ravine that once housed receding glaciers. To me, the White Mountains represent a beautifully unforgiving, harsh place filled with evidence from the past that is present everywhere you look if you have an eye for it. 

With such steep environmental gradients, change in vegetation also exists rather abruptly from trailhead to summit. At the base of this range, large sugar maples, yellow birches, and other deciduous trees line the path and creeks. It isn't long until spruce and hemlock take over before giving way to the flagging, stunted trees (krummholz) and eventually the low-growing alpine /subalpine vegetation that dominates the rocky outcrops, balds, and alpine meadows above tree-line. This contrast is partly what brings me to the area, where forests turn into a quilt of sedges, rushes, grasses, lichens, mosses, and mat-forming shrubs. In fact, over 60% of all plant species in the Presidential Range are restricted to above the tree-line, including some species that are endemic to northeastern US alpine region such as Boot's rattlesnake root (Prenanthes boottii), and Robbin's cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana) - a species endemic only to the White Mountains. High winds, a short growing season, low temperatures, heavy cloud and fog cover, high precipitation, and well-drained soils with low nutrient availability and high organic matter content all provide adequate conditions to make the White Mountains a great place for high alpine and subalpine biodiversity. Another important factor that dictates vegetation composition and structure in the White Mountains is snow accumulation, which is influenced by a host of landscape attributes such as slope and aspect. Even to native New Englanders like myself, it always feels like the short distance from base to summit is hundreds of miles with the abundance of disjunct vegetation. 

Mount Washington and the rest of the White Mountains will always have a special place in my heart, not only because I am a native New Englander, but also because of the vast display of changes in landform, geology, weather, and vegetation in such a short distance. It is really an environmental scientist's classroom. Not-to-mention, the surrounding town of North Conway isn't so bad either, with fresh lobster rolls, great local breweries, and rich culture and history in every nook. I could only imagine what this place would look like in winter . . .