by Summer Roberts, Community Forester
WCCD partnered in Michigan State University Extension’s “Forest Forensics: Ghosts on the Landscape”, a combination webinar and in-person field experience examining the effects of geology, weather, and human influence on Michigan landscapes. Twelve hardy participants congregated at Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation’s Bird Hills Nature Area on Saturday, November 13th to search for clues and work together as a team to discern the land use history of the site. Participants’ diversity of skills – a park naturalist, botanist, several park stewards, several graduates of MSUE’s Conservation Stewards Program, and a mushroom expert – enhanced the variety of clues we found and our interpretation of their meaning. We spotted animal influences: shredded bark (buck rub) and rings of small holes along the trunk of a pignut hickory (the past work of a hungry yellow-bellied sap sucker)! We observed examples of bent, snapped, and toppled trees, some with roots attached, and discussed the possible causes of each. We found evidence of human influences and deduced the site had once been used as pasture and patches of conifers planted in rows or clusters pointed to some reforestation work. We found the glacial erratic – a large boulder dropped by the last glacial retreat and discussed how the moraine (the large ridge of unsorted sediment we had been traversing) was formed. We also saw firsthand the difference land management, such as controlled burns, can make in an ecosystem with respect to invasive plant species! Evidenced by charcoal on the uphill side of trees and on stumps, we determined the Natural Areas Preservation staff, park stewards, and volunteers had been hard at work maintaining the beautiful, open understory and keeping invasive plant species at bay!
If you are interested in developing your woodland eye, check out the following resources. The recorded MSUE Forest Forensics webinars, including 2020’s 3-part series featuring Tom Wessels, terrestrial ecologist and author of “Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape”, are available to watch anytime! Afterwards, head out to a city or county park with a friend and do your best to observe the forest, especially anything that seems out of place, surprising, abruptly different, or conveys a pattern (e.g. trees planted in rows). Following your hike, research what history is known about the site. Cities and counties often have at least some of the history of a preserve available to the public online. If you cannot find anything, reach out to the parks and recreation department to inquire. Once you have the history, go back to the site and notice what you got right and what might have gone unnoticed. In addition to practice, continue to hone your skills – plant identification, animal tracking, mushroom foraging, glacial history, etc. – so you’ll have more clues to assess when out in the field. WCCD can help you develop some of these skills – keep an eye on our events page for upcoming educational programs! Most importantly, stay curious and don’t get hung up on getting it right every time – learning is a process! Enjoy!