Snowy Tracks, Identifying Trees in Winter, and the Start of Sugar Season

Snowy Tracks, Identifying Trees in Winter, and the Start of Sugar Season

“February is still Winter, often is full of snow, but its changing light marks the season unmistakably. By February’s end it is still daylight, though somewhat dim, at 6:00 in the evening. By then we know that March and April and Spring are just ahead.” From Beyond Your Doorstep: A Handbook to the Country by Hal Borland.

The quote from Hal Borland reminds me to make time to go outdoors in all seasons especially now in winter. January has given us a deep freeze and a spring-like thaw. One morning, dawn offered a temperature of 10 degrees Fahrenheit and a dusting of snow that promised to reveal which of my mammalian neighbors were out and about in our back pasture and surrounding woods. I bundled up, donned my heavy winter boots and headed outside.

My morning walk revealed the tracks of several mice, squirrels, cottontails, two deer and one coyote, perhaps hoping to make breakfast of the smaller prey. Much to my surprise were the distinctive prints of a single fisher that had entered the field from adjoining woods and cut a straight path over the open expanse to the opposite tree line. Most likely he is interested in our healthy population of grey squirrels making their home among the treetops. In summer squirrels build a nest of leaves within hanging branches, but in winter they move into more protected quarters found in hollowed trunks. Fishers are excellent climbers, and both the summer and winter arboreal abode of squirrels provide an easy meal.

“The trunks and branches of the trees are different colors at different times and in different light and weathers – in sun, rain, and in the night. The oaks bare of leaves on Hubbard’s hillside are now a light gray in the sun, and their boughs, seen against the pines behind, are a very agreeable maze,” Henry David Thoreau, from his Journal entry for Feb. 5, 1852.

This is the season of conifers. The pine, spruce, cedar and hemlock carry their green credentials year-round except for the tamarack, which does lose its needles in the fall. It is the leafless naked silhouettes of our deciduous trees that are harder to identify in winter. The shape of the tree can provide clues, especially the umbrella like spreading elm, or long-stemmed towering tulip poplar. However, their bark can also reveal the species.

The singularly bright white bark of the paper birch tree, and the disheveled look of the shagbark hickory bark make these trees easy to identify. So too is the smooth-barked beech, even at a distance since compared to most other deciduous trees, it holds onto many of its crisp tan leaves during the winter months. But our common species of oak, maple and ash require a more discerning eye and closer examination.

“The winter shapes of naked trees are something like the height, weight, and build of an anonymous person. But the winter bark is like the fingerprint file; it is positive identification, once you know what to look for.” From A Countryman’s Woods, by Hal Borland, 1983.

Last year I purchased a new field guide, Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast by Michael Wojtech. This field guide is a must for folks interested in identifying trees by their bark. The guide is packed full of information, including 450 color photographs and detailed drawings to help distinguish the key characteristics of different types of bark of the tree species found in the northeast. The early chapters include descriptions of bark structure, bark types, a helpful identification key and bark ecology. These chapters are important to read before jumping right into the chapter on tree species, where he identifies 67 species with color photography. Wojtech focuses on tree species that grow taller than 30 feet, excluding shrubs, saplings and younger specimens of trees, which are more easily identified by visible twigs, leaves, and buds. He also excludes non-native species often found in parks and developed neighborhoods.

Another book I recently purchased for identifying trees is Native Trees of Connecticut: A Step-by-Step Illustrated Guide to Identifying the State’s Species by John Ehrenreich. This book also has full color photographs, identifies 75 tree species native to Connecticut and includes pictures of leaves, buds, flowers, seeds and cones as well as bark. The guide also describes the overall shape and the habitat where the tree is typically found. Both of these guides are full of useful information, and I recommend them both.

While winter is the season of our evergreen conifer tree species, here in southern New England this month is when the most useful (and tasty) of our deciduous trees takes center stage – Acer saccharum the sugar maple. For several years, usually the first or second weekend of February, I’ve had the pleasure of helping my friend Steve Broderick tap the sugar maple trees he has wisely nurtured in his forest sugarbush. It usually takes us a couple of days, and other friends and family stop by to help too. He and his wife Karen have been making maple syrup for many years. When the tapping is done and the sap begins to flow, I’ll try to stop by to help bring the sap to the sugarhouse, and load cordwood into the evaporator for the long process of boiling. Steve and Karen are skilled at turning maple sap into liquid gold and by the end of the season they will have processed many gallons of high-quality maple syrup. Many friends and customers are beneficiaries of their careful management of their forest property.

Along with Steve, our region’s other maple sugar operations will be tapping their trees (some even start in January), and all hope Mother Nature provides the right conditions for extended sap flow in the weeks ahead. They’ll need nights below freezing and days above freezing to aid in the flow of maple sap. Depending on the sap’s sugar content, it generally takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup.

Here in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor, there are several maple sugar producers, with most open to the public. They include Bats Out of Bedlam in Chaplin, Bright Acres Farm Sugar House in Hampton, Buell’s Dragonfly Farm in Hampton, French Boy’s Sugarhouse in Woodstock, KE Farm and Greenhouses in Sturbridge, Maple Ledge Farm in Holland, Norman’s Sugarhouse in Woodstock, River’s Edge Sugarhouse in Ashford, Triple Oak Sugarhouse in East Brookfield, and UCONN Sugarhouse in Storrs. These operations have limited hours, so look them up and contact them before heading out for a visit.

If you’re interested in sharing with the children in your life a fun program on trees, you might consider TLGV’s Feb. 11 Acorn Adventure for Families, Something to Bark About. We’ll make bark rubbings to take home, learn how trees survive in winter, venture into the woods to identify trees by looking at their bark, and learn how sugar maple trees produce maple sap for turning into maple syrup. Contact me at for more information.

February is here and I hope you’ll find time for a walk in the great outdoors. Despite the cold and snow of winter, our forest and fields are alive and waiting for you to explore. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. Join me, and together let us care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at or 860-774-3300.




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