Nell Davis's Remote Learning - Ecology of Vermont

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Nell Davis’s Remote Learning - Ecology of Vermont

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Hi friends!  Shoutout to those of you I worked with in Yellowstone this winter, since I personally know how awesome you are. And to everyone else who made it to Yellowstone this year, I’ve heard great things!  Finally, to those of you who were scheduled to attend a Yellowstone course, I wish we could have met you, but under the circumstances, I just hope everyone is safe and well.  

I’m missing Yellowstone landscapes like this one but grateful to be in a safe spot where I can access other beautiful, if less obviously spectacular, outdoor areas.

Since I’m lucky enough to be in rural Vermont and outdoors just about every day, I am going to loosely model this blog post after an EPI course.  Following the winter EPI Yellowstone structure, here’s a photographic overview of the Central Vermont ecosystem. My specific area of interest is the Worcester Range, that darkest blue well-defined chain of mountains, and most of the following photos come from that area.  C.C. Putnam State Forest, which encompasses much of the Worcesters, is an extensive (and growing, thanks to several conservation groups) wildlife habitat and recreation area.

Left to right (approximately Southwest to Northeast) on the Worcester Range are White Rock; Mount Hunger (the partially bald and snowy summit); Putnam & Hogback Mountains (with snow-covered Mount Mansfield, part of the Green Mountains and the tallest peak in Vermont, visible behind them); and Worcester Mountain.

Following an EPI format, research methods are up next.  My main quarantine goal has been to tire out my mom’s 11-month-old puppy, Wynnie, and her presence tends to discourage calm wildlife observation, so we’ll look at exercising and exploring methods instead. As part of an extended ecosystem introduction, I should also explain that New England spring days often encompass four seasons (Winter, Spring, Mud, and Summer) in 24 or fewer hours. To prove that point, here Wynnie and I are in two photos taken about 25 hours apart:

Biking is a great option since many local hiking trails are dangerously icy and/or closed for erosion control during mud season.  Wynnie much prefers hiking but is learning how to behave around bikes. Sometimes, though, my 15-year-old rock skis and her skijoring harness are better options.  She’s still unclear about what skijoring should look like, but we’re working on it - soon we’ll switch over to rollerskiing.

In an actual EPI Yellowstone Winter course, we would now work on an overview of the research questions and perhaps some foundational ecosystem concepts. In lieu of those, here are a few photos of our recent New England adventures plus some of the landscape features and relevant history of the area.

A typical lower elevation, relatively young forest with gorgeous rock formations (I was a geology major). New England went from about 70% forested to 30% forested and back during the 1800s due to the rise and fall of textile mills and associated sheep farms. 150 years ago, sheep pastures and farm fields extended well up the flanks of mountains, and many of the stone walls marking field boundaries remain. Even without obvious walls, the presence of fairly young trees and an occasional older “wolf tree” can identify previously open spaces. Logging is also common in this area and may lead to similarly young, relatively sparse forests.

One neighborhood biking loop follows a Class IV (typically no state or town maintenance) section of road. Last Fall, that road was a bit rough but passable for cars; this Spring, we came around the corner and Wynnie just about dragged me into a large beaver pond where the road used to be. Beavers are very common around here - they often dam up hayfields, causing considerable indignation - and they’ve lived near this road as long as I can remember.  It’s been fun to watch the snow melt, water levels fluctuate, and dam building progress (and, of course, crossing the pond without impacting the beavers or landing in the freezing water is quite an adventure).

Many New England mountains have bald or partially bald summits.  This can be caused by a whole variety of situations ranging from forest fires to rock type or other environmental factors. Mount Hunger is one example of a bald summit, and its trail follows exposed rock slab for quite a distance.  The open rock is some of my favorite hiking although it does require caution, especially when it’s a snow- or ice-field in the winter. Wynnie, by the way, hikes off-leash when trail regulations, conditions, and other users allow it. If we’re in a sensitive (especially alpine) environment, near other trail users, or she’s just not listening, she goes back on her leash.

Now that I’ve shared a general ecosystem features overview, here are some of the smaller observational details that an EPI course would normally chat about on research hikes or discuss after spending a few days in an area.

This ledge ranges from a raging waterfall to a dry rock slab in the summer; it’s always fun to predict if it will be running based on recent weather.  In the winter and spring, it often forms spectacular ice patterns and encases nearby objects (i.e. the birch bark in the lower left) in ice.  I always stop for photographs, despite the fact that I often end up stepping in the stream and therefore finishing the hike with wet feet.

Someone’s trail clearing effort led to pitch patterns that were definitely worth stopping to observe and appreciate.  Most of the forests near here include both conifers and deciduous trees. The deciduous trees are just now budding out - swamp (red) maple flowers are scattered on all the trails - and I arrived in the middle of sugaring season, which requires cold nights and warm days for the sap to run.

Many New England mountains have unique rock formations, and I tend to be drawn to them through my interest in geology.  They can also create wonderfully varied wildlife habitats.  I don’t know how this cave formed, but many nearby features are due to weathering of larger rock slabs (often thanks to freeze-thaw cycles) and glacial movement in the last several Ice Ages.  Wynnie for scale.

Lastly, since EPI course attendees would have plenty of chances to enjoy vast views of the landscape surrounding them, I’m also including a bonus New England autumn foliage view, although hopefully, we’ll all be out exploring the outdoors with friends again by that time.

Nell Davis grew up in Vermont but has lived in Idaho, Colorado, New Hampshire, and now Montana since graduating from Williams College. She earned her Masters in Natural Resources and a certificate in Environmental Education from the University of Idaho. She loves being outdoors, especially hiking, biking, sailing, looking at rocks (she was a double major in Geology and Art History at Williams), or cross country skiing.

Alumni, Education, Professional Development, Science