Teaching Winter Tree Identification


(This 1146th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on March 10, 2013.)



John Sly conducting his tree seminar



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 forty of us met in the Center conference room where John had on display various twigs and needles. He showed us the clues to identification those tree parts provided. Then we went out for a half mile hike to experience the trees in their natural setting.


I spent my professional life as a classroom teacher but I shy away from leading nature walks. Unlike those outdoor excursions the classroom setting is formal. Your students' attention is focused on you and through you on your chosen topic. Even the seating arrangement - eyes forward - provides a kind of discipline. Outdoors you have none of that. Your audience is constantly distracted and you only get brief interludes of attention.


On the rare occasions when I have been dragooned into leading bird walks I have always found myself sweating with my jaw clenched before we even set out on our hike. 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 pre-teens who spent the usual amount of time whispering and giggling and pushing each other into snow banks. 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 from John Sly that morning. Notes I took indicate that he showed us how to identify about forty trees and shrubs. That was more than I could process, of course, but I came away knowing many useful field marks for trees in winter. Today I could probably walk that same route and identify about twenty 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, that is - so they too retain those clues. Among them white pines bear needles bunched in groups of five, red and Scotch pines two.


And 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. And Sly reminded us that last year's late frost suppressed the entire crop as well. But the staghorn sumac retains its scarlet candles through the winter and that makes them 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, horse chestnut and maple 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 John Sly. If you are interested in volunteering, I urge you to visit their website or call 800-377-1520.-- Gerry Rising