The forests of New England provide lush, dense greenery in spring and summer, but something happens in the fall that always results in the landscape looking like a monotonous mash up of grays and browns. Trees cut off the nutrient source to their leaves and in a matter of weeks they go from green, to bright red, orange and yellow, to completely bare. Except for, of course, the pine trees!
As mentioned, Massachusetts has a mix of both pine and deciduous trees, but as you travel more northward in North America, pine trees begin to define the landscape. This is because pine trees have more adaptations that allow them to be successful in cold, dry, nutrient deficient conditions year-round, whereas deciduous trees are better adapted for climates with distinct seasons such as those in New England. Looking at ecosystems further north, such as into Canada and northern parts of Europe and Russia, deciduous trees become non-existent.
Second, their structure. A key characteristic of pine trees are their needle leaf structure. Needles serve the exact same purpose for pine trees as broad leaves serve for other trees. They use chlorophyll, which is why they are primarily green in color, to convert the sun’s light energy into sugar. A process also known as photosynthesis. You may be wondering, if they serve the same purpose, what are the benefits of the distinct needle-shape? Well, a pine needle is essentially a broad leaf that has been rolled up tightly around the center vein of the leaf. Just as fat keeps animals warm in the winter, these rolled up structures keep the internal workings of the leaf from getting too cold, allowing nutrients to continue to flow freely between the needles and the tree trunk.
And finally, pine trees have an exceptionally cool way of dispersing, or spreading, their seeds to ensure the survival of future generations. Each scale of a pine cone is home to one seed of a pine tree (also known as a pine nut) and together, the many scales create a protective structure known as the cone. When conditions are dry, pinecones will open up to drop their seeds, but if conditions are wet and not favorable, the pinecones will close so as not to drop the seeds at times when they may not survive. This is something we can observe when looking at pine cones in Massachusetts. If you stumble across a cone bearing pine tree during dry weather, you will notice the individual scales will be spread out so that seeds can drop with ease. On the contrary, if you come across a pine tree on a rainy day, you will notice that the cones are tightly closed so as not to drop the seeds when they might drown from too much water!
Evergreen pine trees are tough and everything about them is to ensure their survival in areas where many other plants and animals struggle to thrive. Can you think of any other adaptations that pine trees may have to help them combat harsh weather? Next time you are walking in a mixed forest, try to find a pine tree and a deciduous tree to compare with each other! Do you notice any adaptations about the deciduous tree that makes it better able to survive the changing seasons?
When making recordings and observations in nature journals, emphasis is often put on what people can see and not so much on what they can hear. Today's exercise is all about changing perspective and, in fact, eliminating the element of sight altogether. The sounds that are associated with different seasons, environments, or even times of day can be equally as insightful and intriguing as the visual elements of an area. Below are a couple of ideas for nature journaling that focus on the different sounds within a habitat and how to capture them in a meaningful way. Being in tune with the different, natural noises of an environment can serve as a helpful backdrop when learning various animal calls, especially birds!
The first journaling activity is to track changes in sound over time. This is very similar to previously mentioned journaling activities about watching a landscape change over time, or a specific flower or leaf. Find a place in nature that is easily accessible and can be visited around the same time every day. Take a seat and begin to listen to the sounds. After taking a moment to fully embrace the area, start a timer for a set amount of time. While the timer is running, record all the noises that are happening in the environment. If any of the sounds are coming from unknown sources, try to describe them as specifically as possible. Do this exercise at least once a day in the same spot for a week and see if anything changes! This can also be done at different times throughout the day to see how the time of day affects what kinds of noises can be heard.
The next sound journaling activity is to create a sound map! Similarly to the first activity, step one is to find somewhere in nature to sit and be undisturbed while listening to the surroundings. Pull out your nature journal and follow these steps to create a map:
If you would like your sound map to be more visual, you can create a sound key as well! With your sound key, you can designate different shapes for the different sounds you are hearing. Just be sure to record what each shape represents in as much detail as possible. Although it is not necessary, it can be a lot of fun to create sound maps at different times throughout the day as well as from the same spot on different days over time. It can be an insightful visual tool for watching sounds change and move throughout an environment. You can even explore with creating sound maps in different habitats.
What sounds were different? Are there any sounds that stayed the same? Are you unsure of any of the sounds you are hearing?
When you've collected a good amount of seeds, it's time to start making observations. Before recording any information in your nature journal, take some time to look through your collection. Are there any seeds that look similar? Is there anything that has you questioning whether or not it is a seed? What about it is seed-like and what about it makes you think it might be something else?
A great way to organize seeds is by dispersal method! Dispersal is the way that seeds travel away from their parent plant. The way a seed looks can tell us a lot about how it travels. Below are some visual representations of seeds with unique dispersal methods, which might help you determine how your own seeds disperse!
Once you've spent enough time looking at your seeds, start sketching them! Try to be as detailed as possible in your journals. Not only can you sketch your seeds, but you can also label them with any observations and record why you organized them in the way that you did. What stood out about your seeds? Did anything surprise you? And finally, be sure to note how you think your seeds disperse!
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