A 5-inch cross-section of blown-down softwood stem, cut with a small, folding handsaw. Credit: Contributed photo

Keep in touch with your woodlot. It’s essential. Observe the growth patterns, the changes in structure, storm impacts, and note the unexpected.

A tough winter is over, and spring is late, struggling to gain a foothold and sustain warmer temperatures. Length of daylight increases right on schedule, so growth processes triggered by photoperiod are proceeding despite the lack of warmth. But processes such as root growth that are dependent on warmer soil temperatures remain dormant.

Spring offers a narrow window, just after snowmelt, when vision through a woodlot is least obscured. There is no foliage on the broadleaf understory vegetation, and the deciduous hardwood crowns are bare.

Well-formed, high quality stems can be readily distinguished from crooked and defective individuals. The needle-leafed evergreens show up more among the hardwood crowns.

Ground conditions also provide seasonal opportunities. Small seedlings of needle-leafed species are visible, and the presence of advanced regeneration can be readily observed.

The persistent layers of late fallen leaves plastered across the ground are like beacons that draw your attention to oak saplings and clusters of beech sprouts that were easily missed during the full foliage of the growing season.

I am impressed, but usually dismayed, by the amount of winter deer browse on young, potential crop trees; the clipping off of pine seedling leaders by snowshoe hares; the promising pine saplings laid prone by the snow pack; and the woodpecker cavities that reveal defects in what appeared to be healthy trees in past years.

There is always something new to observe, always. Or perhaps it isn’t really new, just not noticed during previous walks.

When reviewing woodlots I try to carry a basic assemblage of gear. Except for my walking stick, everything should comfortably fit in pockets or belt sheaths.

— A sturdy stick provides balance, especially when hopping rocks to cross a spring freshet or walking along a log. It is useful for poking through soil and debris, for pulling down branches for close observation, and sometimes it’s just nice to have something to lean on.

Reference measurements can be notched in the stick that is cut to 4.5 feet in length. For forest measurements, the height of 4.5 feet is the standard referred to as breast height, where measurements such as tree diameter are always taken. Even the metric equivalent, 1.37 meters, is the same reference height. The stick is a handy reference to include in photographs, especially when you’re alone.

— I carry hand pruners in a belt sheath. Though many people now prefer shears with bypass, slicing blades, I continue to use anvil shears with a single blade cutting against a soft brass anvil. The single blade tool is easily sharpened and is more versatile for cutting thicker branches and seedlings, wire, tree tags, and also serves for other uses such as crimping.

— Plastic flagging, or some of the newer biodegradable types, is always handy for marking locations. I use three colors in order to distinguish between categories for marking. For example, blue is always used to designate potential crop trees, yellow marks trees for removal or felling, and red designates various points of interest.

— A small folding saw is invaluable for pruning limbs to improve passageways and visibility. Pruning lower limbs is one way that I mark future crop tree possibilities and indicate that I have been there. This simple referencing is helpful during subsequent walks. The saw is handy for bucking small diameter blowdowns that block pathways or obscure boundary lines. Such trees, and other down stems, sawn off cleanly, provide convenient opportunities for studying growth rings that provide direct information of past growth patterns.

— A field jacket with spacious pockets is good for stowing useful paraphernalia; one of blaze orange for hunting seasons, a vest for warm weather. Many of the items that I have carried over the years —  compass, note cards, pencils, camera — can be replaced by a single smart phone device, and enhanced by incorporating GPS into your system. The new technologies have changed the world of productive woodlot walks.

But sometimes, when I am really in a rush, I simply grab a cell phone, my anvil shears and a roll of flagging; I save the small remnant rolls for these rushed exits.

— There are other items to consider like water and a snack. I’m old-fashioned and, on occasion, still carry a waterproof match case, hand lens, whistle and compass. Including a small first aid kit with a tick extractor is good practice.

The main idea is to be able to mark locations, note your observations for updating your management plan, know where you are and to be able to get home safely.

Woodlots require regular housekeeping. Reviews and maintenance of property boundaries are best done during early spring. In cases where you have an adjoining neighbor, it might be desirable to walk the boundary together. It makes for good relations and fosters cooperative efforts in maintaining clear, well-marked property lines.

Spruce up markings, make notes of winter blowdowns that require clearing, and be sure surveyed monuments and property corners are in good shape and clearly visible.

When winter is over, I install instruments to provide data for two basic weather components. The first, in a sheltered area representative of our woodlot, I mount at least one Six’s-type maximum-minimum thermometer (see photo). This registers the highest and lowest temperatures during the period since the last resetting. This provides a record of temperature extremes, especially the date of the last frost in the spring and the first frost in the autumn; this is a generally accepted indicator of growing season.

The second, in at least two different open, unobstructed locations (away from structures and tall vegetation), I mount and level simple, wedge type rain gauges. These provide a local record of precipitation input during the growing season.

Maxwell McCormack of Unity is a research professor emeritus of forest resources at the University of Maine and has been a forester for more than 60 years. He may be reached at mlm2@uninets.net.

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