Story and photos by Ed Crew, Delaware Master Naturalist Trainee
Winter weather can easily discourage you from getting outside and exploring nature. The wind, snow and ice can make it quite uncomfortable and even unsafe to hike the trails that are your favorites during the other seasons. Winter outings also require some planning and watching the weather forecast to pick the best day is important. After finishing a hike the other day at Ashland Nature Center, I found that Brackenville Road was closed because a car had slid on the icy road and went off the road.
You might also think that there is not much to see during the winter months with no leaves on the trees and no wildflowers in the meadows. While nature’s color palette is muted during the winter months, mostly grays and light browns, it is a time to search out those things that are overlooked during other seasons.
Leaving the parking lot past the picnic area towards the Visitor’s Center, you will see this Norway Spruce (Picea abies) tower above the private residence.
The long, graceful boughs and dark green needles are distinguishing characteristics of this non-native evergreen. The Norway Spruce was brought from Europe as people immigrated to North America. Its twigs hang straight down towards the ground, unlike other conifers.
If a breeze is blowing, you can hear it rustle through the beech and oak leaves that are still holding on. Continue your walk past the Visitor’s Center and the bird blind along the Succession Trail, marked with orange arrows. Go past Wildflower Brook, cross the small footbridge and head towards Sledding Hill. Here, you will see several native Eastern Hemlocks (Tsuga canadensis) with their small needles and cones. On the top left of the following group of pictures you can see the hemlocks, as seen from the Hawk Watch. Eastern Hemlock is the State Tree of Pennsylvania.
While the Eastern Hemlock has never had many commercial uses, Native Americans used it to treat various ailments and the trees provide food and shelter for wildlife.
Before heading up to the top of Sledding Hill, look upstream from Wildflower Brook, and view a beautiful stand of native Eastern White Pines (Pinus strobus).
Eastern White Pines have very long needles that are often found on the ground under the tree. This species has 5 needles per bundle. Find a bundle and see for yourself! Its seeds are eaten by many species of birds and animals. Eastern White Pines often provide shelter and nesting sites for woodpeckers, mourning doves and other birds.
Take some time as you head to the top of Sledding Hill to look closely in the meadows where you might spot some non-native Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg cases attached to brambles or one of these odd-looking casings of the Gall Wasp in the genus Diastrophus.
A trip to Ashland is not complete without a stop at the Hawk Watch. As you head up the hill, you will see two Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) on the edge of the trail. The Eastern Red Cedar leaves/needles appear scale-like.
The native Eastern Red Cedar has been used for furniture and fencing since the time of the early settlers of North America, due to its weatherability. The tree’s fruit is a favorite of Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum).
Look for these evergreen trees on your next hike at Ashland, and see if you can recognize all four. Along the way, keep an eye out for the various mushrooms, lichens, and mosses to be found in the woods. You may have to kneel in some mud to get a good look but, these species are incredibly variable in shape and size and display beautiful subtle colors year-round. Get some photos with your phone, and upload them to iNaturalist to try and figure out what they are! Just to pique your interest here are some pictures of what you might find.