A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp: Antrim’s Globally Rare Ecosystem

A boardwalk leads hikers into the cedar swamp.
Of all the ecosystems here in our region -- from hemlock forests to peatland bogs -- few are really rare.

But a swamp in the northern part of Antrim is globally rare.

Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp is a great example of what ecologists describe as an “inland Atlantic white cedar swamp.”

Because of its excellent condition, size and exemplary nature, The Nature Conservancy protected this place in 1999. In 2006, the Conservancy acquired an additional 635 acres that helped protect the swamp’s watershed.

Now, the Conservancy’s 1,200-acre Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp Preserve lies within a conserved landscape of some 15,000 acres, protected by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and other partner organizations.

Thanks to volunteers and staff of The Nature Conservancy, a trail and boardwalk leads into a piece of this strange and quiet place. From the boardwalk, you can see that it’s really a type of forested wetland; dark, cool and damp. Nothing like any other place in the region.

New Hampshire’s Rare Wetlands

Of New Hampshire’s 500,000 acres of wetlands, only 1 percent are Atlantic cedar swamps. Most of them are small and near the coast. Some of those cedar swamps, like one in Kingston, is quite open in nature, with trees spaced far apart in bright sunlight.

Another good example is in Manchester -- also protected by The Nature Conservancy -- and is 42 acres. The Manchester swamp is a bit different from Loverens Mill. Manchester Cedar Swamp. It hosts ancient black gum (some 400-plus years old) and giant rhododendron, which flower in early summer.

At nearly 50 acres, Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp is New Hampshire’s second largest. And it has a few traits that give it a northern (or boreal) flavor. Surrounded by hills, the swamp sits in the bottom of a  bowl -- at 1,040 feet in elevation -- where cold air collects and influences the plants that grow here. You’ll see northern species like tamarack, black spruce, balsam fir and Labrador tea, among others.

Atlantic white cedars -- which are found along the Eastern coast from Mississippi to Maine -- grow extremely slowly. Botanists have found some Atlantic white cedars less than 1 foot tall that are over 200 years old. The old cedars in Antrim are a respectable 130 years old.

While Atlantic white cedars can grow on little hummocks in swamps, their collective success can hinge on the wetlands themselves. If drained or flooded, for example, cedars can die in the wetlands and the ecosystem would peter out. That’s what has happened throughout New Hampshire where cedar swamps were once more abundant.

The water levels at Antrim’s Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp has probably been fairly consistent for hundreds or more years. In fact, a study of pollen cored from the depths of the Antrim swamp show that cedar has been here for more than 4,000 years. That is quite a testament to this system’s resilience.

Guided Tour of Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp Feb. 25
On Saturday, Feb. 25, join botanist Nur Ritter and The Nature Conservancy’s Eric Aldrich for a tour of Loverens Mill Cedar Swamp. Meet at 9 a.m. at the preserve entrance, Loverens Mill Road, off Route 9 in Antrim. Hike wraps up by noon; co-sponsored by the Harris Center for Conservation Education.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Flying Squirrels: Our Amazing Gliding Rodent of the Woods

Flying Squirrels: Our Amazing Gliding Rodent of the Woods

It was around this time one year when we had enough snow to head out for a long, early-winter cross-country ski trek. At that sweet time when day starts fading into night, I noticed something moving in the trees, way up high. 

A squirrel, I thought, but too small for a red squirrel, and rushing perilously toward the tiny tip of a high limb. Then it jumped. 

This little guy stretched out his whole body, turning the flap of skin between his wrists and ankles into a sort-of sail or a kite. Like in slow motion, he glided gracefully to the next tree, landing near the trunk, 6 feet or so up from the ground.
Then it scurried up that oak, scooted way out on a high limb and jumped again to the base of another tree. It must have done this exercise a dozen times until it went out of sight. I saw that jumping from up high was the easy part. What really surprised me was the finesse and technique as it approached his landing tree. Just before landing, the squirrel could slow, turn and adjust, then raise his body as he approached the tree. He even seemed to use his tail like both a rudder and a parachute.

Opportunistic Little Fliers
That was my second introduction to the northern flying squirrel. The first was when our cat brought a live flying squirrel into the house, where it ran off and hid in the folds of a curtain until we convinced it to exit through the sliding glass doors. 

They are one of our more remarkable rodents, right up there with the beaver in a measure of awesomeness. 

To allow their flying habit, these squirrels are tiny, with an adult weighing in at little more than 2 ounces. Making them the paper airplane of the animal kingdom is the furry flap that extends between their arms and legs, called the patagium. Their flat tails can help them steer and land upright on a tree, instead of a humiliating face-plant.

Flying squirrels are nocturnal -- which is one reason they’re seldom seen -- and have big eyes that let them find food and avoid predators at night. 

They usually live in holes of trees or stumps, like those drilled or formerly occupied by woodpeckers. Their nests are often lined with any soft material they can find, including feathers, fur or moss. In the cold of winter, these nests can hold a bunch of notoriously social flying squirrels -- even more than a dozen -- all huddling and cuddling to stay warm. They’re not hibernators, so a few hardy souls will emerge on winter nights to seek food, bring it back and share it with the party.

Four flying squirrels feed off a beaver and deer carcass.
They’re opportunistic feeders, enjoying a menu that might include fungi, insects and their larvae, birds eggs, beechnuts and acorns, lichen and, yes, flesh. Here's a trail-camera photos of flying squirrels feeding off a beaver and deer carcass. (Right. I know. That’s another story.)

A Match-Making Squirrel 
When Michael Morrison was teaching science at Monadnock Regional High School in Swanzey, his students were faced with the riddle of what was stripping the bark off staghorn sumac twigs high off the ground. They set live traps baited with peanut butter, captured flying squirrels, and after some research learned that staghorn sumac is an important winter food source for flying squirrels.

Flying squirrels not only social animals, they’re known for their nurturing. Last year, when Nur Ritter of Hancock was doing a botanical inventory of forests in Wisconsin, one of the foresters he was with reached down into the base of a multi-stemmed tree and had a flying squirrel run up his arm. Turned out it was a nest with three young flying squirrels. The mother squirrel eventually relocated her litter while Nur and his crew were working.

One of my favorite stories about flying squirrels comes from my friend Chris Vincent in Vermont. Chris’s new friend was convinced she had a rat coming into her kitchen at night, so she called Chris to come and check it out. Chris brought over a little Have-A-Heart trap and reassured her that he’d catch the problematic rodent and release it unharmed. Over the course of a week as he tried to catch the critter, Chris and his new acquaintance got to know each other with dinner and movies. Finally, the trap captured the innocent flying squirrel and Chris released it safely. Thanks to that flying squirrel, Chris and his relieved friend have been a couple for 14 years!

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.