Welcome to the Living Environment ecology unit species page. This page contains reference materials for amphibian, tree, and wildflower species to look out for around the North Country this spring. As you learn the species, think about their role in the concepts you are learning about in class, such as competition, predation, food webs, and nutrient cycling.
Amphibians are cold blooded vertebrates that have an aquatic larval stage followed (usually) by an adult stage in which they live at least partially on land. The forests, streams, lakes, and wetlands of the North Country are home to many species of amphibians, which include frogs, toads, salamanders, and newts. If you go outside and listen closely on a spring evening, you might hear spring peepers calling. If you roll over a log on the forest floor you might find a red back salamander, which is one of the most abundant vertebrates in our local forest ecosystems. Because they spend their lives on land and in water, they are both predator and prey in both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, playing a unique role in connecting both food webs.
Many frogs and salamanders breathe through their skin, and all amphibians have skin that is thinner and more permeable than most other vertebrates. This allows them to use their skin to help them breath, but it also means they absorb whatever is in the environment around them, making them particularly sensitive to pollution and diseases. Amphibians are known as indicator species, because they are the first to indicate negative changes in the environment. A frog in water that contains pollutants, such as oil, radiation, or toxic chemicals, will be among the first species to be negatively affected. Amphibians are important for biodiversity conservation because of their unique roles in both aquatic and terrestrial food webs, and because they provide an early warning when harmful pollutants have entered the environment. Below is a list of a few common amphibians that can be found around the North Country.
SPRING PEEPER (Pseudacris crucifer)
Spring peepers are small (2-3cm long) frogs known for the high pitched chorus of peeps that males emit in the springtime to attract females. They can be brown, tan, or olive colored, and are distinguished by a distinct dark "X" on their backs.
Habitat: After breeding, spring peepers retreat to higher ground where they will claim small foraging territories that include moist beds of mosses, stumps, leaf debris and logs. Spring Peepers are habitat generalists, usually found in forested wetlands, and non-wooded lowlands near ponds and swamps. They are fairly tolerant of human disturbance and can be found in suburban areas. For breeding purposes peepers migrate to vernal pools, preferably bodies of water with abundant light, standing vegetation, and submerged vegetation which harbors the offspring. After breeding, spring peepers retreat to higher ground where they will claim small foraging territories that include moist beds of mosses, stumps, leaf debris and logs.
Diet: Spring peepers are mainly insectivorous, eating a variety of small invertebrates including ants, beetles, flies and spiders. Their food choice is usually dependant more on availability than preference. Larvae also browse on algae, detritus, and micro-organisms.
Reproduction: Spring peeper breeding takes place once a year in the spring when both males and females congregate at small pools by the hundreds. It is a fairly prolonged season, extending from March until May, though breeding at any one pond lasts only about a month and peaks over a two week period. During this time a complex mating ritual takes place. Males will defend small territories of raised vegetation from which they produce their mating call, 15-25 times per minute. Female peepers will navigate this maze of choruses and choose a male based on the volume and rapidity of his call. She will then nudge the chosen male and depart the calling site to pick a spot to lay her eggs, which usually number between 800-1000. Peepers do not build nests and there is no parental involvement beyond fertilization. The eggs are deposited singly or in small groups on underwater plants. Eggs will hatch within a week and tadpoles will metamorphose into adults in 45 to 90 days. Spring peepers do not begin breeding until they are 2 or 3 years old.
Ecology and Behavior: Spring peepers are primarily nocturnal and are especially active during rainy, humid nights or overcast, damp cool days in autumn. They feed on a variety of small invertebrates, especially insects which puts them in competition with many other amphibians. They are preyed upon by numerous species including ribbon snakes, northern watersnakes, salamanders, owls as well as larger frogs such as green frogs, wood frogs and bullfrogs. One unique aspect of peepers is their ability to change their skin color in a matter of fifteen minutes to blend in with their habitat and thus evade predators.
Notes: One interesting fact about spring peepers is that they are able to produce their own antifreeze to help them survive the freezing temperatures during the winter months. Glycogen in the liver is converted to glucose which is then dispersed throughout the peeper’s body and lowers the freezing point of the frog, limiting dehydration and protecting their cells from damage. This whole process occurs in a matter of minutes and is triggered by the freezing of the toe tips.
WOOD FROG (Rana sylvatica)
Physical Description:Wood frogs are tan-colored frogs with a distinct “raccoon mask” around their eyes and undersides that are cream colored and lack mottling. Colors vary in local populations. Some individuals might have leg bars while others lack them. During the breeding season, males darken to a bluish-black, while females become pale orange or pink. A study in Indiana discovered that these frogs can change color to match the substrate. Wood frogs are typically between 1.5-3 inches, and females are larger than males. These frogs lack webbing on the front feet but is found on the back feet.
Habitat: These frogs can be found where there is mature forest cover and vernal pools. Optimal habitat for wood frogs is mixed, mature deciduous forests at higher elevations that lack pastures and evergreens. Wood frogs need cold, clean water to reproduce in, so they will seek out beaver ponds, vernal pools, and bogs when it is time to mate.
Diet:Wood frogs feed on the forest floor and live off flies, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, snails, and slugs. Tadpoles consume algae.
Reproduction: Wood frogs migrate to vernal pools or beaver ponds early each spring to reproduce. Female frogs deposit soft-ball sized masses containing 700 to 1250 eggs, and after the male fertilizes them, the parents abandon the mass. Wood frog eggs are bi-colored. They are black on top and white on the bottom. The maturation rate of the eggs is determined by the temperature of the water. If the eggs are laid in warm water, growth quickens and the tadpoles will emerge in 10 days. In colder water, it can take up to a month for the tadpoles to emerge. The tadpoles will metamorphose into wood frogs in 60 to 115 days. In two years, the frogs will become sexually mature.
Ecology and Behavior: Wood frogs are territorial and a single individual might occupy an area up to 100 square feet. When wood frogs come together for breeding, males actively search for females, however they cannot distinguish between a male and female by sight. Males will mount any wood frog they think might be a suitable mate and feel if the individual is fat enough to be a female full of unfertilized eggs. While wood frogs do not take care of their eggs and are not social after mating season, the tadpoles display strong “kinship” ties. If tadpoles from the same egg mass are separated, they will reunite. Studies have demonstrated this by capturing and marking individual tadpoles with dye and observing the tadpoles regroup. This might be a survival adaptation that provides the tadpoles with defense against predators. Wood frogs are prey for many species that live in wetland habitats, including herons, water snakes, garter snakes, raccoons and snapping turtles.
Remarks: Wood frogs are extremely tolerant to freezing temperatures. They freeze at low temperatures and are unharmed because they accumulate glucose within extracellular body fluids that forms ice crystals and protects cells from freezing. This is key to survival of wood frogs since they emerge early in the spring and might need to survive another cold snap after coming out of hibernation. While wood frogs are an abundant species, they are sensitive to habitat loss or habitat alteration. Wood frogs are a good indicator of a healthy habitat and a healthy watershed.
RED-BACK SALAMANDER (Plethodon cinereus)
Physical Description: The red back salamander comes in two different variants. The first is the “redback” which has a straight edged and reddish stripe down its back from the base of the head to the tail. This stripe is bordered by a dark pigment extending down the sides of the body. The second variant is the “leadback”. This variant is uniformly dark gray to black. The abundance of these variants seems to change with elevation, with more redbacks at higher elevation and more leadbacks at lower elevations. There are five toes on the red back’s hind feet; this helps to distinguish from other similar looking salamanders. There is no color distinction between the appearances of males and females.
Habitat: The red back salamander is a terrestrial amphibian. They are mainly found in forested areas away from floodplains. Red back salamanders are equally widespread in deciduous forest, evergreen forest, and mixed wooded forests. The red back salamander is commonly found in the leaf litter on the forest floor, under logs, rocks, or in small burrows. They must live in a moist environment because they rely on their skin for respiration. During dry times they will move up to a foot below the surface of the leaf litter searching for moisture.
Diet: Red back salamanders feed primarily on invertebrates. They consume a wide variety of species such as mites, spiders, earthworms, snails, beetles, millipedes, ants, flies, and larvae. The red back salamander feeds when there is an abundance of moisture in its environment, especially during and shortly after it rains. Because of the salamander’s moisture requirement it is a pulse feeder, feeding under moist conditions, and sheltering under logs or rocks during dry conditions.
Reproduction: Red back salamanders court and mate both in the spring and fall, and even through the winter in the southern part of their range. Red back salamanders do not need vernal pools to deposit their eggs unlike some other salamander species. Females choose enclosed sites to deposit their eggs, such as crevices inside a log; they tend to prefer conifer logs. They will go inside the log through tunnels formed by ants and lay up to fifteen eggs in openings just a little larger than their own bodies. The eggs are connected together in a cluster resembling a bunch of grapes. Females stay with the eggs for the entire duration of development, about two months. During this time female red back salamanders are known to fiercely defend their eggs by lunging, biting, and grappling, so that their eggs will not be eaten by predators or other red back salamanders.
Ecology and Behavior: Red back salamanders have an important ecological role as a food source for many different predators such as shrews, snakes, screech owls, and song birds. The red back salamander has a few interesting behaviors to help it evade predation. One is that the red back is able to detach part of its tail, distracting a potential predator as the salamander escapes. Red backs that have lost their tail can regenerate a completely new tail.
Remarks: Red back salamanders will actually protect their food supply from other salamanders by marking their territory. They leave cues such as scent marks on the substrate or fecal markings. These territory markers tell other salamanders about the territory boundaries and about the size of the salamander that lives there. Red back salamanders will also threaten intruders of smaller size with physical displays.
MINK FROG (Rana septentrionalis)
Physical Description: The hallmark characteristic of the mink frog, from which it derives its name, is the “mink” odor released from the skin when the frog is heavily handled. The scent is often compared to that of rotten onions. It ranges in size from 4.8-7 cm. The dorsal of the mink frog is typically dark green, brown, or olive with an abundance of darker markings. These markings are found either in spotted or mottled form and are variable in size. The Mink Frog is often misidentified with the Green Frog. Colored marks on the Green Frog are cross-banded and align, whereas in mink frogs the patterns form no aligned order. Webbing on the Green Frog fails to extend to the fifth toe.
Habitat: The mink frog is a highly aquatic species. It can be found along watercourses, especially on the borders of lakes and ponds. Its preference of colder habitats allows it to live in the colder water at the mouths of streams as long as the waters are fairly calm. They also inhabit bodies of water that contain heavy vegetation such as reeds, lily pads, or pickerel weed. On rivers, lakes and ponds, the Mink Frog can be found a significant distance from shore sunning on lily pads.
Diet: The mink frog experiences two main diets during its life. As a tadpole frogs are herbivores sustained off algae and other plant life. mink frogs are opportunistic feeders that will prey and feed upon essentially any properly sized organism within their habitat, which is most typically water surface. Thus their diet includes organisms including dragonflies, damselflies, diving beetles, whirlygig beetles, waterbugs, and aphids. The will often position themselves in an erect position on a lily pad waiting for prey to pass within a reasonable striking distance. Individuals have been found to have certain preferred hunting areas to which they will return, but they are ultimately limited by distribution of their prey.
Reproduction : The Mink Frog does not exhibit a breeding migration and will breed in close proximity to its aquatic residence. Breeding occurs from late May to August. The males will begin calling females during this period with the most active callings occurring on warm summer nights before dawn. Females, drawn to the calls of the males will arrive and then a pair will perform the mating ritual of aplexus in which the male mounts the female, grasping her with his legs which stimulate the release of eggs from the female. Female mink frogs eggs are fertilized externally, after which the eggs of the are released in a globular mass which is attached to vegetation beneath the water surface. Clutch size ranges between 500-4,000 eggs most of which will not reach maturity due to predators and environmental conditions. Common to frogs the Mink Frog exhibits no parental care over eggs, and once fertilization occurs the eggs are left to develop on their own.
Ecology and Behavior: The role of the mink frog within its environment has a small but existing effect on the entire ecosystem and food chain. The mink frog has a wide variety of predators including snakes, birds, fox, and fish. They provide a food source for those organisms and also act as predators to a wide variety of insects and other smaller frogs. A study done in New Brunswick found that the density ranges from 0-88.8 frogs per hundred square meters. The mink frog is not a particularly social species and most interaction occurs during breeding season.
Remarks: A truly northern species, the mink frog is succeptible to fungal infections in warmer waters. Thus, it may be among the first New York amphibians to be negatively affected by climate change.
EASTERN SPOTTED NEWT (Notophthalmus viridescens)
Physical Description: Eastern newts have three highly distinct life stages. In the larval stage, the eastern newt is a half inch, olive green aquatic larva with feathery gills. In the juvenile stage, it lives primarily on land as a bright reddish-orange salamander, known as a red eft. Red efts range from 1-3 inches long and are characterized by a bright orange/red body that is relatively rough and dry. They have small black dots scattered along their backs, and sometimes larger red spots rimmed by a black border. In the adult aquatic stage, eastern newts are smooth and olive green, with small black dots and reddish-orange spots. Adult eastern newts have a ridged-spine and a broad, flattish tail. Both red efts and adult eastern newts have yellowish bellies.
Habitat: In its larval and adult stages, the eastern newt inhabits small bodies of fresh water including ponds, small lakes, streams, and marshes, favoring habitats with a muddy bottom. Adult newts live primarily in water, and are common in beaver ponds, but can survive on land for extended periods in dry conditions. Juvenile efts inhabit the leaf litter of moist deciduous and coniferous forests, and are most likely to be found during and after rain. In dry conditions red efts will seek out moist environments under logs, bark, and leaf litter.
Diet: Larval eastern newts eat small aquatic invertebrates including mosquito larvae, water fleas, snails, and beetle larvae. Red efts eat small invertebrates in the leaf litter including springtails, ants, and soil mites. Adult eastern newts have an unspecialized diet and will consume most aquatic invertebrates including midges and undeveloped insect larvae.
Reproduction: In late spring, female eastern newts lay 200-350 eggs in the water, often attached to aquatic vegetation. As soon as she lays eggs, the female will leave them to survive on their own. Larvae hatch after 3-5 weeks, and spend 2-3 months in the water before metamorphosing into the juvenile eft stage. After 2-3 years (but sometimes up to 7), the efts will metamorphose again to become adults. In spring, male and female adult newts will meet in water to perform their mating ritual.
Ecology and Behavior: The bright orange coloring of red efts serves as a warning to potential predators, because the skin of eastern newts contains toxins that cause predators to spit them out after tasting, vomit after ingesting, or in some cases kill the predator that consumed them. As a result, many potential predators avoid eastern newts altogether, but they are still eaten by gatersnakes. Both adults and efts use defensive postures to thwart off predators.
Remarks: Because eastern newts rely on moist forest environments for multiple years in the eft stage, they are particularly sensitive to habitat fragmentation, and disappear from the landscape when forest cover is reduced below 70%.
Check out the following links for some great amphibian resources in New York State:
Soon after the snow melts, but before the leaves have fully emerged on the trees, and abundance of early spring wildflowers (also called spring ephemerals) can be found around the forests of the North Country. Spring ephemerals have evolved a specific phenology that allows them to take sunlight and nutrients before the leaves grow on the trees. A forest community is composed of many plants, both large and small, that are in competition for sunlight and nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous. When a tree has a full canopy of leaves, it shades the ground below it, limiting the amount of sunlight small plants on the forest floor receive. As a result, the gap in timing between when the snow melts and when trees leaf out is critical for spring ephemerals. Once the snow melts, spring ephemerals quickly take on sunlight and nutrients from the soil to gain energy to develop flowers. This allows them reproduce before they are shaded out by the trees, and allows us to enjoy looking at their flowers every spring.
WHITE TRILLIUM (Trillium grandiflorum)
Description: The white trillium is a woodland herb with three whorled, smooth, elliptical leaves, up to 6 inches long. Flowers have three wavy white petals and yellow anthers. Trillium grow to be 8-16 inches tall. During its flowering stage, white trillium holds up its leaves to maximize the surface area receiving sunlight. Flowers are visible from April-June each year. Sometimes white trillium flowers will be a light shade of pink.
Habitat: Trillium require rich and loamy well drained soils, and thrive in partial shade.
Remarks: Trillium can live up to 70 years, and require 17 years to reach maturation. It is illegal to pick trillium in New York State unless you have permission from the landowner. Ants commonly feed their larvae with trillium seeds, and help to disperse the seeds in the process.
RED TRILLIUM (Trillium erectum)
Description: Red trillium share many characteristics with white trillium- notably three whorled elliptical leaves and a 2-3 inch wide flower with three petals. Leaf veins are netted, rather than parallel, which is more common in the lily family. Red trillium can grow to be approximately 8-16 inches tall and 12 inches wide. The flower is maroon or deep crimson in color, and often faces downward. Red trillium blooms for approximately 2-3 weeks in late April and May, after which the petals wither and are replaced by a shiny red berry.
Habitat: Red trillium is found in rich, moist, and well drained soils in deciduous forests across the eastern US. Like white trillium, it requires partial shade and flowers before the leaves have fully formed on the trees.
Remarks: Red trillium is nicknamed “stinking Benjamin” for its foul odor, which is similar to rotting meat. Carrion flies are drawn to the smell, and they help ensure that red trillium is pollinated.
SPRING BEAUTY (Claytonia virginica)
Description: Spring beauty are a small spring ephemeral with flowers with white petals and vertical pink stripes. Each plant typically contains five flowers. Flowers bloom in mid spring and typically last about two months. Leaves are dark green and grass like, and vary in length. Spring beauties grow to be 6-8 inches tall.
Habitat: Spring beauties can thrive in a variety of environments from woodlands to prairies to lawns. The can survive moderate disturbance, such as grazing cattle or tree cutting better than most species of woodland flowers.
Remarks: The thick, fleshy root of spring beauties is edible and said to taste something like a sweet potato. The root is thicker than the stem, and can be up to two inches in diameter. These are best harvested when flowers are in bloom, but should never be taken without permission from the landowner.
JACK IN THE PULPIT (Arisaema triphyllum)
Description: Jack in the pulpit is an unusual woodland wildflower with three leaves that grow on a stem (or two stems) separate from the flower stalk. What appears to be the flower is actually a large (3-4 inches long) hollow cylindrical structure, called a spathe, with a “hood” that droops over its opening. This is known as the “pulpit” and another cylindrical structure inside it is known as the “jack.” Neither of these are the true flowers, which are inside the base of the cylinder in small clusters. Often the “pulpit” has purple or brown vertical stripes. In late summer, a cluster of small red berries forms on top of the “jack.”
Habitat: This plant is found in deciduous woodlands across the eastern US, preferring slightly moist and well drained habitats.
Remarks: Jack in the pulpit is able to change its sex depending on the amount of nutrients it has stored throughout the summer and fall. Female flowers must produce seeds and thus require more energy. In a good growing year, a jack in the pulpit will grow a bud for female flowers and a second set of leaves. If it has been a bad growth year, the plant will “opt” to make male flowers and a single leaf bud for the next year. Thus, you can usually distinguish between male and female plants by how many leaves it has. The leaves of jack in the pulpit are highly poisonous and consumed by very few animals or insects.
TROUT LILY (Erythronium americanum)
Description: Trout lily have two mottled (spotted) brown and green lance-shaped leaves, and send up a single stalk topped with a nodding (down-facing) yellow flower. Leaves are 3-6 inches long, and mature trout lilies grow to be up to 10 inches tall. Flower petals often have brown spots near the base. When mature, the yellow flower petals are bent backwards, exposing six long, brown stamens. They are among the first woodland herbs to flower in spring, but only one percent of plants will flower in a given year. Flowers are visible from approximately April- May each year.
Habitat: Trout lilies often grow in large colonies in partially shaded forest environments across the North Country. They thrive in well drained, hummus rich, sandy-loam soils, and will not tolerate water saturated soils.
For more information on North Country Wildflowers, check out:
Forests provide a number of services that benefit both humans and wildlife. First, trees in North Country forests create important habitat for many other species of plants and animals. Ferns and many understory plants thrive in the shade provided by the forest canopy. Many species of birds and squirrels nest in tree branches. White-tailed deer browse on tree leaves and saplings for food. Other species, such as salamanders, rely on the moist environment underneath logs and leaf litter to survive. Because they are large and abundant, trees have a major role in nutrient cycling in forest ecosystems. In America, forests sequester 10% of the carbon we emit each year, and thus they are known as carbon sinks that help protect us from the effects of climate change. Forests also protect water quality by controlling erosion and moderating the loss of nutrients from terrestrial to aquatic ecosystems.
Between March and May, the buds will burst on many North Country trees and the first leaves of the season will begin to grow. Leaf emergence is determined by both temperature and light cues, and different species of trees will “green up” at different times throughout the spring. Trees need their leaves to perform photosynthesis and produce energy, but if they develop leaves too soon in the spring, they risk frost damage from cold temperatures.
When identifying trees, it is good to know a few distinguishing characteristics. Leaves are a great way to identify trees in the summer and fall, but they aren’t there year-round for deciduous trees. It's good to know how to identify trees by multiple different signs. One way to quickly narrow down the species you're looking at is to look at the leaf arrangement. Are leaves attached to the stem (the point of attachment is called a node) in an opposite or alternate pattern? If a tree is opposite, two leaves attach to the same node. If a tree is alternate, a single leaf is attached per node. Only a few North Country trees, including white ash, maple, and dogwood species, have opposite leaves. Another way to identify trees is by the bark. Bark can be smooth, as with paper birch, or rough and grooved, as with sugar maples. True to its name, paper birch bark peels of the trunk in papery layers.
Below are a few examples of common North Country trees.
Bark: Sugar maples have a grey-brown trunk, and older trees have deeply furrowed bark with loose-edged plates. Leaves: Leaves are simple and grow in an opposite arrangement. They have five lobes with U-shaped notches between lobes. This distinguishes them from Red Maple, which have shallow v-shaped notches between lobes. See photo below for comparison Leaves are dark green and pale green underneath during the growing season. Buds: Buds are slender, brown, and usually appear to be three-pronged at the terminal bud. Fruit: Sugar maple produce winged seeds called samaras. These occur in pairs. Sometimes referred to as “maple helicopters.”
Habitat: Sugar maples can survive in a variety of habitats, including forests, lawns, and roadsides. Optimal growing conditions are forests with deep, moist, and well drained soils.
Remarks: Sugar maple are among the most economically and ecologically important trees in the North Country. If you enjoy maple syrup on your pancakes, thank a sugar maple. There are more than 200 maple syrup producers in St. Lawrence County alone! Sugar maple wood is highly valued in furniture making. Sugar maples are important habitat trees for a number of animal species, and many people appreciate the bright orange and yellow display sugar maples put on as they change color in the fall. Sugar maple in some parts of the North Country may be threatened by climate change, acid rain, and low rates of natural regeneration.
Above: Compare the leaves of these three maple species. Note the U-shaped notches in sugar maple leaves, and the V-shaped notches in red maples.
For more information on sugar maples, visit:
Red Maple (Acer rubra)
Bark: Red maple bark is generally pale gray and smooth in young trees, and becomes rougher and more cracked as the tree ages. Leaves: Red maple leaves have 3-5 lobes, with v-shaped notches between lobes, and lighter colored on the underside. Buds: Buds and twigs are reddish in color, and buds are shorter and blunter when compared to sugar maples. Flowers: Red, with small petals and 4-12 stamens, hanging below bud tips in clusters before leaves have formed in spring. Fruit: Seeds are light brown or reddish double samaras that form between April and June.
Habitat: Very common across the North Country, the red maple is a versatile tree that can survive in a broad range of habitats, from the edges of swamps and rivers to dry, rocky ridge tops.
Remarks: Also called soft maple, red maple is still sometimes used for furniture making. Red maple sap is sometimes used to produce syrup, although it generally has a lower sugar content than sugar maple sap. Leaves turn pink and deep red in the autumn, and red maple is also an important browsing food source for white-tailed deer.
White Ash (Fraxinus americana)
Bark: Ash bark is characterized by dark grey interwoven ridges that form a diamond pattern. Leaves: White ashes have opposite, compound leaves with 5-9 leaflets. Ash trees also have opposite branching. Buds: Buds are round and brown, on stout twigs. Fruits: White ash seeds are straight and oar-shaped single samaras, with a slightly plump seed base.
Habitat: White ash grows best in deep, well drained, and moist soils
Remarks: White ash wood is valued for its strength, and is used to make furniture, baseball bats, tool handles, oars, and electric guitars. Across the Northeast and Midwestern US, white ash trees have been devastated by emerald ash borer, a small invasive insect whose larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees, disrupting the tree’s ability to transport water and nutrients. Emerald Ash Borer has been identified throughout much of New York state and Southern Ontario, but has yet to be found in St. Lawrence County. However, it is likely only a matter of time.
For more information on White Ash and Emerald Ash Borer, check out:
Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera)
Bark: Paper birch is white and peels off in horizontal papery strips. The bark is also marked by thin, dark horizontal streaks. Inner bark is orange or rust colored, and young saplings have orange bark. Can be distinguished from grey birch by lack of dark, chevron shaped marks on the trunk where old branches have grown. Leaves: Alternate simple leaves with serrated edges, oval shaped with an acute tip (sometimes heart shaped). Leaves have 9 or fewer pairs of side veins. Fruit: Produces slender wind pollinated catkins that are approximately 1.5 inches long.
Habitat: Paper birch has a primarily northern distribution and does not handle humidity well. It is a pioneer species that requires high sunlight and nutrients.
Remarks: Also called white birch, paper birch bark was used by Native Americans for shelter and canoes. Its bark peelings also make an excellent fire starter. Moose and deer browse on paper birch bark in winter, and snowshoe hare feed on birch saplings. Paper birch sap can also be boiled into a slightly sweet syrup. The wood is soft, but is often made into pulp for paper production.
For more information on paper birch, see:
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
Bark: Beech bark is typically smooth and grey with few cracks. Trees infected with beech bark disease may exhibit cracks or cankers. Leaves: 3-6 inches long, thin, simple, alternately arranged with small teeth at the end of each vein. Beech trees often hold their dead leaves through the winter. Buds: Buds are long, brown, and pointed with many scales. Fruits: Small, triangle-shaped nuts held in spiny husks.
Habitat: Beech are highly shade tolerant, and in the North Country are often found in mature forests with maple and birch trees. Beech thrives in soil that is moist but well drained.
Remarks: American beech are an ecologically important species as many animals eat beech nuts including ruffed grouse, wild turkey, black bear, white tailed deer, porcupine, and squirrels. In the Northern US, beeches have been heavily affected by beech bark disease, caused by a scale insect that creates open wounds in beech bark, making them susceptible to fungal infections. Many mature beech trees in the North Country have either been killed by or show signs of beech bark disease.
For more resources on American Beech, check out: